Public Service Announcement
I’m going to start out by doing you all a great favor that can save you 30 to 45 minutes in getting to Mammoth Cave from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Are you ready? Here it is! DO NOT use your GPS to find your way! If you’re anything like me you’ll read this same warning on the Mammoth Cave Internet site and you’ll chuckle to yourself because you know your GPS is accurate. And then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll follow your GPS until you figure out that it is taking forever and you need to stop and ask for directions. And then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll sheepishly turn around and go back to where your wife said you should have turned. Don’t be anything like me! Follow the directions on Mammoth Cave’s web page!
Visiting the Park
As we entered the park (from the correct direction) and we were welcomed by a fawn frolicking in the road ahead. We stopped for a few moments until it slipped into the woods and then we drove on to a more official welcome.
The Mammoth Cave National Park Welcome Center is a great place to learn more about the cave along with the flora and fauna above. This is also where you buy your tickets for guided tours of the cave.
We bought tickets for the Domes and Drip Tour and headed to a pavilion to wait on our bus. While there a ranger gave us an overview of what we were going to see along with a few dos and don’ts. The primary “don’t” is not to touch anything in the caves except the handrails.
Some Background on Mammoth Cave
As its name implies, Mammoth Cave is huge; with over 400 miles surveyed thus far, making it the largest cave system in the world. The timeline for Mammoth goes back about 350 million years ago when this area was covered by the sea. Over millions of years about 700 feet of limestone was deposited on the sea bed. On top of that about 70 feet of sandstone was deposited by a large river system flowing into the sea. Then about 280 million years ago the sea started to withdraw as tectonic forces pushed up the surrounding area and opened cracks in the surface which allowed water to drip in. Over millions of years water dripping in through those cracks has dissolved the limestone and created the cave as we know it.
Fast forward a few million years to 5000 B.C. That’s when Native Americans began to explore the cave and mine it for minerals. Fast forward a few more thousand years to 1790 when John Houchin moved to the area and is thought to have become the first European to explore the cave. Over the next 48 years the cave was used primarily to mine saltpeter for gun powder. Then in 1838 commercial tours began, many lead by an enslaved man, Stephen Bishop, who became famous for exploring and mapping the cave. In 1941, Mammoth Cave was established as a National Park. It became a World Heritage Site in 1981, and an international Biosphere Reserve in 1990.
Today the park encompasses over 52,000 acres and many rivers, forests, bluffs and of course the cave. There is also an abundant diversity of fauna and flora providing visitors with a wealth of sights, sounds and experiences. As for us, we are taking the Domes and Drips tour.
Our tour will last just about two hours during which we’ll descend 250 feet on 280 stairs. We’ll then walk through about 3/4 of a mile underground after which we’ll climb back to the surface on another 220 stairs. But first, we board a bus to the cave entrance.
There are about 80 of us on the tour and it takes awhile to go down those 280 stairs. The angle of descent isn’t too bad, but every now and then it is slippery from dripping water so you have to watch your step!
Soon after we reach the last of the steps we arrive at Grand Central Station. Here the park has installed a little mine-auditorium so the ranger can tell us more of the history of the cave. This section of cave is fairly dry and amazingly it has a flat ceiling. That’s the bottom of the sandstone cap that was laid down by those rivers hundreds of millions of years ago. We’re now standing where the limestone used to be, but which was carved out by water over millions of years.
We hear some muttering in our group because they’re not impressed. They were hoping to see stalagmites and stalactites everywhere in the cave. Me, I’m impressed! I’m also hoping that the ceiling stays up there for a few million more years; most especially the next hour or two!
We continue to follow the ranger through the cave and he stops at different formations to explain what we’re seeing. Much of what we’re seeing are where rocks are fallen or where sections have been blasted out to make a passage for the trail.
Near the end of our tour we entered a wet portion of the cave. Here we see formations of stalactites and stalagmites caused by eons of dripping water. Most of the formations are illuminated; heightening the dramatic effect of these formations.
Near the end of our tour we see the formation known as “Frozen Niagara”. This is a large dramatic arrangement of stalactites forming a curtain over the next level of the cave below. Those people who were muttering their disapproval are now happy and snapping lots of pictures. I’m pretty pleased myself!
Soon we were climbing up the final steps to the surface. There our bus was waiting to shuttle us back to the Visitors Center…or so we thought. Instead, we were taken just outside nearby Mammoth Cave Hotel. Here we had to walk on bat-mats; essentially a flat mat about ten feet long with suds on top. These suds cleaned our shoes to rid them of the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome in bats. White Nose Syndrome has devastated bat populations in North America killing millions of bats. Bats are vital to our agriculture as they eat billions of pests that would otherwise eat our crops, so walking on these mats is a big deal!
We loved our visit to Mammoth Cave. And since one of Mona’s many aliases is “Cave Woman” I’m sure we’ll be back again for more exploring!
I highly recommend calling ahead of time to make reservations for your cave tour as they routinely get sold out. AND…be sure to note the warnings at the top and bottom of this post about using your GPS to find the park. You don’t want to be late and miss your tour appointment!
If you have your National Park Senior Pass be sure to bring it. It will get you discounts on your tours.
Here’s Mammoth Cave National Park’s official page: Mammoth Cave National Park
Here’s some information on White Nose Syndrome and bats: White Nose Syndrome.org
And, in case you thought I was joking with my Public Service Announcement about using your GPS to find Mammoth Cave; here’s a direct copy of the information on the park’s Internet page.
Please take note! Do not rely exclusively on your mobile GPS, Google Maps™ or similar automated navigation system to get your to the park Visitor Center in time for your Cave Tour. Numerous visitors trusting in navigation devices have reported that the device or service has taken them the long way around by way of the park’s north side and required a river crossing by ferry, or backtracking over many miles, to reach the Visitor Center. In some instances, travelers have arrived too late to participate in their scheduled cave tour. In other cases drivers of large commercial vehicles have followed automatic navigation onto park roads that are prohibited and/or too narrow for them to traverse safely. When planning your trip to or through the park, take a few moments to review your route before you travel so that you will be able to confirm your navigator’s instructions on the road, and arrive on time for the adventure you intended to have.
This information is posted in bold red on the park’s page. You have been warned…twice!