Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Measuring more than 400-miles of so-far explored cave networks, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is a real limestone wonderland and the longest cave network in the world. Indeed, from elements within the caves, known famously as Frozen Niagara to Gothic Avenue, this place in Kentucky is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of natural treasures, but it’s not only a place of ancient holes, domes, passages and shelves of rock, colored by stalactites and stalagmites in dark spaces: there’s a magnificent national park that embraces it, which should make it a definite must-see experience that you will one day tell your grandchildren about. Photo: red and white/Fotolia


»History

History


There is a curious interface between the history of slavery in America and the history of the Mammoth Cave National Park, simply because many men who were indeed indentured slaves, were responsible for being tour guides and also for digging out and discovering what are today some of the park’s most used passages. These include such graphically titled elements of the caves as Bottomless Pit, Fat Man’s Misery, Cleaveland Avenue and Mammoth Dome, making 19th century slaves who lived rather wretched lives, into 21st century icons and heroes who remain honored and celebrated.

The ancient mixture of limestone and sandstone has naturally yielded this enormous cave network which consists of passages and domed areas that are bigger than dance halls, and others which are too narrow for people to get through. The caves are very stable but there are areas within the network, including a massive sink hole, called Cedar Sink, which might prove instable to explore alone. Cedar Sink features a small river that appears and then returns to its underground cavern.

Traces of human habitation of this remarkable space have been dated back to thousands of years by archaeological researchers, and there is evidence that bodies were mummified and buried in rituals which speak of a sophisticated culture. All kinds of ancient relics have been found in the caves, from a pair of moccasins woven out of grass, to fragments of gourds, weapons and cooking implements, as well as remains of human beings.

Contrary to the whims of popular assumptions, however, there have been no remains of Woolly Mammoths found in these caves. They were named thus, it seems, because of the size of the interior space, rather than any prehistoric beasts with great big tusks. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky - Photo: Zack Frank/Fotolia

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»More History

More History


Either one of two 19th-century brothers with the surname Houchin, (historical accounts don’t agree – some say it was John and others, Francis) was the first European to have encountered the caves, in 1797, in the throes of a bear hunting expedition. He was desperately fleeing a bear when he fell into a hole, and discovered it to be a kaleidoscope of complex natural architecture.

Within a year after their discovery, a prospector by the name of Valentine Simons had begun exploiting the caves for the residue of saltpeter that could be siphoned out from it and reused commercially as an ingredient for gunpowder. In the 19th century, the cave was mined for calcium nitrate, which was another ingredient for explosives. It was, indeed, a time of war in America.

Fortunately or not, the next prospector to take over the land in the 1830s was a man by the name of Franklin Gorin, who became rich through slave trade rather than war, and he saw the value of the land as a tourist destination, and began exploiting his slaves to be tour guides and cave explorers. The rest, proverbially speaking is Mammoth Cave National Park history.

Jumping ahead to 1926, after several years of controversy and in-house battles about the ownership and marketability of the caves, and the land surrounding it, concerned private citizens in the area formed an association to protect the integrity of the site. This was an important and acrimonious time in the history of the national park, as many farmsteads and domestic residencies which had been established in the area, were forced to be uprooted and moved away.

By 1941, the Mammoth Caves was established as a national park. And after 40 more years, it came under the heritage protection offered by Unesco. And it was made an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990. But still, the Mammoth Caves continue to prove to be fascinating repositories of ancient gems, of an archaeological nature and even to this day, new by-ways and passages are being discovered. Over the years, this network of mysterious chambers made of solid rock has fascinated dozens of explorers, geologists and archaeologists and there’s a research trail all over the terrain which successfully melds the curiosity value on the part of the ordinary visitor with the research value for the in depth environmental scientist. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky - Photo: NPS Photo

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»Facilities

Facilities


The Mammoth Cave National Park experience is like a whole lot of different natural experiences rolled into one. It’s a place you will visit for its mystery and surreal quality, but the park is an extraordinary landscape with all the classic amenities of a great big park. The bicycle trails – not in the caves but in the park itself – will take you on challenging and fascinating off-road paths.

There’s also a program of cave tours which is specially designed according to the time of year, and includes such landmarks as Frozen Niagara and some of the cave’s domes and dripstones which will make you feel like you’ve stepped into another universe. The complicated network of rivers in the park, both in the caves and outside of them, is immense, and while swimming is generally prohibited because bodies of water can be misleading and thus dangerous – many look shallow but are thousands of meters deep, and look still but have powerful currents – if you’re keen to play on the water, you can take a small boat, canoe or kayak out onto either the Green River or the Nolin River, if its current and flow is safe.

If you’re not an experienced sailor, generally, the Mammoth Caves is not the wisest place to test your mettle or experiment. The environment does, however, employ a number of skilled and knowledgeable rangers, whose job it is to ensure your safety and answer your questions. Indeed, the offices at the park have a staff of nearly 20 professionals.

There’s a range of different levels of accommodation under the international umbrella of Forever Resorts Inc, from lodges to historical cottages to campsites which you can take advantage of when you visit the Mammoth Caves. But the caves are half the story in this 52,800 acre national park, which boasts everything from ancient cave drawings to deep colonialist history. It probably even has some resident ghosts and stories of them, too. More Kentucky destinations Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky - Photo: NPS Photo

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»Visit the Mammoth Cave National Park

Visit the Mammoth Cave National Park

While access to the park itself comes with no fee payable, you do need to pay for tours, which each have a different price. You don’t have to book your place on a cave tour, but it is strongly recommended that you do, as there are a limited amount of places on each tour, and you don’t want to travel all the way to the park to discover there isn’t room for you on a much anticipated experience.

Safety is always an important consideration when you visit any natural environment, but possibly more so in an area defined by caves. Always ensure that someone knows where you are off to, when you have a yen to go and walk along a cave path. There are a number of plotted paths in the caves, but you don’t want to get lost in a place which is not only dark, but also cold. Remember that most of the caves do not permit the use of flash photography and you need to bring flashlights.

Dress appropriately for the caves. The walks can be strenuous for a number of different reasons, ranging from the darkness to the slippery surfaces to a sense of feeling enclosed. If you are not comfortable to enter a cave, just don’t. Also, there are a fair amount of wild animals in the area. Do not engage with them: even a raccoon in this kind of context can be dangerous.

And thinking of animals in this national park, there’s one creature that only exists here, nowhere else in the world, that you might be fortunate enough to see when you visit. It’s the Kentucky cave shrimp. It’s heavily endangered, but is an albino shrimp and thrives in the darkness of the caves.

You might think of caves and think of bats and their bad reputation in idioms and children’s fairy tales. In truth, bats are fascinating creatures that use a form of radar to communicate, and there are at least five distinct species of bat that live in the caves or their surrounds. They won’t lay eggs in your hair, or whatever it is that old wives’ tales have warned you about bats, but need to be treated with the same caution and respect with which you would regard any other wild animal in its own environment.

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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky