Road Trip to Mammoth Cave

We wanted to take a road trip

Road trips require a delicate balance of planning — but not too much planning — and a willingness to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and understand that the most fun part of your adventure will be the unplanned parts.

As any good road tripper knows, you need a few key items when you begin your journey:

• A camera (in our case, a camera and a video camera)
• An idea of where you’re headed (not necessarily a plan, and definitely not a schedule)
• A full tank of gas (we hope you get it cheaper than we did)
• Snacks (we got an early start so it was gas station coffee and mini donuts for us)
Directions (they may or may not be written on the back of old receipts)
• And a whole lot of patience for when you get stuck in traffic and you miss the tour of Mammoth Cave – the one and only thing you actually scheduled – by a mere 15 minutes.

So on a (very) rainy Saturday afternoon, our journey began in Cave City, Kentucky.

Mammoth Cave is … well … mammoth

Instead of taking the Historic Tour of Mammoth Cave National Park like we’d planned, we hopped on the New Entrance Tour and prepared ourselves to be wowed.

Early cave guide Stephen Bishop called Mammoth Cave a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.” And while it may be all of those things, with its 392 miles of passage ways, complex labyrinths, caverns and vast chambers, there really is no other way to describe the cave than … Mammoth.

In the 1920s, George Marshall knew there was a cave under his feet. He could feel the cool air coming out of the sink hole he discovered, and so he did what any man in his position would do. He got some dynamite, stuck it inside the sink hole and blew something up.

Marshall was right and after he’d made the hole a little bigger, he sent his nephew Earl  down in the deep, dark unknown with a rope and a lantern … and hopefully a bit of  a pep talk.

Earl discovered a grand cave system and after a little more exploration, he and Uncle  George began giving tours of their cave — and making a little money as the country was  beginning to fall victim to the Great Depression. Ladies would come down in their  fanciest clothing, men dressed in shiny black shoes, all eager to see Marshall’s cave.

After a little while, guests started to ask, “What’s back there?” And gestured toward a dark passageway that seemed to lead further underground. What was back there? George  Marshall wanted to know … so poor Earl was sent to find out.

As it would turn out, Mammoth Cave was back there. And just as the Great Depression was plaguing America, George Marshall sold his cave to Mammoth Cave for $290,000 — a big chunk of change today, and much, much bigger then. And so was the New Entrance of Mammoth Cave (if you can consider the 1920’s “new”).

If you head to the National Park and take this tour, be prepared – there are stairs involved. Many, many stairs (500 of them to be exact, including 280 on your initial decent). When you enter the cave — via a large metal door that leads to a stair case, we might add – you will find ourself descending 250 feet under the surface of the Earth. That translates to several hundred stairs, lots of ducking, turning sideways and squeezing through narrow passageways. And you know what they say … “What goes down, must go back up again” … so be prepared to climb several hundred stairs to get back out.

The tour is rather brief — only about 2 hours total counting the bus ride from the Visitors Center to the new entrance – and travels a mere 3/4 of a mile of the 392 total miles of Mammoth Cave. But it is a beautiful and very informative tour. The cave formations are beautiful and you get to see lots of stalactites and stalagmites. Some of which Cameron thinks look like a giant whale’s mouth … but you need to decide for yourselves.

  The tours are pretty strict (on direct orders from U.S.  Homeland Security), and you aren’t allowed to take  bags of any kind inside of the cave. We didn’t take a  camera because we didn’t want to – gasp! – drop it down  into one of the gaping holes inside of the cave. I did  attempt to take some pictures with my Blackberry once  we were inside. They weren’t that successful.

Our suggestions: take a camera, use your flash, don’t  aim it at the rest of the group (flashes in darkness  when your pupils are dilated will seriously blind you for several seconds), but don’t get so caught up taking  pictures that you don’t look around you. Because when it comes down to it, pictures are great … but you can find those on the Internet. Enjoy the cave while you’re in it.

It still rains when you’re underground …
and other stuff we learned

Did you know … it takes between 300 and 800 years for one cubic inch of a stalactite to grow?

That means these could have been growing for more than 1,000 years. Man, that’s hard to wrap your head around. Check out the water dripping down these stalactites. They’re growing every second.

Read this article from the National Park Service to find out how stalactites are formed.

Some other useful things to know if you’re planning a visit:

• We took our trip to Mammoth Cave on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Keep in mind when you enter the cave, you’re essentially entering a dynamite-made-bigger sink hole. You’re descending several hundred feet under the Earth’s surface into something that was carved out by a waterway. So even though you’re going underground, you’re going to get wet — more so when it is raining outside or when it has rained recently. No need to pack your bathing suit, just keep in mind that you will be dripped on and the cave floor can be slick. Wear tennis shoes or  hiking boots, and watch your step.

• You’re going into a cave. Be excited, be curious, and be fully aware of what to expect. It’s going to be dark. It’s going to be closed in (though most parts are very wide and open with tall ceilings). It’s going to involve climbing and walking. It’s going to be chilly. We don’t say this to deter you, you’d be missing out on an awesome experience if these things turned you away. But know what you’re descending into.

• When you leave Mammoth Cave – at least if you’re planning a visit any time in the near future — you’re going to be required to walk across some squishy bio security mats covered in Lysol disinfectant. This is to prevent the spread of White-Nose Syndrome which is not currently considered to be in Mammoth Cave, but the park is protecting its bats from the disease. What is White-Nose Syndrome? Basically, a fungus new to North America that has killed more than 1 million hibernating bats across the eastern U.S. since its discovery in 2006. To learn more, read this. It isn’t harmful to humans, but let’s do our part to save the bats. (Who knows, one might turn into your next charming vampire boyfriend.) If you aren’t willing to walk across the mats … you won’t be permitted in the cave. No exceptions.

What it’s going to cost you:

Tours range from $5 to $48 per person, depending on how big of an experience you want to have. Our New Entrance Tour was $12 and we loved it. The Historic Tour (which we highly recommend as well and were disappointed we didn’t get to go on) is the same. Your more expensive tours — like the Wild Cave Tour — mean you’re more than likely going to be in full spelunking gear complete with hardhats and head lamps. Those cost more.

Discounted rates are available to children and seniors. For more information on all tour prices as well as camp ground fees, go here.

6 thoughts on “Road Trip to Mammoth Cave

  1. I love this Kentucky trip thing! We drove through Carter County on our way down from NJ and I told Jon that I went to Carter Caves on a school field trip once. He was appalled that A. we have caves in Kentucky and B. that I went there on a field trip. He’s never been in a cave before. Poor deprived Michigan child.


    1. That poor, sheltered, kept-above-ground kid. Tell Jon there is a big bad world underground just waiting for him to explore! (Although I will admit when we were in the cave, I kept thinking about the fact that we were 250 feet underground and it freaked me out a little! People were walking on top of us! That took me a minute to wrap my head around). – Blair


  2. My feelings are a little mixed on Mammoth Cave. I have been twice and loved it both times. Going down in the caves is awesome and a good time. I like going on the guided tours because the guides give you good info and its fun being a big group as well. However, i wish there was some independent exploration avaiable. There is none. I know the reasons, liability for people getting hurt and money. The cave tours are not cheap, but worth it. This place is awesome and when you go, use the camp site, it is cheap and you can walk to the are where the tours begin.

    It is recommended that you check the weather conditions before you travel to Mammoth Cave National Park.


  3. where did you stay?! im trying to plan for a trip to cave city this weekend and i have no clue where to stay!


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