Mammoth Cave National Park: A user's guide
The mysterious, ancient caves are the star attraction of this Kentucky park, but 70 miles of above-ground hiking trails and 30 miles of paddling opportunities will bring you back for more.
Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 08:14 AM
Mammoth Cave National Park in south central Kentucky is aptly named. The park preserves the world's longest known cave system, with more than 390 miles of explored passageways. Parts of the cave systems are claustrophobic and narrow — one tour restricts participation to people with a chest and hip measurement of 42 inches or less. Other parts of the cave are as expansive as an NBA arena.
There is plenty to see and do above ground, too. Mammoth Cave National Park has more than 70 miles of trails for hikers, horseback riders, and bicyclists, and more than 30 miles of gently flowing rivers for paddling.
Mammoth Cave was explored — and exploited — by Native Americans and settlers long before it became a tourist attraction. Saltpeter was mined from the cave for the production of gunpowder during the War of 1812.
Tours of the caverns started in 1816 and a series of owners developed paths for paying guests and pushed exploration. The U.S. Congress in 1926 authorized the formation of a national park in the Mammoth Cave area and Mammoth Cave National Park was officially established on July 1, 1941.
Things to do
A wide variety of ranger-led hikes into the cave offer options for visitors of any age, level of fitness and daring. The Mammoth Passage Tour is an easy walk of less than a mile. The Wild Cave Tour is a strenuous trip in which everyone must wear helmets, headlamps, boots and kneepads for six hours of crawling, climbing and scrambling. With 10 or more tours that fall between these two extremes, there is bound to be a tour that fits you.
The Green River runs for 25 miles through Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s a 7.5-mile trip from the Dennison Ferry Day-Use Area to the Green River Ferry. A number of area outfitters offer canoe rentals and shuttle service.
One boat worth riding is the Green River Ferry, which carries cars back and forth across the Green River.
Why you’ll want to come back
There are more than 50,000 acres of hills and hardwoods to explore up where the sun shines. The cave is the star, but 85 miles of hiking trails make an excellent supporting cast.
Flora and fauna
More than 130 different kinds of animals spend some time in the cave, including some — such as the Kentucky Cave Shrimp and eyeless cave fish — that live their entire lives in the dark.
Wildlife spotted outside the cave includes support whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, gray squirrel, rabbit, beaver, red fox and coyote. Wild turkey are common and other birds found in the park include herons, geese, ducks, bald eagles, quail and kingfishers.
By the numbers:
- Website: Mammoth Cave National Park
- Park size: 52,830 acres or 82.5 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 497,225
- Funky fact: The interior cave temperature is a bit chilly year round, fluctuating from 54 degrees F to 60 degrees F.