Mammoth Cave in Western Kentucky

Mammoth Cave in Western Kentucky

The Rust family recently enjoyed a long needed mini vacation to Mammoth Cave National Park located in Western Kentucky. The plan was simple, leave our home in the afternoon and arrive at Cave City for a three night trip, with the first evening spent at a hotel and the next two at a tent site within the park itself. We would take two tours, one that concentrated along the historic tour route and the massive caverns that gives Mammoth its namesake, and a second tour to see the fascinating formations accessible through the new entrance. Both tours would have to be kid friendly as we had our toddler in tow.

Our first evening was uneventful beyond getting a later start than anticipated, however, we had planned for that possibility by booking a night at the Sleep Inn located in Cave City. Upon research this hotel was the newest in town and offered us a pleasant stay at a reasonable rate. It was nice to not have to set up camp in the dark and just be able to lay down after a three hour drive.

The next day we woke up and drove to the park. We decided on ordering our tours ahead of time and using will call to ensure that we could get the times we wanted. Our plan was to tour in the morning, make camp and eat lunch, and then tour in the afternoon.  After getting our tickets, our next visit was to the newly renovated cave museum on site. This was a very educational experience and I liked the interactivity of the exhibits. This was a great way to get acquainted with the cave and its history. A very informative film with Mike Rowe explaining the history and the characters that explored the cave was enjoyable.

Teddy exploring the cave museum
A 3D model of the cave system, now out of date as more miles are constantly being added as they are discovered

Our first tour was titled the Historic Entrance tour and is one of the oldest routes in the park. As we descended down the stairs you could feel the cool air rushing out of the cave’s mouth, a welcome respite from the unseasonably humid October weather. The first half of the tour was very pleasant as we admired the large and spacious cavern. Our tour guide, a really friendly National Park ranger, told us about the front part of the cave as a saltpeter mining operation during the war of 1812 and the story of Stephen Bishop, a slave who explored much of the cave via torchlight, with the latter being one of the most touching and saddest stories one could hear.

Teddy with his stick preparing to lead the expedition
Descending into the large entrance of the cave
The tall ceilings easily held our tour group of a hundred or so people

The next portion of the tour took us down another set of stairs into a more enclosed hallway. As we descended through this portion it became evident that we were in for a treat. Tunnel after tunnel appeared before us, each lit up with strategically placed ground lights that gave it an eerie and mysterious look. Partway through the trip we arrived at Tall Man’s misery, which is a series of tunnels with a lowered ceiling of around five feet high. Up to this point we were part of the stragglers group (pro tip: make sure you tell the Park Rangers you want to be at the front of the group so you don’t get slinkied behind if you are accompanying a child) and unfortunately we caught up with the group here. I mean unfortunate in the truest sense because this stretch is doubly cruel for a person like me who measures in at 6’3. It probably wouldn’t have been as trying if I could have just bent down and walked quickly through it, but because of the traffic jam so to speak, by the time I got to the end my back was on fire. The next portion was Fat Man’s misery, which is a tight space where the group has to walk single file through what resembles channels that comes roughly knee high. As we finished here, we came to a resting spot with benches where the Park Rangers gave us more information on what we saw and explained how flooding occurs in the cave as well. It felt great to sit for a little bit.

As this was the lowest point in the tour, we began our ascent through another route that opened up into a large waterfall room with many steps. This is the stretch where the famous Bottomless Pit and Crystal Lake can be seen. It was a welcome change in pace to the tighter confines earlier as we now had plenty of headroom. Throughout this tour though, I will give credit to Teddy. He walked most of the length of the tour and I only carried him a few times. He was also well behaved and held our hands when we told him it was necessary. To be honest, we had some anxiety about taking him here so we were extra vigilant about him running off, but he surprised the both of us with his beyond good behavior. As for myself, the extended crouching through Tall Man and Fat Man’s misery had my back a little tired but nonetheless I was still functional.

Our first real descent into the cave system would take us into some tight places
The dreaded Fat Man’s Misery, right after the even more dreaded Tall Man’s Misery
A look straight across the waterfall room, water trickled way up from the ceiling and down to a lake below

After our first tour, we made our way to the campground and set up our tent and prepared lunch. Teddy had fun playing around the site while my wife lounged in the hammock. The weather was beautiful and we couldn’t have picked a better day to be outside.

With camp prepared and having filled our bellies on a good lunch, we made our way back to the Visitor Center for our next tour knowing that we had all the hard work behind us for the rest of the day. This particular trip was even more enjoyable than the first one. The New Entrance tour is just what it’s called, a tour that starts in a new doorway that helps bypass several hours of walking to see some really amazing formations. What’s important to note here is that most of Mammoth Cave is made up of limestone with a sandstone cap. This combination is what creates the large and stable passageways that you see as water trickles underneath and eats away at the limestone over thousands and thousands of years. This is why most of the cave is so dry. In other places however, particularly those portions made accessible from the New Entrance where there is no sandstone, you can experience what happens when minerals trickle freely from the soil above and form the impressive stalactites and stalagmites that you typically witness in traditional caves.

From this trip you will come across the famous Frozen Niagra site, a series of incredibly beautiful formations that trickle like a waterfall down a very high wall. You will also come into the Drapery Room, where stalactites hang down from the ceiling like curtains. Although this is a shorter tour, it has smaller passageways and claustrophobic people are encouraged to sit this one out. I will say though that I am not entirely comfortable with small places, but I had fun and didn’t feel overly anxious about any of the passageways.

After the tour we headed back to the campsite, but after feeling pretty worn out from the day, opted to eat dinner at the Mammoth Cave hotel. The food wasn’t that bad and had a fairly impressive menu with modest prices, however, the service was dreadfully slow for some reason. Maybe it was an off night or something, but we left 45 minutes later than what normal dinner service would be.

Back at the camp I didn’t sleep too well. We are early to bed people and unfortunately our neighbors decided to throw a massive party. Eventually I had to warn them that it was well past quiet hours, and they thankfully quieted down. However, with this being the first time I had ever camped with Teddy,  I spent most of the night awake making sure he was OK as the temperature dipped. When we got up the next morning I had a head cold and was pretty exhausted. We had originally planned to have a quiet day at camp, ride bikes, hike around, and just have family time. Unfortunately it looked like rain and a Park Ranger I chatted with told me they were expected about three inches. With that in mind we pulled up the stakes and headed home. To be honest, I don’t think anyone cared as it just seemed like a great idea to get home and take some hot showers.

All in all it was a great trip and I’d do it again in a heart beat. I would probably opt to split the tours up into two days as to not overdo it. I would also remember to bring extra flashlights for a just in case emergency and piece of mind while in the caves. I don’t think I’d eat at the Mammoth Cave restaurant for dinner again, although I’d consider getting lunch there as the aromas from it when coming back from our first tour were pretty enticing. I would also consider coming in the summer and taking a canoe trip down the Green River to add an extra thing to do. I would also maybe plan on doing a Bourbon tour as you are around a few of the distilleries there (most are halfway between it and Louisville). Beyond that there’s not much to do in that region as it is very rural and the local tourist attractions are hokey at best. It is a good time though and very educational and honestly I feel very lucky to have it in our backyard.

Teddy plays in the tent
Looking up in the drapery room
An image of frozen Niagra, a very popular formation in Mammoth Cave
A Thanksgiving poem found on the wall of the Mammoth Cave Hotel
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