NATIONAL PARK GUIDES: MAMMOTH CAVE

Historic Entrance, Mammoth Cave National Park

History and Stats

Human interaction with the cave dates back at least 6,000 years, with multiple sets of human remains denoting intentional and ceremonial burial inside the cave. For reasons unknown to scientists and archeologists, human use of the cave ceased after a time. The cave was rediscovered by settlers near the close of the 18th century, though the stories around its discovery are largely apocryphal and impossible to verify. By the start of the 19th century, the cave would be mined for saltpeter, a necessary compound in the manufacture of gunpowder, and mining would continue throughout the War of 1812 and beyond.

The land was later purchased in 1838 by Franklin Gorin, who installed his 16-year-old slave, Stephen Bishop, as a guide for tours. Stephen was an intrepid explorer and by all accounts a charismatic tour guide, and was responsible for both mapping and naming many sections of the cave.

In 1839, the cave, along with Stephen Bishop and other slave guides, was purchased by one Dr. John Croghan. In addition to continuing the practice of conducting tours, Croghan, who suffered from tuberculosis, believed that the cave could provide benefits in combating the disease. He opened a short-lived hospital within the cave. His estimate would prove incorrect, and he would die from his affliction ten years later, leaving the property to his family.

Tourism to the area increased, and by the early 20th century, Mammoth Cave and other caves in the area engaged in fierce competition for tourists’ dollars. After blasting open new entrances to the system, it was discovered that the Croghan family had been touring parts of the cave under land they did not own, resulting in lawsuits.

With the media frenzy surrounding the death of caver Floyd Collins in 1925 and the passing of the remaining Croghan heirs, public interest around creating a National Park grew. While public donations played a large role in securing some of the farms, eminent domain was also used. Despite not being federally owned, much of the area was cleared and maintained by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s using loopholes to maximize the amount of CCC camps allowed. Once 45,310 acres had been given to the Secretary of the Interior, Mammoth Cave was officially made a park.

Date Founded: Established as a national park on July 1, 1941. It became a World Heritage Site on October 27, 1981.

Size: 52,830 acres

Elevation: 741ft, though parts of the cave itself are over 400ft below the surface of the Earth.

Rainfall: 52in, 6in of snow

Visitors: 650,000 a year, though not everyone chooses to enter the cave system.

Open: Year-round, but operating hours vary by season. More information can be found here.

Fees: Entrance to the park is free, but there are fees for the cave tours. Fees range from $7 to $55, depending on the hike. Schedules vary seasonally. More information can be found here.

Mission

“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

The preservation of the cave system is one of the major objectives of the park. Access is limited to Ranger-guided walks, and there are whole sections of the cave system that are not accessible to the general public. Important biological, geological and archeological research is conducted within the caves, and additions to the cave system are added every year as it is mapped out further. The history and ecology of the area are a large focus, as well, as the parklands offer a wide variety of outdoor activities and are an integral part of the rich history of the area.

Facilities

As one of the larger parks in the system, the facilities are large and well staffed. The Visitor’s Center boasts multimedia educational exhibits and a theater, with ample rangers to assist. The independently operated restaurant and shops offer a variety of food and gifts, and ice cream is always a great call, especially after you’ve braved the depths of the earth to come out into the rain.

Closest Civilization

The park’s facilities are extensive, and it’s a far cry from some of the more austere parks. It’s a quick drive to surrounding towns and villages, and about an hour and a half away from Nashville.

Mammoth NPS.jpg
Lodging

Mammoth Cave offers several developed campsites for both RV and tent camping, as well as some more primitive backcountry sites. More information can be found here. Year-round lodging within the park, and is operated by Ortega Parks. More information can be found here. There are also multiple lodging options in the surrounding area.

Camping Level

Newbie to Novice, though if you’re going on one of the more strenuous hikes within the cave, Intermediate prepping couldn’t hurt.

Seasonal Programs

The park offers a variety of cave tours based on length, subject matter, and difficulty. Additionally, there is a wide variety of activities and programming offered above ground, both in the park and nearby. More information can be found here and here.

Our experience

We were enchanted by the Historic Tour. This was one of our top experiences with our heroes in khaki. The history of the cave, from military asset to World Heritage site, is incredible. We just came to see “a hole in the ground”, and came back out adventurers.

Things we’d like to try next time

There is a large variety of tours, as well as different access points for said tours. We’d love to try one of the others the next time we’re there. There’s a huge variety of outdoor activities, and camping in the immediate area sounds like a good call, weather permitting.

Special Note

  • Photography is permitted inside the cave, however, flash photography is forbidden, as it damages the delicate ecosystem of the cave. Ironically, some of the early pioneers of flash photography used the cave to explore the new medium.
  • If you’re a shutterbug, a few miles from the park at Cave City, some of abandoned tourist trap facilities, including a go-kart track, make for amazing photographs. There’s also a dinosaur park in the area at nearby, for those with a yen for the Land Before Time.
  • Parts of the cave interior are peppered with Victorian-era graffiti, created by burning a candle close to the rock. Names, dates and whole sentences are the legacy of these vandals.
  • Stephen Bishop, the slave guide who would be freed as per Croghan’s will, would later buy his family’s freedom with money earned as a tour guide and settle in the area. Several books and essays have been written about him. He died at the age of 37 of tuberculosis.
  • The Mammoth/Flint Cave system is nearly twice as extensive as the next largest, the underwater San Actun system in Mexico. The passage linking the Flint network to Mammoth cave was originally mapped by Bishop (though he never explored it), 130 years prior to the linking of the two networks in 1972.
  • Mammoth Cave was made an international Biosphere Reserve on September 26, 1990, and certain tours that were offered in the past are no longer available, notably cruises on River Styx, as they were endangering the fragile subterranean eco-system.
  • The cave system is home to a number of specialized creatures specific to the cave, including the Kentucky cave shrimp, a white and eyeless freshwater crustacean that subsists on nutrients derived from river sediment.
The Rotunda of the Mammoth Cave
The Rotunda of the Mammoth Cave

Call to action

What tours have you been on? What was your favorite feature? Did you spot any cave wildlife? Did we miss anything?

Official NPS Site

Read more about our experience at Mammoth Cave National Park here.

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