America the Beautiful. That name exists for a reason. There are so many stunning places right here in the US and in this National Park Series I am going to share some of our favorite parks and experiences in our own backyard. This week I wrote about Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky.
Mammoth Caves National Park
The university Logan and I went to let out for summer vacation in early May, but summer university funding (work study for me and summer research fellowships for Logan) didn’t kick in until early June, so what were two college students itching for adventure to do with three weeks of no jobs and no school? Travel, of course!
Every May for the four years we were in college we went on a trip. Year one took us on a road trip down the California Coast, year two I went to Peru (without Logan…), year three we had an opportunity to spend a week in New Orleans, and by year four we were ready to tackle our biggest trip yet: a three week road trip to the southern United States!
That trip was absolutely amazing and kicked off what was to become the summer of road trips (we took four road trips in three months, and got married, and moved!), but one of the highlights of the whole trip was our time at Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.
We <3 Caving
Despite being mildly claustrophobic, I really like caves. I think it is fascinating that the underground world is so intricate and beautiful. Logan LOVES caves. He would probably be a spelunker if he didn’t also love physics, which is far safer and offers far more stable career options.
When we planned our road trip to the southern United States we knew that we couldn’t skip Mammoth Caves, which is the largest cave system in America. It’s location only two hours from Nashville makes it an easy side trip if you happen to be in Music City. It’s also only four hours from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making these two wonderful destinations easy to combine into one trip.
There are a variety of tours available at Mammoth Caves and we couldn’t decide which one to do, so we ended up doing two. We opted for the Historic Tour, which was pretty generic, but we were able to see some of the main cave highlights including “Fat Man’s Misery” where we squeezed through two steep and narrow passages, and the cave church where they used to hold service during the hot summer months. Our group was very big, and I would highly recommend booking a tour either very early or very late in the day to avoid the largest groups.
New Entrance Tour
We also took the New Entrance Tour* which was more adventurous and required us to squeeze through much smaller spaces. We climbed down and down and down into the cave and wandered around narrow passages into rooms full of interesting formations. This group was much smaller and the tour itself was more fun. Our guides on both tours were great, but on the New Entrance tour one of our guides was descended from a slave who guided visitors in the caves when they first became open to the public. He was a 6th generation Mammoth Cave tour guide and knew so much about the cave system. Talking to him was one of the highlights of our visit.
Caves are naturally temperature controlled so it doesn’t really matter when you visit Mammoth Caves. The weather in Kentucky is not temperature controlled, however the climate is relatively moderate and is manageable year-round. Rain is the main weather consideration, as southern Kentucky does receive around 50 inches of rain a year. This shouldn’t effect your cave experience, but may affect your plans to camp versus staying in a hotel.
I unfortunately have very few photos from Mammoth Caves, as they do not allow flash photography and I had not figured out how to take decent cave shots at this point. I guess you’ll have to go check it out yourself.
*This tour appears to have a different name now. I believe it is now called the Great Onyx Lantern Tour.
Dollars and Sense
Entrance: FREE! Tours are not free, but getting into the park is. There are ranger walks and trails for anyone not wanting to go underground.
Tours: range in price from $13-$55. There are easy tours that are child-friendly and wheelchair accessible and there are tours requiring hard hats and boots. As their website states, reservations are not required, but are highly recommended. Many tours fill up, particularly the more specialized ones and especially in the summer, so if you know when you’ll be there it is safer just to reserve a spot.
Camping: $20/ night (standard for National Park campgrounds)
We camped at the Mammoth Caves campground which is only one mile from the cave entrance. The area is beautiful and when we were there in may the surrounding area was very lush and green. Be prepared with fire starter and extremely dry wood when camping in the south.
To find out more information check out their website.