Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

Your guide to Mammoth Cave National Park

Formations in cave

Mammoth Cave National Park.  A park that offers above and below ground fun!

Want to explore a huge cave where you can still bump your head?  Check.

Want to add in some biking or hiking?  Check.

Have a need to kayak?  The park has you covered there too.

Why should you visit Mammoth Cave National Park?

Because it’s mammoth!

No, seriously. It is an astoundingly huge cave.  The sense of awe is beyond words.

So far 400 miles of Mammoth Cave have been mapped.  And no, not all 400 miles are open to the public.  But that’s a lot of cave. So much cave that the park offers over ten different tours underground.

Another cave bonus?  It’s eerily dark. After fair-warning from your ranger guide, the lights are turned off.  Pitch black suddenly has new meaning. Then, the ranger flicks on a tiny lighter and you are astounded by how much of the cave you can see from a small flame.

And there is more to the Mammoth Cave National Park than just cave tours.  You can spend days hiking and biking in the park.  Or contact one of the local tour outfitters to kayak down the river. 

Why shouldn’t you visit Mammoth Cave National Park?

Hey, just because we love caves and caverns and national parks doesn’t mean you have to.

If crowds aren’t your thing, consider another cave or cavern.  Mammoth Cave National Park gets BUSY.  The park service does a great job at crowd control but there are still a lot of bodies around the main areas and on the cave tours.

And if you plan on skipping the cave tour and exploring above ground only, you might want to find another park. The extended grounds at Mammoth Cave National Park are interesting and pretty but we didn’t have the same “WOW” emotion on the trails as we have had at other parks. 

That said, I think we couldn’t appreciate what we didn’t see or understand. If it was offered, a above-ground guided tour to explain the flora, fauna, and biodiversity of the park would likely make the grounds more intriguing.

How much does it cost to visit Mammoth Cave National Park?

Expect to pay at a minimum $17 per adult to tour the cave.  Cave tour prices vary based on the tour itself ($17 is the minimum adult fee) and whether you have a senior pass.

It’s free to enter the national park and explore the grounds.  Only the cave tours and developed campground require a fee payment.

How long should you spend at Mammoth Cave National Park?

Minimum of 3 hours.  Longer if you want to do more than just a cave tour.

Most tours are at least 1.5 hours long.  And you need to allow time to park your car, fetch your tickets, and arrive at your tour’s gathering spot on time.  The shuttle buses do not wait for stragglers!

I’d recommend planning for at least half a day in the park.  In addition to cave tours, there are hiking and biking trails you can explore.  

We spent 24 hours in the park and it still felt like we barely scratched the surface of exploring the park.

Which cave tour should you take?

Trick question. It depends.

It depends on:

  • Do you want a walking tour or a crawl-on-your-belly tour?
  • How many stairs you are willing and able to climb?
  • How much time do you want to spend underground?
  • What do you want to see?
  • How much are you willing to spend on a ticket?
  • Do you have a preference for the number of people on your tours? Some tours have a capacity of over 100 people.
  • What tour is available? Tours fill up quickly so unless you reserve in advance, you might have to take a spot on whatever tour has vacancies that day.

There are over ten types of tours offered (depending on the time of year).

So, take the time to read the tour descriptions before you arrive.  Or talk to the park rangers at the visitor center for guidance.

What should you wear to a Mammoth Cave tour?

Non-slip shoes and a light-weight jacket.

Surprisingly, there were no verbal warnings on what to wear when we picked up our tickets or prior to getting on the shuttle bus.  We knew what to expect from other cavern tours and from reading online about Mammoth Cave.

Man descending narrow stairs in cave
One of the reasons to wear sturdy shoes

Now is not the time to show off your new fashion boots or stilettos.  The floor is slippery and you will be climbing more than a few non-even surfaces (slopes and non-standard stairs).  I’d recommend running shoes or equivalent. Plenty of folks wore open-toed sandals. I can only assume they don’t like their toes.

The temperature in Mammoth Cave is usually around 55 degrees.  That’s chilly, especially when you are underground for more than an hour.  Take a light-weight jacket or at least a long-sleeved shirt.

If you are taking one of the specialized tours that have you wiggling through tunnels on your belly, check your tour package for specific clothing requirements.

What’s it like to take a Mammoth Cave tour?

We took the Domes & Dripstones Tour.  It was more crowded than we expected (three busloads of visitors were on our tour) but once we were in the cave, it didn’t feel like such a large crowd.

After purchasing your ticket, you meet your group at the designated pavilion.

The ranger, your guide for the tour, leads you through a “what to expect” talk.  This includes:

  • Detailed description of the number of stairs to be climbed
  • Health safety rules (don’t break an ankle, it could take hours to get you out of the cave)
  • Explanation of what you will see on the tour
  • An all-call for folks who suffer from claustrophobia to let her know
  • A mandate to let them know if you’ve been in another cave recently so your shoes can be cleaned before your tour
green shuttle bus at Mammoth Cave
Shuttle bus

Then, you board one of the shuttle buses for a ten minute ride to the cave entrance.  All of the tours require a ride to the start.

After everyone exits the buses, you gather together as group for yet another pep rally with final instructions and some ice breaker games.  Hey, you are going to be cozy with these people underground for the next chunk of time so you might as well know where they live.

Finally, you enter the cave.  Heed all those warnings you already forgot.  “Watch your step”. “Hold the railing”. “Don’t hit your head”.  Yep, all those warnings now have real meaning.

man standing in front of entrance to Mammoth Cave
Into the cave you go

The lead guide will turn on lights before you enter each section.  The “sweep” (last ranger) will turn off those same lights after all the tourists have cleared out of that part of the cave.

Your friendly lead ranger gathers the group together at wide-open spots to inform and entertain you. She’ll tell you what you are looking at and why you should care.  She might use a laser pointer to identify the formations.  

One of the formations on the Domes & Dripstones Tour

You’ll get a history lesson on the human use of the cave, too.  I especially liked the story about the guy who dynamited a new entrance and then sent his nephews down to see if it worked.  That would be something my uncles would do.

Before you move through the next segment (aka narrow or windy section) of the cave, the ranger will give you the spiel of what you’ll see. Explanations include phrases such as: “Stop at the guard rail and look down. That’s the underwater river”.   

Looking down a cave into a hole
The underground river is down there

And the ranger will relay even more useful tidbits like “Remember to watch your head as you go past…”.  Try to remember those tips the most! Although maybe it is easier to expect you’ll hit your head at least once.

During the underground tour, you will play slinky with the crowd.  The crowd thins out and you have space and freedom to move. Then the crowd bunches up and you are elbow to elbow with your new friends.  Usually, a traffic jam indicates either: stairs or something of interest.  

Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park for one of the bison traffic jams?  Same deal. If someone else stopped to look, then you should too. You might get lucky and see some bats or cave crickets.

Crickets inside Mammoth Cave
Crickets in Mammoth Cave

When the underground portion of the tour is over, you exit the cave and reboard a shuttle bus.  Yes, you will look at your watch thinking “No way were we underground for more than 20 minutes”.  Underground is the equivalent of getting a good massage…time accelerates to warp speed.

When the bus drops you off at the visitor center, you are funneled through the “anti white-nose bat syndrome” cleaning stations.  Basically, you walk across some large squishy sponges to sanitize your shoes.

Shoes on squishy sponge
Mandatory shoe cleaning after a cave tour

Given that they have lost 80-90% of their bat population due to white-nose syndrome, I’m not sure why they don’t make you do it before the tour as well.  But you can bet your last beer that the shuttle driver is watching to make sure you don’t skip this step after your tour.

Can you camp at Mammoth Cave National Park?

Yes.  The park offers developed campsites at Mammoth Cave Campground near the visitor center.  Or you can pick up a free permit for backcountry sites.

If you plan to tent camp at Mammoth Caves Campground, bring a hammer and a sleeping mat.  There are no tent pads on the sites. Thus, you’ll be pounding your stakes into some tough ground that is covered in tree roots.

Mammoth Caves Campground does have drinkable water and flush toilets.  However, the showers are not in the campground.

The showers are located beside the camp store. Bring your quarters as the showers are not free.  The upside to showering at the store? You can pick up some necessary supplies, like ice cream sandwiches, while you are there.

Is there lodging at Mammoth Cave National Park?

Yes.  Check out the park website for details on the lodge and cabin options.   

We camped so we can’t comment on the indoor options.

Can you hike at Mammoth Cave National Park?

Yes. The park boasts over 80 miles of trails.  Some of these are easy paved front-country trails while others are more rugged and remote.

A ramp with hand rails at Mammoth Cave
Check out the path near the visitor center to feel the coolness of the cave

We found that the signage to be hit-or-miss on the trails near the visitor center and Mammoth Cave Campground. Either we knew exactly where we were based on multiple signs, or we were completely guessing.  “Well, I think maybe that curve back there is this curve on the not-to-scale map they gave us.”

Man standing beside White’s Cave Sign
One of the ‘good’ signs but it took some hunting to find it

So if you plan to venture onto the backcountry trails, bring your own topographic map.  The maps provided at the visitor center are a bit lacking.

Can you bike at Mammoth Caves National Park?

Gravel road curving into the woods
Not for skinny-tired bikes – the Mammoth Cave Hike and Bike Trail

Yes.  Bicycles may use any road that the public is allowed to drive a car on.  Additionally, there are over 20 miles of unpaved bike trails in the park.

We rode the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike.  This trail is an unpaved 9-mile out-and-back ride.  It was surprisingly hilly and not meant for road bikes.  We struggled in a few spots on our touring bikes but enjoyed the solitude of the ride.

Are there other caverns you should visit?

Yes!   Hard to believe we waited so long in life to explore underground but here are our favorite caves and caverns in the USA.

And if you have a favorite cave or cavern you think we should check out, leave us a comment and we’ll add it to our to-do list!

Fast Facts

  • Trip Date: September, 2019
  • Name: Mammoth Caves National Park
  • Location: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
  • Fee: Free to $$

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