Kentucky is home to the world’s longest cave—by more than 100 miles and counting!
By Hope S. Philbrick
The longest known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave is currently measured at 400 miles—and some areas remain to be explored! (It’s more than 100 miles longer than the world’s next longest cave.)
Park Rangers offer a variety of tours through its vast chambers, complex labyrinths, narrow passageways, dripstone formations, steep inclines and historic areas.
Early guide Stephen Bishop, a slave credited with first mapping this cave system, called it a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.”
Mammoth Cave was first discovered in 3000 B.C. by Native Americans. It was rediscovered during George Washington’s presidency. During the War of 1812, Mammoth Cave was a saltpeter mine, that is to say it was a gunpowder processing station manned primarily by slaves. “Over 50 percent of the gunpowder used in the War of 1812 came from here,” said one park ranger. Later, the cave may also have sheltered Jesse James and other outlaws, though bad guys rarely leave reliable records of their actions so no one really knows for sure.
The two-hour historic tour leads groups through “classic” Mammoth Cave landmarks visited by writers, scientists, military figures and celebrities of the 1800s and early 1900s. The tour route reaches depths of 310 feet below the surface. Among the highlights is a 194-foot dome, a “theater” where you’ll be treated to total darkness and silence, a narrow winding passageway sure to motivate you to stick to your diet, the saltpeter mine and 19th Century candle smoke graffiti. With a total of 155 stair steps to climb and/or descend, you need to be in reasonably decent physical condition to complete the historic tour.
Park rangers lead several different tours, including the historic tour as well as the passage tour (a short visit to the entrance area), frozen Niagara tour (a short visit to the cave’s most decorative area), discovery tour (a short visit to the cave’s largest room), slavery cave walk (a focused historic tour), new entrance tour (includes a dramatic series of domes and pits), photo tour, star chamber tour (a nostalgic trip into the cave’s natural entrance), and several spelunking adventures including a wild cave tour.
What Distinguishes This Cave…
This is the longest recorded cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave was established as a National Park in 1941, designated as a World Heritage Site in 1981, and an International Biosphere in 1990.
What To Do…
Above ground, the National Park boasts 52,830 acres of reclaimed hardwood forest and winding rivers. Activities include cave tours, hiking, horseback riding, biking, picnicking, camping, backcountry camping, canoeing, fishing and pleasure driving.
There are 70 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding. Mammoth Cave is also one of the few National Parks with over 30 miles of scenic, meandering rivers running through it, offering two working ferries, year-round canoeing, boating and fishing opportunities.
Odds of Encountering Children…
Inevitable. For the best odds, visit when school is in session.
In mid July when I took the historic tour about 100 people were on the tour, including several young children. I chose to stroll in the front of the group and chat with the park ranger.
The park is open year-round except Christmas Day.
Admission to Mammoth Cave National Park is free. A fee is charged for camping and cave tours, which range from 30 minutes to 7 hours and cost $5 to $48 per adult.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Read More about the subterranean world “Under Kentucky”
– Photos courtesy the U.S. National Park Service; group near cave entrance courtesy Bowling Green Area CVB
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