Beginning to form more than 10 million years ago, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. There are more than 400 miles of caves running under Kentucky, and that is just what has been mapped.
Mammoth Cave is one of the Natural Wonders of the United States, alongside Niagara Falls, Hawaii Volcano Natural Park, Devil’s Tower, Old Faithful, Crater Lake, and Death Valley
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave was created by limestone erosion, also known as karst topography. During this process, rain and rivers dissolve and shape soft limestone, creating a vast system of caves.
Fun fact: Karst Aquifers like Mammoth Cave provide drinking water for about 40% of the entire U.S. population.
How Big is Mammoth Cave?
While the surface of Mammoth Cave National Park covers nearly 80 square miles, no one knows how big the underside is. The cave system is five levels and more than 365 miles of it has been mapped, though new caves are always being discovered.
Mammoth Cave Tours
Over 2 million people visit Mammoth Cave National Park every year. About 1/4 of those people take a cave tour. 10 miles of passages are available for tours.
There are many different tour options to explore the caves at Mammoth Cave National Park, ranging in the time it takes (2-6 hours in length) as well as the difficulty of the tours. These tours are perfect to get out of the humid Kentucky heat. Park rangers lead these tours.
Frozen Niagara Tour is not only the most popular, but is the perfect tour for those with trouble walking, or just don’t like having to hike to see the caves.
The Frozen Niagara tour is a very steep walk up and down a paved road, but it’s only a quarter of a mile and there are several benches along the way.
Mammoth Cave Accessibility Tour is another cave tour perfect for those who cannot climb stairs, or have difficulty walking. Drive your car to the elevator entrance, and take the elevator down to the cave.
The paths are concrete and fairly level for wheelchairs and scooters. Bring your own flashlight, as the path isn’t very well lit. This is a two-hour tour with a maximum distance of a quarter of a mile.
The only downfall to this tour is that it caps at 14 people, and can be canceled at any time if the elevator malfunctions, as this is the sole mode of transportation into the cave for those with wheelchairs.
Historic Tour is a two hour, two-mile tour that dives deep within the caves to show the beauty behind this National Park. This tour is paved, and you don’t see as many formations as on the other tours.
Although this is a moderate hike, it is not for the faint of heart, as there are 540 stairs and only one way through. In addition, if you’re tall you will need to duck quite a bit, and some sections are so narrow your knees will touch as you squeeze through.
Domes and Dripstones Tour is a route for the science lover. It goes down about 250 feet and is tight in some spots. At 2 hours and ¾ of a mile, this gives visitors the perfect opportunity to view stalactites and stalagmites.
The only issue some may have with this route is the 540 stairs that it takes to get underground, but this tour is perfect in the summer, as it is cooler at this depth.
Violet City Lantern Tour is not for a family with children. This tour has an age restriction as it is longer, and more unsteady with no lights except the lanterns that are carried.
The Violet City Lantern Tour is a 3 hour, 3-mile hike into a historical cave that has been around for centuries. Unfortunately, this cave does not have a restroom as it is still in its natural state, so go to the bathroom topside before you head down.
Great Onyx Lantern Tour, separate from the Violet City Lantern Tour, is a longer passage for the science lover as there are many unique rock formations in this cave.
This cave tour is less than 2 and a half hours long, and is only a mile long, but does have an age restriction of 6 years old.
Gothic Avenue Tour is for the historian in the group. This tour has many beautiful formations in a museum-like area, with artifacts left behind from those who have once traveled through this area. The Gothic Avenue tour is 2 hours, and a mile and a half long.
River Styx Tour is perfect for those who want to see the formation of the cave, and who don’t mind getting their feet a bit wet. In this tour, you can observe the many years of wear on the walls, and see what’s left of the water still in the cave. The River Styx Tour is geared towards those who love natural history. This tour is 2 and a half hours, and 2 miles long.
Mammoth Cave Tour Prices and Discounts
Although the park itself is free to get into, there are many affordable tours to give a more in-depth look into the caves, as well as the opportunity to camp on site.
- The Frozen Niagara Tour is $14 for adults and $10 for children or $7 for pass holders
- The Historic Tour is $17 for adults and $12 for children or $8.50 for pass holders
- The Domes and Dripstones Tour is $17 for adults and $12 for children for $8.50 for pass holders
- The Gothic Avenue Tour is $15 for adults and $10 for children or $7.50 for pass holders.
- The Great Onyx Lantern Tour is $20 for adults and $15 for children or $10 for pass holders
- The Violet City Lantern Tour is $15 for adults and $10 for children or $10 for pass holders
- The River Styx Tour is $18 for adults and $13 for children or $9 for pass holders
Is Mammoth Cave Cold?
It’s a cool (or cold, if you’re from Arizona) 54 degrees year-round inside the cave. In the “variable temperature zones” close to the entrances, wind chills in winter can dip below freezing, or temperatures can rise to around 60°.
What to Wear
No matter which tour you take, be sure to wear hiking boots or good shoes with nonskid soles. Bring a jacket, because it’s chilly underground.
IMPORTANT: In an effort to prevent more deaths from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), clothing, footwear, and handheld items that have previously been worn in caves or mines in certain areas may not be brought into Mammoth Cave.
White-Nose Syndrome is a disease in bats that is tragically killing bats by the millions. Read more about why bats are so vital to our lives here.
Mammoth Cave Hours
Hours vary by day and season; see a full list here. Reservations are strongly encouraged during the summer months and on holidays, including weekends in the Spring and Fall.
Mammoth Cave Kentucky is on Central time, so be sure to plan accordingly if you’re coming from another time zone!
What to do at Mammoth Cave (besides tours)
Don’t skip the tour, because you’ll definitely regret it, but there are other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park. You can hike and ride horses on more than 70 miles of trails. Much like at other National Parks, you can also fish, canoe, camp, and picnic.
Mammoth Cave Horse Riding
North of the Green River, you’ll find sixty miles of trails open for horseback riding. You may park your trailer at Lincoln Trailhead, Maple Springs Trailhead, or across the road from the Maple Springs Campground bulletin board.The trails at Mammoth Cave National Park are well-marked and well-maintained.
Download the free horseback riding trail map, courtesy of NPS.
Mammoth Cave Camping
Most campsites at Mammoth Caves National Park are $20 a site, and the VIP campsites that are a lot nicer are $50. If you are planning to bring your horses along, you can get an equestrian campsite for $25.
To reserve a campsite, go online or call the National Park Reservation Service at (877)444-6777.
More to do at Mammoth Cave National Park
This beautiful park features more than 52,000 acres, meaning the possibilities are endless when finding things to do:
- The Big Woods: get a glimpse of the uncut forest of Old Kentucky.
- Turnhole Bend: the “turnhole”, once used by riverboat pilots to turn around in the narrow river.
- Good Spring Church: A silent sanctuary that echoes memories of a past community.
No matter what you plan to do at Mammoth Cave, take a few days to explore… it’s worth it!
Best Time to Visit Mammoth Caves
The average temperature inside Mammoth Cave is 54 degrees year-round. Even with the air temps in Kentucky dropping into the lower 30’s during the winter, the temperatures in the cave only fluctuate slightly. This means that it is warmer in the cave than it is outside during the winter and cooler in the cave during the summer months.
Camping at Mammoth Caves National Park is open all year long. So plan your trip today and enjoy a tour of the most famous cave system in the world.
How to Get to Mammoth Cave
The best way to describe how to get to Mammoth Cave is from their website.
From the North: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 53 (Cave City Exit). Turn right onto KY-70. Follow 70/255 as it becomes the Mammoth Cave Parkway in the park. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
From the South: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 48 (Park City Exit). Turn left onto KY-255 and follow 255 as it becomes the Park City Road into the park. Follow Park City Road until it joins the Mammoth Cave Parkway; turn left. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
Do not rely exclusively on your GPS or Google Maps™ to get you to the park Visitor Center in time for your Cave Tour. Follow the directions above.
Hotels Near Mammoth Cave
Not a fan of camping? There are several hotels within a short drive of Mammoth Cave.
History of Mammoth Cave
The majority of the mapping at Mammoth Cave was done by slaves. Public tours of Mammoth Cave started in the early 1800s. Slaves led tours as early as 1830.
Stephen Bishop, a freed slave, worked in Mammoth Cave from 1838 until 1856. Bishop crossed a frightening landmark now known as the Bottomless Pit, to discover unmapped areas of this cave system with nothing more than a flickering lard-oil lamp to guide his way.
During the War of 812, slaves were used to mine saltpeter from the sediment in the cave. Saltpeter was used to create gunpowder.
Stephen Bishop was unquestionably one of the greatest explorers Mammoth Cave has ever known. He was in his late teens when he was brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838. He learned the toured routes from white guides Joe Shackelford and Archibald Miller Jr. However, Stephen Bishop ventured beyond the toured areas and discovered many miles of the Mammoth Cave no eye had ever seen. The gateway for modern exploration of the cave could be attributed to Stephen’s crossing of a deep vertical shaft known as the Bottomless Pit. (Source)
Bishop, who took the name of his previous master, is buried near the cave entrance in the Old Guide’s Cemetery, along with several of his family members.
Underground Tuberculosis Hospital
The cemetery also holds the remains of several Tuberculosis patients that passed there. In the early 19th century, the owner of the cave, Dr. Croghan, established an underground tuberculosis hospital. He believed the steady temperature and humidity would heal their lungs. Patients lived in the small stone structures inside the cave, with canvas roofs.
Unfortunately, the experiment was a failure and that was evident within just a few months. A few years later, Dr. Croghan himself died of TB. You can view the structures where the patients lived if you take the Violet City Lantern Tour.
Stalactites form when water containing dissolved calcium bicarbonate from the limestone rock drips from the ceiling of a cave. As the water comes into contact with the air, some of the calcium bicarbonate precipitates back into limestone to form a tiny ring, which gradually elongates to form a stalactite.
Geological Cave Formations in Mammoth Cave
There are several cave formations you will see when you visit Mammoth Cave, most notably:
- travertine dams
- gypsum formations
You could spend a week in Mammoth Cave National Park and see and learn more than you could ever imagine!
Wildlife in Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave National Park is home to over 70 threatened or endangered species, including birds, crustaceans, fish, insects, mammals, mussels, reptiles, and plants.
More than 130 species of animals live in the Mammoth Cave system. Currently, 12 species of bats live within the caves. Bats species include the Indiana Bat and the Eastern Pipistrelle Bat, both of which are endangered.
Mammoth Caves National Park is home to the largest colony of bats in the United States, but unfortunately, the numbers have been dwindling. There is a disease called the white-nose disease which is a fungus that grows on the skin of bats and has wiped out 90% of the bats at Mammoth Caves.
Aside from bats, Mammoth Caves is also home to fish that have adapted to being underground. Some of the unique fish species found in the cave are Indiana Eyeless Crayfish, Southern Cave Fish, and Albino Shrimp.
Due to the lack of light, many species of fish have developed a white color, and many are being bred without eyes as a form of evolution. Because these fish cannot see, they have adapted to utilize their sense of smell and hearing to survive, rendering their eyes useless.
The Mammoth Caves National Park is a great place to explore a natural exhibit, go camping, and enjoy the outdoors. It’s cheap and a great way to sneak away from work and life for a week with family and friends.
Download our FREE Mammoth Cave Guide (Unofficial)
Is Mammoth Cave haunted?
One of the most frequently asked questions about Mammoth Cave is if it’s haunted or not. Many deaths have happened in this cave system, though the exact number of deaths is unknown.
Mummified remains have been found in different areas of the cave, along with pottery, primitive tools, and other remnants of the past.
In 1925, Floyd Collins became trapped (and died) while mapping out a previously unexplored area of Mammoth Cave (the “lonely sandstone cave”). Several slaves and TB patients also died in this cave.
Mammoth Cave is considered one of the most haunted places in the world! Many have claimed they sense spirits when visiting.
Visiting Mammoth Cave
Still, need more information before visiting? Call (270)758-2180 or email the NPS for an information packet.
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