Mammoth Cave National Park: A Photographic Trip Report
T he shining sun warms the unusually cool air of a late July morning in central Kentucky. The birds sing their songs in the woods as people mill about — aware and yet not mindful of the teeming activity occurring 150 feet directly below them.
Those are the people who are visiting what is considered the longest known cave system in the world: Mammoth Cave National Park — and there are still portions of this cave system which are yet to be discovered, believe it or not, as no one knows just how extensive is this wonder of nature.
Although there were a lot of people, I would not consider it crowded on the day which I visited. Unlike Yellowstone National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park — places where people choke the road system with their vehicles to see the wondrous acres of scenery, flora and fauna — the roads at Mammoth Cave National Park are easily manageable and relatively empty.
I visited on a Wednesday on the week before school started in that area of Kentucky. I was told that I should pre-purchase the tickets the day before to avoid waiting in line on the morning of the cave tours and to not be disappointed if the tours were sold out; but it was not crowded on the morning that I visited — and I could have saved three dollars for purchasing a second tour. You take a gamble: pre-purchase your tickets or wait until the day of your tours and save three dollars per person?
By the way, three dollars may not be a lot of money — but it sure adds up if you have a family of four members in terms of $12.00. If five of your friends joined you on the tour, that is $18.00 — not chump change by any means.
I easily could have saved three dollars on the second cave tour, as there were no lines that morning. My advice to you is that if you decide to embark on the first tours of the morning during the week, consider arriving early and purchasing your tickets that morning to save three dollars per person if you plan on experiencing a second tour.
With one exception, you cannot explore the caves on your own; so you must purchase at least one guided tour. I chose the Domes and Dripstones tour at 9:30 in the morning — followed by the Historic Tour at 12:15 in the afternoon. Neither tour was sold out; and each tour cost $12.00 per person, which I thought was a tad more expensive than it should have been.
The Frozen Niagara — basically the only part of the tours which display stalagmites and stalactites — are part of the Domes and Dripstones tour; but be forewarned that if cave formations are what interests you, you might be better off visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, which I visited a few years ago. I can tell you that I was not disappointed in Mammoth Caves National Park; and you will not be disappointed either — especially if you are interested in the history of the caves.
For example, did you know that if you are deep enough in the cave, you will be so unaffected if a major earthquake were to occur that you would not even know that it happened? Thank the layers of limestone and sandstone for your protection — but be aware that the entrances to the cave might be blocked as a result due to crumbled rock.
Don’t go too deep into the cave, however: there are underground streams which can flood on occasion.
Speaking of deep in the cave, I experienced a phenomenon on a special optional tour at Carlsbad Caverns National Park where the ranger who guided the tour had all illumination turned off and instructed our small group to be as quiet as possible. I have never “seen” such a deep pitch black in my entire life; and it was so quiet that I could hear my heart beat, my lungs breathing and my blood rush through my body. It was to the point of creepy — and we experienced this for several minutes…
…so I told Chris — the ranger guiding our group on the Domes and Dripstones tour at Mammoth Cave National Park — about my experience; and he decided to simulate that as a bonus part of the tour. It was not as easy experiencing the silence with the large group of which I was a part, which included little children; but the lack of light was the same.
Tip: do not hesitate to submit a special request — such as extinguishing all illumination and asking the group to please be silent momentarily — to the ranger guiding the tour. The worst that he or she could do is say no; but if your request is granted, you will experience a silence and darkness like you have never experienced before if you have never been in a cave.
Did you know that a slave named Stephen Bishop was responsible for discovering such areas of the cave as what is known as the Bottomless Pit? Even after he was emancipated, Bishop continued to guide visitors through the cave — this time, he was paid as a free man for his efforts — but he unfortunately passed away of unknown causes at the age of 37 after only a year as a free man. Bishop, however, truly enjoyed showing visitors this amazing natural wonder — parts of which were discovered by him.
When the weather is hot and muggy, the caves offer a cool respite — the temperature is typically 54° Fahrenheit throughout the year, give or take a few degrees — but the weather was beautiful, so I decided to hike on some of the trails outside. While they are quiet and well within the woods, the trails were nothing special, in my opinion. The best part of hiking those trails was when I approached Green River and instantly had the song by Credence Clearwater Revival going through my head — even though that particular river did not inspire John Fogerty to write that song. Not a problem — it set the mood for me just the same as I stood by the bank of that river and listening to it quietly flow.
Note that there are not many palatable dining options near Mammoth Cave National Park. You may need to head south to Bowling Green or as far north as Elizabethtown if you desire fare from other than a fast food joint, a truck stop, or some dumpy local place.
Bring your camera as I did; but be aware that no flash photography is allowed inside of the caves in order to protect the dilated pupils in the eyes of fellow visitors in the dark cave from being subjected to a dramatic change in light during the tour, which could ruin the experience for them — and do not bring a tripod either, as they are not permitted in the caves either…
…and speaking of photography, below are some additional photographs to give you a sampling of Mammoth Cave National Park — but first, here is some pertinent information:
Mammoth Cave National Park
P.O. Box 7
1 Mammoth Cave Parkway
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky 42259
- Visitor Center Hours through August 17, 2014 and from August 30, 2014 through September 1, 2014: 8:00 in the morning through 6:30 in the evening Central Daylight Time
- Visitor Center Hours from August 18, 2014 through November 2, 2014 with the exception of August 30, 2014 through September 1, 2014: 8:30 in the morning through 5:15 in the afternoon Central Time
- Visitor Center Hours have not yet been posted for the winter season — please check here for when they are posted
One additional item: if you have the time, be sure to head north approximately one hour away from Mammoth Cave National Park to visit both the birthplace and boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln. Admission to both sites is free of charge; and you may freely visit on your own with no guided tours or timetable to which you must adhere.
All photographs ©2014 by Brian Cohen