On our way home for the holidays we spent a day at Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of cave discovered so far.
We took two cave tours to explore different parts of the cave. They offer many tours, we picked the Historic Tour and the Domes and Dripstones Tour, both were about 2 hours.
The Historic Tour enters the cave through the historic natural entrance. We like entering through a natural entrance (rather than an elevator or man-made stairwell entrance) when possible because it helps us understand where we are in the cave and it’s also fun to think about the people that first discovered the caves, and what their experience was like. This cave has several natural and man-made entrances.
Mammoth Cave has been explored for over 200 years. Evidence of pre-historic Native American activity in the cave has also been found. On the Historic Tour, we learned about the saltpeter mining operations that took place using slave labor during the War of 1812, to produce gunpowder.
After it’s use as a mine, but before Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941, it was used for tourism by private owners of the land above the cave. Stephan Bishop was a slave who led tours in the cave in the 1840s and 1850s , and made many discoveries within the cave. He was the first person to cross the “Bottomless Pit”. During this time, (and after), a lot of graffiti was added to the cave. Ash from candles was used to write names on the ceiling. I was surprised at how much graffiti we saw in the cave.
This tour went through several huge halls and rooms. Mammoth Cave was formed in limestone, but there is a capstone of sandstone over top of it, so water is unable to get in, and there aren’t many flowstone formations (stalagmites, stalactites, etc).
We also went through a few more restrictive areas. The first is called Fat Man’s Misery, where the walls closed in up to our waists, which is followed by Tall Man’s Agony, where the ceiling came down low. I loved all the old-timey names of features and locations in the cave.
At the end of this tour, we had to climb several flights of stairs to get back up to the level we started, and then walked back out the natural entrance. Even with all the stairs and restricted areas, there were no warnings when we bought our tour tickets.
The second tour started with a bus ride to the middle of the woods, and entered through a creepy cement phone-booth. Before we went in, we got our first and only warning of the day. We were told that we would see long-legged creatures in the cave, but don’t be alarmed, they aren’t spiders. They are cave crickets!
Brian spent a decent amount of the tour trying to photograph cave crickets, while everyone else was squirming away from them. They gave most of us the willies, because they were hard to spot until we were right next to them, and they started moving. There were a lot, crawling all over the walls and ceiling!
The first part of the Domes and Dripstones tour showed off the domes, which were tall (or deep) structures.
The last part of the tour was through an area where there is a break in the sandstone capstone over the cave, and water has been able to enter the cave, creating the Frozen Niagara structure.
At the end of the tour, just as we were about to leave the cave, a ranger overheard Brian talking excitedly about the cave crickets, and shined her flashlight in an area where she expected them to be, and there were a ton of cave crickets all over the ceiling! It was creepy, so of course Brian loved it.
After Mammoth Cave we spent a few days near Frankfort, Kentucky. We camped at Lake Shelby Campground, which only had a handful of campsites. We did some bourbon shopping for Christmas presents, and took one distillery tour. We did all the big distilleries a few years ago, but visited Buffalo Trace again to take the Hard Hat Tour. The tours and tastings at Buffalo Trace are free, and the Hard Hat Tour wasn’t available when we were there last. It was a good tour, but the production areas we visited were loud, and at times we couldn’t hear the tour guide. The tasting (especially the bourbon ball) was my favorite part!
Day 435 | Mile 45,682