Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: November 2021
Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest known underground cave system in the world and contains more than 640 km (or 400 miles) of explored passageways. It was designated a national park in 1941 to better preserve and protect the cave system and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mammoth Cave National Park features a variety of tours to learn about the history of the cave and explore the natural beauty underground.
After spending the last two days in Nashville, we continued our drive back north towards Ontario. Along the way we stopped at Mammoth Cave. While the park was on a reduced operating schedule for the late fall, since we were visiting over the American Thanksgiving long weekend, there were more options available than usual.
We signed up in advance for the Grand Avenue Tour, which is the longest walking tour that the park offered at the time we were visiting. The tour is four hours in duration, covers 6.4km (or 4 miles) in distance and contains 1,313 stairs. It also includes the entire Frozen Niagara Tour route and all of the Domes and Dripstones Tour, with the exception of the steps down to an alternative cave entrance.
After checking in at the Visitor Centre in advance of our tour, we waited outside by Shelter B where a bus would bring us to the entrance of the cave. But before climbing aboard, our guide gave us a brief overview of the tour and what to expect in terms of the terrain. We then hopped on the green bus and were shuttled to the entrance, which was rather unassuming.
The cave tour involved walking through tubular passageways deep within the limestone and included passing by and through slot canyons, tall canyons and tunnels. Along the way our guide made multiple stops to provide more history and geology of Mammoth Cave, including how and when some of the passageways were discovered and about the various cave formations.
The cave was initially discovered over 4,000 years ago by Native Americans who explored 10 or more miles of passageways. The cave was then rediscovered in the late 1790s and since then there’s been guided tours of various passageways in the cave. Over the years, there’s been attempts to continue mapping out the cave system and discovering new passageways.
Ownership of the cave has also been subject of debate and prior to it being designated a national park, there were competing cave tours from different tunnels and entryways. It wasn’t until 1972 when a famous connection occurred between two cave systems that established Mammoth Cave as the longest known cave in the world.
The passageways that we walked though were wide and well-defined. There were also a lot of metal steps and railings for support. Along the way there were a few benches at some of the points of interest where our guide stopped to provide more fun facts about the cave. There were also two washrooms and water fountains. For those that overestimate their abilities, there’s even an escape exit around the 1 mile marker of the tour at the first set of washrooms. The elevator was broken when we visited, which meant that once you started the tour, you had to finish or turn around.
The temperature within the cave is around 12°C (or 54°F) year-round, which was quite comfortable with all the walking and stair climbing involved. Masks were required, but became challenging to wear with glasses, especially since they kept fogging up during the uphills.
Near the end of our tour, the path overlaps with the Frozen Niagara section, which is one of most popular tours at Mammoth Cave as it contains a lot of elaborate cave formations, including a formation that looks like a waterfall and huge open domes.
We exited through a different access point and our bus was waiting to shuttle us back to the Visitor Centre. We wrapped up just before 2p.m. While there are other cave tours and hiking trails within the park, we had other plans. We still had to get a COVID test in order to cross the border back into Canada. We’ll get the results back within 24 hours, they said. And so we drove to Ohio where we planned to spend our final night of our road trip.