Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

I drove into the Mammoth Cave visitor center ten minutes before closing time.  The staff, typical of Southern park rangers, was highly motivated and professional.  They were happy to help me plan cave tours despite the late hour.  I learned to great disappointment that the Wild Tour through the backcountry of the cave was sold out for the next week.  The more I heard about this tour over the next two days, the more thankful I was to be turned away.  People related stories of aches and pains, as well as a few other visitors suffering a sprained ankle or injured shoulder from trouble navigating the tiny passageways.  If a person gets stuck in a passageway, he is pulled out by force with little regard for potential injuries.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Instead I took three other cave tours inside of a day, which kept me underground for a total of six hours.  Wild tour conditions notwithstanding, Mammoth cave is named for its high ceilings, wide passageways, and immense overall size.  The typical cave setting on my three tours involved ceilings of rock three to seven stories high and walkways ten to fifty yards wide.  So far over 1300 miles of cave have been mapped.  The rangers assured us that far more awaited exploration.  Although Mammoth is not officially recognized as the world’s largest cave, the rangers were adamant that it should be.  Further exploration of the cave is very difficult and time-consuming, requiring multiple days of camping in the cave’s outer reaches.  Few people want to do it, and exploration rarely occurs anymore.

My first tour guide was a pleasant, knowledgeable young man and one of the few explorers who had recently mapped new sections in the cave.  His assistant was a nag who kept asking the group to slow its walking pace.  I did my best to ignore her and stuck near the front of the line.  While I contemplated the uselessness of her presence, she seemed to think that she was executing a critical duty in handsome fashion.

Green River above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Green River near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The remaining cave tours were guided by a two-man team of rangers.  One was a middle-aged, heavy-set man who proudly declared that he was a “native hillbilly from Western Kentucky.”  The other was an athletic gentleman who retired from a career as an officer on nuclear submarines.  Both were fun and interesting guides.

The cave entrances are reached by roads inaccessible to the public, on which tourists are transported by bus.  On one such ride the former Navy man noticed a Range Rover following our bus.  Upon arrival at the cave two tan, lanky young men, each well over 6 feet tall, approached our group and told the rangers they missed our bus “by about 8 seconds.”

“The tour leaves at 3, not 3 and 8 seconds,” replied the Navy man.  Calling the visitor center from the phone in the cave’s doorway, he coordinated approval for the smiling young men to join our tour.  I chatted with them while the ranger worked, and they told me about their recent trip to South Africa.  The ranger was ready to get underway and again addressed the two latecomers.  “I need you boys to lock the door for me after everybody’s inside,” he said.  “Yes, sir,” the men replied simultaneously.  With that were off on the day’s final cave tour.  Given the way our ranger led tours, I could easily see him commanding a nuclear submarine.

Sink above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Sink near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The park is almost as proud of its above-ground hiking trails as it is the cave.  Hikers walk through dense, tall deciduous forests set on steep, rocky slopes.  The woods teem with deer, squirrels, and turkeys.  Geological features known as sinks are a distinctive characteristic of the park and the surrounding region.  A sink is a circular depression in the ground, typically 30-80 yards in diameter and 100+ feet deep.  Runoff flows through these porous sinks into underground rivers and streams, some of which flow through Mammoth Cave.

The Green River flows above through the park and is accessible by boat or trail.  The muddy flow seemed strong and rose fairly high up the banks.  Still, one could hardly hear the water.  The Green was the quietest river I had ever visited, and its stealth added to the peacefulness of the forest setting.

About Jerry
Working in Corporate America for many years, I wanted to break free of the office walls for a bit and explore the world. Having put the pieces in place, I am first exploring the USA by road. Colleagues and friends expressed interest in my travels, giving rise to Office Escape. It is my honor to share my adventures.

2 Responses to Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

  1. Such a lovely article Jerry! In the future you should also tag your stories with “travel” and “photography” that way a lot more people will have the opportunity to read your lovely posts.

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