Exploring Below and Above: Mammoth Cave National Park

With over 400 miles of surveyed passages, Mammoth Cave National Park is famous as the longest known cave system in the world. We not only ventured into the cave on two occasions while visiting, but also had the opportunity to explore some of Mammoth’s 52,830 acres above the ground by completing hikes on both sides of the Green River, the park’s major waterway. 

The karst terrain throughout the park is comprised of limestone, topped with a layer of sandstone. The cave has been carved over millions of years as rainwater infiltrated the soil, becoming a weak carbonic acid. This acid dissolved the porous limestone to create a network of underground streams and miles of cave tunnels. The passages are layered on top of one another, with at least five levels, and a maximum depth of about 400 feet. 

The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941 and a World Heritage Site in 1981, but tourists have been visiting for over 200 years. In 2016 the park celebrated its bicentennial of guided tours. Early guides were slaves, including Stephen Bishop and Mat and Nick Bransford. They also discovered many of the cave’s famous passages.

Today, about 13 miles of the cave can be seen by purchasing guided tours. We reserved spots on the two hour Domes and Dripstones tour to take us 3/4 of a mile through the most decorated part of the cave. We had the fortune of having Ranger Jerry Bransford leading our tour. Jerry, directly related to Mat and Nick Bransford, is a fifth generation cave guide. His knowledge of the cave and its history were fascinating to us. He even had a New York Times story written about him three years ago.

Ranger Jerry Bransford briefing the group before entering the cave

Our tour entered the cave from the New Entrance, created at the time the most decorative feature, the Frozen Niagara, was discovered in 1923. Upon entering the cave, we walked down 280 steep stairs through several narrow passages. We got up to the front of the group and followed right behind Ranger Jerry. 

Following Ranger Jerry down the stairs from the New Entrance into the cave

At the bottom of the stairs we entered a large room called Grand Central Station. It was the deepest part of our tour, at about 250 feet below the surface. 

The group assembled at Grand Central Station

From there, we continued along several passages to the Frozen Niagara area. Here, we could walk down and back up 50 steps to see it more closely. The Frozen Niagara is about 130 feet below the surface.

Coming to Frozen Niagara
Cave formations near Frozen Niagara

We also passed through the Drapery Room and saw Crystal Lake below us. 

The Drapery Room
Looking down to Crystal Lake

There were groups of crickets on the cave walls. We stopped to look at them as we walked. 

Crickets in the cave

Our second venture into the cave took place through the Historic Entrance. We happened to be there on a day that we could go in a short distance on our own, rather than on a guided tour. This portion of the cave, being an older and upper passage, is dry, with little stalactites, stalagmites, or other formations dependent on flowing water.

We walked down the stairs into the cave and past the large Rotunda Room (at 140 feet below the surface) to Audubon Avenue. The large scale of the passages were a real contrast with the narrower sections we had seen on our Domes and Dripstones tour. 

While speaking with a ranger in the Rotunda Room, we learned that about 80% of Mammoth Cave’s bats have died of white-nose syndrome. However, she knew of a nearby location of a baby bat and showed it to us. 

Walking down into the Historic Entrance
The Rotunda Room

Our cave explorations complete, we turned our attention to the above ground trails in the park. There are over 80 miles of paths, with the Green River delineating between the front and back country sections of the park. We completed a hike in each area. 

In the front country, we hiked the River Styx Spring Trail (1.0 mile round trip). It was drizzling while we walked, but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the green forest all around us. Upon arriving at the spring, we could see a stream emerging from the cave to eventually join the Green River.

Walking along the River Styx Spring Trail
The River Styx emerging from the cave

The Green River is one of the most biologically diverse streams in the United States, with about 150 species of fish that have been identified. There are 65 miles of trails north of the Green River, and to get there we needed to cross the river on a small ferry. When we pulled up to the river’s edge, the ferry lowered its door, and we drove onto it. On the other side the door lowered again, and we were on our way. 

Waiting to board the Green River ferry

We parked at the Maple Springs trailhead and planned to complete a loop of several paths. After hiking about a mile on the Buffalo Trail, we turned off to the Turnhole Bend Trail.

Trail sign at the beginning of our hike

It had rained quite a bit overnight, and we began to encounter significant stretches of mud. After hiking about a 1/2 mile and making slow progress, we decided to turn around and try a different trail. The conditions were better there. In all, we managed to complete 5.8 miles of hiking while seeing only one other person on the trails. 

Darren navigating his way through the mud on the trail

We enjoyed our time exploring two underground sections of Mammoth Cave, known as “The Monarch of Caves.” While not having the extent of decorative features we saw at Carlsbad Caverns just a few weeks ago, we were awed by the enormous scale of the passages and rooms. Our above ground hikes gave us the opportunity to explore the Kentucky countryside and find solitude in the green forest. In 2016, Mammoth Cave National Park ranked 33rd in visitation, with about 586,000 people. 

Next, we will move on to Florida and visit the first of three parks in that state: Everglades National Park. 

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