Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave: “A Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar Place”

October 15, 2010, 9:27 am

Mammoth Cave is the longest cave in the world and one of the first tourist attractions in America. The cave boasts an incredible 390 miles of explored and mapped passageways, though geologists estimate there could be more than 600 miles in all. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place," but its vast chambers and complex labyrinths have earned its name—Mammoth.

Located in the hilly country of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley. Since it became a national park in 1941, millions of visitors have journeyed to the park, drawn by the dark frontier of Mammoth Cave.

In Mammoth's vast subterranean world, there are giant vertical shafts, from the towering 192-foot-high Mammoth Dome to the 105-foot-deep Bottomless Pit. Some passages and rooms are decorated with sparkling white gypsum crystals, while others are filled with the colorful, sculpted shapes of stalactites, stalagmites and other cave formations. Underground rivers, including Echo River and the River Styx, flow through Mammoth's deepest chambers. And in the cave's absolute blackness dwell many rare and unusual animals, including eyeless fish, ghostly white spiders and blind beetles.

Cave tours are available throughout the year for everyone—young and old—regardless of physical ability. They range from 1.5-hour strolls to six-hour adventures. For the most up-to-date cave tour schedules, visit nps.gov. Detailed cave tour brochures are also available.

While most visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park come to view its subterranean wonders, its surface beauty should not be overlooked. Aboveground, Mammoth offers 53,000 acres of scenic parkland perfect for hiking, fishing, paddling and wildlife viewing. Buried within a thriving second-growth woodland forest, you'll find extraordinary and unusual ecosystems in the bowl-shaped sinkholes, hemlock groves, and wetlands scattered throughout the park. Be sure to set aside time to canoe down the beautiful Green River, hike on the rugged North Side, bike on backcountry trails or camp under the stars.

Or, explore the Big Woods—a 300-acre old-growth forest—with massive trees that are over 100 feet tall. Keep your eyes out for common woodland creatures like deer, raccoon, opossum, gray squirrel, rabbit, woodchuck, muskrat, beaver, red fox, coyote, owls and wild turkey, but be careful not to disturb some of Mammoth Cave's most precious endangered animals that include the Kentucky Cave Shrimp, the Indiana Brown Bat, and seven species of freshwater mussels.

Along with its stunning natural splendor, the Mammoth Cave area boasts a rich and colorful history. This human tale began 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. It's a fascinating story that features ancient miners, pre-historic mummies, saltpeter mines, the first underground tuberculosis hospital in history, trapped cavers, clever guides, the birth of modern tourism and the creation of America's 26th national park.