I used to call it Mammoth Caves, until a coworker mentioned that it is Mammoth Cave. You know what… he was right! Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world, with about 400 miles of the cave explored. 400 miles! Guys that’s a lot of miles!! According to our tour guide most of that 400 miles is all within a 7 by 7 miles square. The tunnels are layered upon one another. The tour I took went down to the third level… not sure what that really means. What I do know is that when this picture was taken I was approximately 267 feet underground.
The tour I took was called “The Grand Avenue Tour” I got a little mixed up on the times, I thought it started at 11:15 am, but in reality it was 11:30 am. Which doesn’t sound like a big difference until you factor in that I arrived 45 minutes early for the 11:15 tour, I was an HOUR early. Oops!! I had some time to kill and the weather was beautiful so I found a patch of grass and laid down and relaxed.
According to the NPS website the Grand Avenue Tour is 4 miles, 4 ½ hours and has 670 stairs, there was an optional 98 that I took because why not! The pace of the tour was good, I didn’t feel rushed or that it was dragging on. There were parts of the tour that were pretty hard, but conveniently there were rest spots right afterwards. When I first entered the cave and descended the first set of stairs my throat kind of felt like it was closing…. It may have been the fact that before we were loaded on the buses that took us to the cave entrance there was an extensive if this… then maybe this isn’t the right tour for you. Well I didn’t think I was claustrophobic until they mentioned that it would take HOURS before you were rescued if something happened there. I had to just stop thinking about that and that we were underground.
The first hour or so was what our Ranger said was ‘a walk in the park’ the end was ‘the hike’. We started out on Cleveland Ave and then had our lunch in the Snowball room. Words and pictures cannot capture the beauty of this place, or if they can I do not have the skills to adequately capture it. We had about a half an hour to eat in the Snowball room, which was named after the snowball shaped formations that were on the ceiling, we got to ask our Rangers questions and find out more about Mammoth Cave. They said that in the old days Mammoth Cave was privately owned and that one of the highlights was writing your name in the cave. Now Mammoth Cave was authorized as a national park in 1926, but was fully established in 1941 (source) When they ‘wrote’ their names it was actually smoked on with a candle! That’s kind of cool, they don’t allow people to write on the cave walls anymore, some people took it upon themselves to write on the picnic tables we ate at.
Next to the Snowball room there was a waiting area that also had “the last legal bathroom for a long while” as our guide stated. Our next adventure lead us to Boone Avenue. Along the way I discovered ‘cave grapes’ that are formations that look like little grapes all over the ceiling, ‘cave crickets’ while also all over the ceiling these were not formations… Bugs we were over a mile from the entrance and there were bugs on the ceiling! They moved, AH! When I asked our Ranger if they bit, she looked at me like I was crazy and said ‘They’re crickets, they don’t bite’. How was I supposed to know that they were legitimately crickets and not something else that they called crickets, to help keep people like me from freaking out? Asking questions sometimes gets me responses like the one above, or can sometimes lead to interesting stories. It was a tight squeeze for a long while, single file, there were some places that the rock was just a couple of inches from touching me on either side.
When thinking of hiking and going up hills in Kentucky, one normally thinking of the Red River Gorge or Natural Bridge, not hundreds of feet underground. There were parts that were really tough, this little 8 year old boy was behind me and kept telling him mom, ‘I’m not sure I’m gonna make it, just leave me here”. She didn’t and he made it just fine, a bit winded but he made it. After one such mountain we stopped at the top and saw what our guide affectionately called ‘Cave Zombies’. There were individuals who volunteer their time and labor to help the park out with maintenance that the park doesn’t have either the manpower or the budget to do. Think about it 400 miles of cave to maintain! That’s a lot of cave! Off we went to our next and hopefully final mountain, finally as we crested our last mountain we sat down to have our final chit chat before our last leg of the hike. Our Ranger spoke a bit on the history of the ownership of the cave, and the discovery of the New Cave Entrance. He spoke to us by candlelight, to show us what it was like for the people first exploring the cave, and then he blew out the candle and had everyone be as quiet and still as we could be to see what it was like when nobody was in the cave. WOW, just wow!
We finished up our tour with seeing the Frozen Niagara and leaving through the New Entrance to the Mammoth Cave. Overall the hike was amazing, and just beautiful. I wish that I could recommend that you all run out to Mammoth Cave and experience this tour first hand but I cannot. Due to the sequester and budget cuts this tour is being discontinued it just a couple of weeks. What makes this sadder is that I was talking with a lady on the way out to the cave who said her grandparents had taken her on this tour when she was a little girl and that she is now taking her granddaughter on it, a 5 generation tradition. While this tour may no longer be available I am sure that any tour into this cave will be breathtaking.