We had decided to take the 8:45 a.m. Historic Tour on Wednesday, April 19th so we were on our way early that morning. We allowed extra time so we could stop for breakfast at the Crystal Coffee Shop at the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Pretty standard breakfast menu, fairly good food and very good service.
After breakfast, we headed over to the Visitor Center so we could purchase our tickets for the tour. This tour is described as a “journey through the natural entrance leads to “classic” Mammoth Cave – landmarks visited by writers, scientists, military figures and celebrities of the 1800s and early 1900s. 2 hours, 2 miles. tour limit: 120; total stairs: 440 including 155 at Mammoth Dome; elevation change: 300′.“The cost was $12/person ($6 with the Senior Pass). We were told to meet at Shelter A.
Just to interject here, if you are planning on taking any of the tours, our recommendation is to take the earliest tour possible as they tend to be less crowded. Several of the tours (Historic and New Entrance) can have up to 120 people on them but our tour was great because there were only 5 couples on it. When we bought our tickets for the 8:45 a.m. tour, we noticed that the 9:30 a.m. and the 11:00 a.m. weren’t available. After the tour as we approached the exit, the 11:00 a.m. tour consisted of 110 noisy teenagers! Then as we left the visitor center, another busload of pre-teens came walking through the door.
This time we were greeted by Richard who was to be our tour guide. We learned later in the tour that Richard is a retired school teacher who has been giving tours for several years now. He averages 3 tours a day, walking 5 – 7 miles and climbing well over 1000 stairs. What a way to stay in shape!
Similar to the previous tours, he recited all of the rules, safety precautions and potential health risks to make sure that everyone knew what to expect on the tour. He warned us about Fat Man’s Misery where we would be required to “duck waddle” for 15 – 20 yards.
Just as a note here, if you ever plan on going to Mammoth, don’t let the description or the warnings from the guides scare you too much. Do they require some physical exertion? Yes, but nothing that difficult or strenuous – nothing to worry about if you are relatively healthy (even if you are a little out of shape). To be honest, I found walking back up the stairs and climbing the steep hill back to the Visitor Center on the Mammoth Passage Tour and this tour the most tiring of anything we had to do during any of the tours.
As we walked down the slope to the Historic entrance, Richard pointed out what looked to be a stream bed on one side of the pavement. We had thought that this was dry due to a lack of rain but that’s not the case. The area is what is known as a Karst landscape which means that when it rains, the naturally acidic water reacts with carbon dioxide to form weak carbonic acid. This not only dissolves the limestone rock exposed at the Earth’s surface, but percolates underground and dissolves the limestone below the surface, creating the cave.
He also told us that most of the trails throughout the park had been cleared and built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). According to the NPS website, “four camps of CCC workers worked for $1 per day building housing, roads, cave trails, communications systems, water systems, restrooms, showers, and a service elevator to the famous Snowball Room”. Richard told us that this was where the saying “another day, another dollar came from”. Recently on one of his tours, there was a 94 year young gentleman and Richard was concerned about his taking a tour. It turned out that he was one of the members of the CCC and came there that day to see “how everything had turned out all these years later”.
At the entrance to the cave, we were joined by another ranger, Jerry. Usually if there are more than 25 people on a tour, a second guide is required. Since there were only 5 couples on this tour a second guide wasn’t required but Jerry just stopped by to make sure he wasn’t needed and to collect our tickets. Richard explained to us that Jerry was a 5th generation descendant of one of the slaves who worked in the caves. He must have some interesting stories to tell!
Anyway, part of this tour is the same as the Mammoth Passage tour we took earlier this week, so our first stop was the Rotunda and the saltpeter mines.
As we walked down the passageway though, Richard stopped us and shined (or is it shone) his flashlight up on the ceiling. Hanging there, sound asleep, was a very small Eastern Pipistrelle bat which is a non-colonizing bat. If you look to the right of the flashlight beam in the picture, you can see him (and his shadow). Richard explained that usually the bats will not sleep in the parts of the cave frequented by the tours due to the noise and lights so tourists don’t usually see them, so this was a rare treat! He thought this one was a young one and most likely didn’t know any better. After that bit of excitement, we continued walking towards the Rotunda.
At this stop Richard explained the saltpeter mining in more depth than what was explained in the Mammoth Passage Tour. It was quite an amazing operation! It would be too difficult to reiterate everything he told us but if you are interested, you can read about it on the National Park Service website by clicking here. Most of the saltpeter mined in this cave was used to manufacture gunpowder supplies for the War of 1812. The British had blockaded our importation of Saltpeter from overseas so this mine played a key role in the success of that war. After the war, the demand for salt peter dwindled, overseas trade was restored and eventually the mining of saltpeter here ended.
From the Rotunda we continued walking until we arrived at the Methodist Church room. Although we had learned why this area of the cave was called the Methodist Church from the Mammoth Passage Tour, Richard provided more detail. The preacher and his parishioners would carry open lanterns into the cave to the area called the Methodist Church. As the parishioners seated themselves on tree logs or stumps, he would collect all of their lanterns, and put them up on an overhanging rock where he would then stand and give his sermon. You can see the black marks on the rocks from the soot. Since he had all the lanterns, he had a captive audience for as long as he wanted to speak.
Nowadays, on the 1st Sunday in December, there are musical performances given here which are open and free to the public. That must be really neat!
Just as a note, at this point in time, we were on Level 2 of the cave about 150 feet deep. As part of this tour, we would eventually descend to Level 4 (there are at least 5 levels) to about 360 feet deep. Several times Richard referred to the cave as a big bowl of spaghetti – the bowl was the layers of sandstone and limestone above us and the spaghetti strands represented all of the passageways that criss-crossed and branched off in every direction. As we walked along he pointed out many of these passageways – several of them extend for miles. Some of them were very narrow and shallow while others were quite deep and wide.
After we left the church area, we continued our journey in a section of the cave that wasn’t in a previous tour so it was new to us. We passed by areas with more historical graffiti on the ceiling which was mentioned in the narrative about the Mammoth Passages tour we took earlier this week.
And then we walked by what is called the “Giant’s Coffin”. This is a huge chunk of rock that looks exactly like a coffin (sorry no pictures).
From here we walked up to and over the Bottomless Pit. Richard relayed a story about Stephen Bishop, a mixed race slave, who was a cave explorer and guide. Stephen was a very educated man (slaves in KY were allowed to learn to read and write) and could in fact speak three languages. He was approached by a gentleman who would pay him handsomely to see a part of the cave that no one else had seen before. Eager to earn the money, Stephen decided to take him beyond the Bottomless Pit where no one had gone before. Stephen cut down a cedar tree, removed all the branches, dragged it into the cave, then put the timber across the Bottomless Pit. He then shimmied across it. Speculation is that he didn’t realize that it was 105 feet of nothingness beneath him – if he did, he probably wouldn’t have been so eager to shimmy across it! Luckily today there are steel walkways with railings so we all got a chance to see the Bottomless Pit without any shimmying!
At one of the stops, Richard lit an open lantern, then shut out all the lights to demonstrate how dark the caves were for the early explorers. He explained that the early Native Americans would walk barefoot through the caves, with nothing on but a loin cloth, carrying a pack of reeds which they would light and use as torches. With the winds blowing through the cave, often the flames would be extinguished, leaving the person in total darkness which he demonstrated with the lantern. Suddenly we were in total darkness, listening to the total silence. Even though this was done on a previous tour, it still was just as awesome the second time around!
Also along the way, he told us that a body of an American Woodland Indian had been found in the cave. With testing they determined that it was over 3500 years old and due to the stable climate and lack of bacteria in the cave, was nearly perfectly preserved. Eventually its stomach contents were examined – vegetables, grass and gypsum (they still don’t know why they ate gypsum) were found. The body was enclosed in a display case for many years until the Native Americans protested, wanting it removed as a display and requesting that the body be returned to its resting place somewhere else in the cave.
As we walked along, the path became narrower and we were ducking under the rock ledges. At this point in time, Richard warned us that Fat Man’s Misery was just ahead. Oh, oh, we were all pretty nervous about this one! But the good news is that we really didn’t have to “duck waddle” – we just had to bend at the waist and in some places walk sideways to make it through the narrow, low passageway.
Unbeknownst to me, Rob who had only experienced claustrophobia once in the 20 years that I’ve known him, was feeling a little claustrophobic going through this part. But he made it through okay – he thinks if he had been at the end of the group, it probably wouldn’t have bothered him. We’ll remember that next time. He was surprised because he had made it through all the other cramped spaces including the very narrow staircase on the New Entrance Tour with no problems.
We came to another room where there was more historic graffiti. Anything graffiti prior to the cave becoming part of the National Park Service is “historic”, anything after that is considered a “federal offense”.
Now it was time to make our ascent from Level 4 up to Level 1 which meant lots of stairs! We were told that we would be ascending the Mammoth Dome Tower, which is 65 feet high and has 155 stairs. Richard explained that they had replaced the decaying old stairs (made of steel, which had to be painted frequently) with new stainless steel stairs in 2008 at a cost of $2 million. To see a picture of the stairs and to read about what it took to replace the old structure, click here.
Overall the stairs weren’t too bad as there were landings where we could stop and rest while he would talk about our surroundings. As we climbed, we could look over the railing (and actually through the step grates) at what was below us. It was totally awesome but definitely not for people who are afraid of heights!
Below are pictures of Mammoth Dome as well as some of the artifacts that are on display in one of the rooms.
By the way, the new Visitor Center is still under construction. They are building a museum, expected to be completed by next year, where many of the cave artifacts will be displayed. Also of note is a 20 kilowatt (Rob’s estimate – the staff wasn’t sure) solar panel array that will provide some electricity, plus a thirty thousand gallon fiberglass tank which will be buried and collect rainwater from the stainless steel gutters to be used for irrigation and flushing toilets.
After soaking in all the beauty of the Dome, we walked along Audobon Avenue back towards the Rotunda and the entrance where we had another bunch of stairs to conquer! Actually despite my whining about the stairs, the exercise was great – sure beats the treadmill! Maybe we should get jobs there as guides!
With over 400,000 visitors a year, Mammoth Caves National Park is the 10th most visited National Park in the US. We’re sure glad that we included a stop here on our itinerary. All of the tours and the tour guides were great and you can’t beat the magnificence of the cave itself! My guess is that each ranger adds their own spin on the tour depending on their area of expertise so even is you take one of the tours a second or third time, it will be a new experience!