On Sunday morning, April 15th, after a light breakfast, we headed out early to Mammoth Cave National Park – we wanted to catch one of the tours which began at 9:00 a.m. Note the picture on the left is a photo of one of the pictures on display at the Visitor Center – it obviously wasn’t taken by us. It was very difficult taking pictures due to the lack of lighting and the overall size of the caves.
As we approached the Visitor Center parking lot, we stopped by the side of the road to take a picture of two Mammoth Cave Railroad cars that were on display. The Mammoth Cave Railroad, known as the “Dinkey Train” (a nickname given to smallish train that runs on a “dinkey” line) was a short 9 mile rail line that traveled between Glasgow Junction (now Park City) to Mammoth Caves, stopping at various other locations on the way. The “Dinkey Train” started in 1886 and operated for about 45 years. It consisted only of a “dummy” 0-4-2T type steam locomotive and a wooden coach to carry passengers and their luggage, traveling about 25-35 mph on the lightweight rails. It was called a “dummy” because it was made to look like a passenger street car so it wouldn’t spook the horses as it approached. This train is listed on the “National Register of Historic Places” as “Hercules and Coach No. 2”. In 2004, the abandoned rail line was converted to a bike and hike trail.
Now before we descend on our tour, here’s a little information about the caves and Mammoth Cave National Park which covers about 53,000 acres or approximately 50 square miles. It is believed to be the most extensive cave system on earth, thus the reason for its name (it has nothing to do with wooly mammoths).
With over 392 miles of surveyed passageways (so far – more are discovered regularly), it is twice as long as any known cave. But even after 4000 years of exploration, there is speculation that there could be 600 or even 1000 miles of yet undiscovered passageways. The cave developed in thick limestone strata capped by a layer of sandstone, making it very stable and is why it is known as a “dry” cave.
There are about 130 forms of life that make their habitat in the cave including bats, beetles, crickets, fish, cave crayfish and the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp. Twelve species live in total darkness and have no eyes or pigmentation. According to what we were told by our tour guide, only 12 miles of the cave passageways are open to tourists in an effort to preserve the cave’s delicate ecosystems and life forms. That’s just a quick snapshot about the caves – if you are interested in more details about the formation and history of the Caves, click here.
Access to Mammoth Cave National Park is free; however, there is a fee for the cave tours. Tours offered vary in degree of difficulty from easy to moderate, to strenuous; from well-lit to rugged, pitch black paths; and from one to six hours in length. Tickets can be purchased either there at the Visitor Center or reservations can be made on-line at the recreation.gov website.
During the busy times (spring break, school vacations, summer, etc.), it is highly recommended that you make advance reservations as the tours are often sold out quickly. Note if you are planning on taking a tour, we would recommend that you plan on taking the earlier ones in the day if possible as they tend to be significantly less crowded. For us non-spelunkers, the easy or moderate tours sounded like our best option.
So for our first tour, we chose the 9:00 a.m. (other times are offered) Mammoth Passage Tour which is described as the “perfect short visit into the cave’s largest and most visited entrance area.” It cost $5/person (for us, only $2.50 with the National Parks Senior Pass) and is 1 -1/4 hours, 3/4 mile with 160 stairs and an elevation change of 160′.
It is described as “easy”! After we bought our tickets, we were told to go to shelter A behind the Visitor Center where we would be greeted by a Park Ranger who would lead the tour.
Our guide, Ranger Rick ran through a list of safety precautions, outlining what we could do (take pictures) or couldn’t do (don’t touch the rocks or formations) or bring into the caves (no backpacks, weapons, camera bags, purses, etc.). Everyone without exception after the tour would be required to walk on bio security mats soaked with a solution of water and Lysol.
Apparently in other caves, particularly in the northern and eastern US, millions of hibernating bats have been dying of White Nose Syndrome since 2006 and this step would help prevent the possible spread of the spores of the fungus.
After his speech, he led us down a steep asphalt trail (not so bad going down but a killer coming back up) to the historic entrance of the cave which is the largest and best known natural entrance to the cave. As soon as we were in front of the entrance, you could feel a surge of cold air. Ranger Rick explained that the caves “breathe”. Temps in the cave are a steady 54 degrees year round, so if the temperature outside the cave is warmer, the cave will “exhale” cold air and if the temperature outside the cave is colder, then the cave will “inhale”. Glad we brought our sweat shirts!
Just before the entrance, we descended down quite a few steps and into the cave. Once past the locking gate, we walked down a slight slope into what is called the “Rotunda” which is a large cavern room, covering about 1/4 acre and about 150 feet below the surface with a circular ceiling giving it the “Rotunda” effect.
The Rotunda is at the intersection of three passageways – Houchins Avenue, Audobon Avenue, and Broadway Avenue. Rick explained to us that according to legend, a man named Houchins while out hunting, wounded a bear and chased it into the cave entrance so he has been credited with the rediscovery of the cave. However, many think this is just a myth and nobody has been able to substantiate that story.
Within the Rotunda are the remains of the saltpeter mines, all perfectly preserved. Saltpeter, used in the making of gun powder, was mined in the cave by slaves and production was at its peak during the War of 1812 as the British had blockaded our other sources of this material.
Tulip Polar tree trunks (a long straight species) were hollowed out to make “pipes” that were used to to pipe-in the water necessary to leach the saltpeter out of the soil, and to pipe-out the saltpeter “beer” for further processing. One end of a pipe was tapered and fitted into the blunt end of the next pipe and sealed with a metal band.
Eventually we came to a lit stairway which we descended to an area in the cave known as the Methodist Church. It was called this because in the 1800’s, church services were performed in this section of the cave. It had its own natural air conditioning and the chamber is very wide and tall with a natural stone “pulpit”.
To this day, on the first Sunday in December, musical performances are held in the church chamber which are free and open to the public.
Another area is known as “Booth’s Amphitheater” where supposedly actor Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes) used to recite the soliloquy from Hamlet to cave visitors.
As early as 1816, as the need for saltpeter mining “petered out” (yes that is supposedly where the saying came from), the cave was marketed as an attraction and played a major role in the start of tourism. In an attempt to get more tips, the guides would “smoke-write” their visitors names on the ceilings and rock walls of the cave using the soot from tallow candles attached to the end of a long stick.
One famous guide was Stephen Bishop who was a self-educated enslaved person who became a legendary cave guide and explorer. He began guiding visitors at age 17 in 1838. Another guide was George S. Gatewood whose name or initials can be seen in several places in the ceiling. Interestingly, many of the names have the lettering backwards like a mirror image – the theory is that mirrors were placed on the floor of the cave and used to make the tedious process of smoke writing more bearable (no neck strain), hence the reversed images.
Also, during the early years visitors were allowed to build monuments. Often plaques were put on the top of the monument as seen in the photo on the left. After it became a National Park, writing on the caves was forbidden.
In one area, Rick pointed out dark stripes in the rock, telling us that this was gypsum. Normally the gypsum is white but in parts of the cave, the gypsum has turned black because it readily absorbs the soot of torches, oil lamps and candles.
From the artifacts that have been found it is known that the natives mined the gypsum but they are not sure why, perhaps for paint. He also pointed out that obviously gypsum (calcium sulfate) is used for wallboard but that humans consume about 12 pounds in a year since it is added to many food products such as tofu, beer, baked goods, cereals, etc. because it acts as a preservative, anti-caking agent and anti-foaming agent.
Another interesting tidbit that Rick mentioned was that a few perfectly preserved mummy’s were discovered in the cave – the very dry and temperature stable climate was ideal for mummification and preservation. For a number of years one beautiful specimen was on display on one of the rock ledges. Then some one got greedy and decided to take it on tour, removing it from the cave. Soon thereafter, natural decay began to take place, eventually destroying the specimen.
From here it was time to head back to the entrance. Believe it or not, this was the toughest part, climbing up the stairs at the historic entrance and then up the very steep hill back to the Visitor’s Center. Luckily it was a cool beautiful day!
What a great tour! Not only did we get to see one of Mother Nature’s wonders but we also were given a lot of fascinating information provided by Ranger Rick! And our day wasn’t over yet – Rob convinced me that we should take another tour that afternoon at 1:45 p.m. – the New Entrance Tour. More about that later!
It was only 10:30 a.m. but since we had had a very light breakfast, we were hungry so we walked across the bridge to the Mammoth Cave Hotel where they have two restaurants – The Crystal Coffee Shop and the Travertine Restaurant. It was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch so we decided to take a quick walk (yeah, like we needed to walk some more) down the Heritage Trail next to the hotel.
Returning back to the hotel, we were told that the Travertine wouldn’t open until 11:30 a.m. Since it was only 11:00 a.m., we decided to grab a quick bite at the Coffee Shop. I had a Pineapple Mango Chicken wrap and Rob had a taco salad. Both were quite good!
Out of the original nine ferries that provided this service many years ago, there are only two operational ferries left, the Green River Ferry and the Houchins Ferry. After watching the ferry make it 100 yard run back and forth for awhile, we finally decided to ride it to the other side. It only holds three vehicles and besides the ferry operator, there are no other crew members. A paddle wheel like setup for propulsion is powered by a propane fueled electric generator. Overhead steel cables guide the boat back and forth and prevent it from drifting downstream. Pretty interesting operation. The trip takes about 2 minutes and is no charge.
When it was time to start heading back to the Visitor Center, we took a ride on Flint Ridge Road. Pretty drive through the woods but lots of twists and turns. Eventually we came to the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church which was built in 1827 and the associated Mammoth Cave cemetery. There wasn’t much to see here so we headed back.
By the time we were near the Visitor Center, we were both feeling the impact of our lunch, the sun and lack of sleep (due to trains) so we pulled into a picnic area across from the Visitor Center, reclined our seats in the Odyssey and promptly both fell asleep. Good thing Rob had set the alarm on his phone, otherwise we probably would have missed the next tour!