Now that we were well fed and well rested, it was time to head back to the Visitor Center and over to Shelter B where we would meet with a park ranger for the New Entrance Tour. In the brochure, the description reads “includes a dramatic series of domes and pits, typical large trunk passageways, a short journey through dripstone formations and stairs, stairs, and stairs! (Small children may find this trip overly challenging). Duration:2 hours, 3/4 mile; Tour Limit: 114 people, Total stairs: 500 including 280 on initial descent. Elevation change: 250′; Difficulty: Moderate”. The cost was $12/person ($6 for each of us with the Senior Pass).
Well, if the brochure wasn’t enough to scare you, then perhaps listening to the ranger, Terry, was supposed to. As he so gently put it “if you have a heart or lung condition, breathing problems, circulation problems, have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, have knee or back problems, have had any recent surgeries or if you suffer from claustrophobia, acrophobia (fear of heights) or pantophobia (fear of everything), then this tour is not for you! If anything happens during the tour be assured that it would take hours to get you out of the cave and to a hospital!”
GULP!!! Amazingly no one (including nervous little ol’ me) walked out! He then went on with the usual safety precautions, the bio security mat procedure to prevent white nose syndrome and the usual do not touch anything except for the handrail instructions (except if you are about to take a nosedive and need to grab a rock, then it’s okay). Despite the fact that the brochure says that small children may find this trip overly challenging, there were quite a few waiting with their parents, some probably as young as 2 or 3 years old (more on this later).
Once we were done with all of that, they loaded all of us into 3 buses for the 15-20 minute drive to the New Entrance. On the map, it is located on the far right hand side. Actually because of the number of people on this tour, in addition to Terry, Rick, the ranger who was our guide on the Mammoth Passage tour in the morning was there to “bring up the rear” and make sure no one was left behind.
Why is it called the New Entrance? In the 1920’s, an oilman by the name of George Morrison became interested in the cave and wanted to find a new entrance. Eventually he learned of a sink hole where boys would play because of the cool air so Morrison bought the property and blasted what he termed “the New Entrance to the Cave”. Exploration eventually revealed that this entrance directly connected to Mammoth Cave. It’s been called the New Entrance ever since. There are 25 known entrances to the cave with 15 of them being natural entrances and the other 10 man made.
Once we arrived and unloaded off the buses, we were given more safety reminders (like stop if you want to take a picture, don’t walk with a camera in your face) and then we were herded over to the entrance doorway. Just as a note of interest, unlike the natural historic entrance, an airlock has been installed at this entrance (as well as all other man made entrances) to restore cave atmospheric conditions.
EGADS! The entrance was only about 15″ wide! Once you squeezed inside, if you looked down all you could see were lots and lots and lots of narrow metal steps (the steps used to be wood) with a metal handrail and jutting, dripping rocks on both sides! I can see why he said that this was not the tour for anyone with claustrophobia!
Everyone in single file began their descent down the long, what seemed never ending 280 steps bringing us down 250 feet below the surface. At the widest these steps were only 15″, steep and twisty. How parents could maneuver these steps and carry their kids is beyond me. In some places it was so narrow that you had to turn sideways to fit through the opening. Before we began our descent, Terry gave us the good news – we would not have to climb these stairs to exit the cave. Whew what a relief that was!
So down, down, down, down we went. After about 20 minutes we finally reached the end of the stairs. Halleluiah! Here there were rows of benches so we all sat down and listened while Terry explained that it took the original explorers two full weeks using ropes and such to make the same descent that we did in those 20 minutes.
The steps and railings were a marvel in and of themselves considering the tight quarters. They are made of all stainless steel with mesh treads (to let the dripping water pass thru) and a 2″ rail. It took well over a year to construct these steps but we don’t recall the time frame in which they were built. The original steps were made of wood and were probably very dangerous to navigate.
Terry then talked about the 130 forms of life found in the cave which we had heard about during the morning’s tour. We felt bad for him because the entire time that he was talking, some little kid near the front was screaming. Ranger Rick finally went up there and successfully distracted the kid with his flashlight which kept him quiet for awhile.
Seated in front of me was a little boy, probably about 3 – 4 years old who kept squirming on the bench and talking. Now, this is an area where my better half (in this instance I’ll admit it he is “better”) has a lot more patience than I do – he can totally ignore the distraction but for whatever reason I can’t seem to do that (maybe when I grow up I will – LOL). So I probably missed half of what Terry was saying because of the distracting screaming, squirmy kids.
(This is why we suggest you take the early tour – first one of the day is best – far fewer participants, less likelihood of undisciplined juvenile annoyances and not as many cameras with flashes going off in your fully dilated eyes.)
What Terry did next was really cool! Luckily he warned us first – on the count of three, he turned off all the lights. I don’t think I’ve ever been in absolute total darkness before. After the first “oooohhhhs” and “aaaahhhhs” were over, he asked everyone to be quiet. Total blackness and total silence! The saying goes that silence is deafening – it was (well all 5 seconds of it until the screaming kids started up again). As he explained, there are very few places on earth where you have an opportunity to experience that.
When he was finished, we proceeded up more stairs, heading towards the “Frozen Niagara” section of the cave which is where most of the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, soda straws, draperies, and other formations are found.
Just before we arrived at Frozen Niagara, Terry told us that we could either continue on the path towards the exit or we had the option of descending 59 steps to view the “Drapery”. We chose to descend the additional steps. Well worth the few extra steps!
We then proceeded to walk past more stalagmites and stalactites as we made our way out to the entrance where we boarded the bus to head back to the visitor center.
Note: Terry gave us a good mnemonic; stalactites stick “tite” to the ceiling, stalagmites “mite” reach the ceiling someday.
There really are no words or photos that can describe the magnificence and beauty of these caves! It’s like looking at pictures of the Grand Canyon – it’s just one of those places you have to see in person to really appreciate.
Note that unlike some of the caverns we have been to in Virginia, there aren’t all that many “features” and “formations” – remember this is now a dry cave that was formed by rivers which have moved on to lower levels. The magnificence is in the vastness and size of the “rooms” below the ground as well as the unique ecology.