Directly south of Louisville, just off Interstate 65 and not far from Cave City, Mammoth Cave National Park sits nestled in the rolling, wooded hills of west-central Kentucky. Cedar trees dominate the landscape around the park, broken only by grazing cattle, small tobacco fields, and immense limestone outcroppings.
Limestone is what makes this area special—a 600-foot thick slab of the stuff. Looking at the many road-cuts along the highway, one can see the layers, each possessing its own characteristics and each named after the location where these characteristics were identified: St. Genevieve, St. Louis, Paoli, Aux Vases, Karnak. Each layer is incredibly older than its sibling just above. And limestone is where Kentucky caves are formed.
Once inside the park, the scenery changes from touristy to natural beauty. Well-groomed roads with wide, grassy shoulders wind through deep forest. Whitetail deer browse the edges of ancient cemeteries and wild turkey are everywhere. Mammoth Cave is one of the most beautiful in our national park system. Sprawling over more than 52,000 acres (most of it dense hardwood forest) the park features a diverse community of plants and wildlife; from the smallest insects, to birds, to aquatic life, to cave life. It is home to dozens of endangered or threatened species.
In spite of hosting two million visitors a year, the roads through Mammoth Cave National Park are surprisingly free of traffic. But near the visitor center, there is a constant bustle of activity, where campers, picnickers, and cave tourists crowd through the visitor center and ticket office. Every few minutes, loudspeakers announce the beginning of the next tour and groups of strangers form lines to become fellow travelers through a section of the cave.
During the summer, the park offers tours into several different entrances and family groups huddle around descriptive signs planning this portion of their summer vacation. The most popular is the Historic Tour. Starting every 40 minutes, over a hundred people herd through the historic section of the cave. The Lantern Tour, Frozen Niagara, and Half-Day tours are sold out every day throughout the tourist season. Occasionally the park gives tours into Great Onyx Cave, but those arriving too late in the day, or those that choose not to go on a guided tour can opt for the Discovery tour — a self guided walk through the historic section near the entrance.
Of the hundreds of caves that pock the hills and valleys of the park, many are worthy of the tourist dollar. Crystal Cave, Colossal, Bedquilt, Lee, White, and others—now, all gated. The park no longer shows these caves. And when hiking the 73 miles of surface trails in the park, one must be mindful to stay on the established trails. Poking around in one of the little caves along the way is strictly forbidden. There are plenty of tours to keep even the most adventurous of tourists busy.
Of all the parks protected by our national park system, Mammoth Cave is certainly one of the most beautiful and one of the most popular. A great vacation destination.
Norm Rogers is the author of Underground Legacy, a Fellow of the National Speleological Society, and member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. You can visit his website at http://www.normrogers.8m.com/