I had always thought that, due to its location, Mammoth Cave would be one of the last national parks I would get around to visiting. It’s no American Samoa to be sure, but when would I get to western Kentucky? And then I had a stroke of genius: I would take advantage of a business trip to Indianapolis to make a grand sweep across Kentucky, through the Smoky Mountains, to the Carolina coast, where I had long been promising to visit my aunt and uncle. Another stroke of good fortune came when I was able to convince my sister to join me.*
The Saturday of our visit being the running of the Kentucky Derby, I wasn’t sure whether the park would be more or less crowded than usual, but I took no chances and reserved our selected tour well in advance. Although I made my plans for the night before and after accordingly, what I hadn’t realized was that Mammoth Cave, unlike Louisville (which is almost due north of the park), is in the Central Time Zone. This is well marked on the official website, but only on the hours of operation page, and I had gone straight to the tour descriptions. In any case, after hightailing it out of our Bardstown B&B, much to the consternation of our host, we arrived with well over an hour to wait.
As the world’s longest known cave system, with close to 400 miles of cave to explore and numerous entrances, Mammoth Cave offers fifteen to twenty different tours, including the Violet City Lantern Tour, which recreates the lantern-light tours of the 1800s, and the Wild Cave Tour, which involves headlamps, freehold climbs, and crawling on your belly.
We selected the Grand Avenue Tour, which is about 4 miles in length and lasts about 4½ hours. It was marked as difficult, and there were a few steep hills, but mostly the only difficulty was that it was slippery in a few places. I’m not sorry to have picked this tour, but it was long and by far the most interesting section was at the end, at Frozen Niagara, which you can do as a separate, shorter tour.
Grand Avenue was good to get a sense of the size of the cave system, and it was fun to eat in the Snowball Room, but I think I might recommend doing a combination of the Frozen Niagara Tour and the Historic Tour instead.
For those wondering, we didn’t really see many critters, although there were a few tiny bats sleeping at the entrance. A number of wild turkeys were spotted throughout the grounds. Sadly, these were not bottles of bourbon, but actual turkeys.
*She keeps lists too, but is more concerned with hitting all the states, Kentucky being one of the five she hadn’t visited.