Sometime about a year ago our youngest daughter, Emma (now 11) declared her love for rocks. One day, at our cabin (the real one, not the Tin Cabin) she decided to go outside looking for something to do and came across landscaping rocks we had placed around the perimeter of the home. She spent hours looking through the different rocks. It was then that she found her newfound hobby of rock collecting. Her all time favorite is fluorite and bismuth. She received this bismuth rock for her birthday and wow, you have never seen a child so happy!
For her birthday this year, we decided what better gift than to take her to a giant underground rock– Mammoth Cave National Park. The history of Mammoth Cave is impressive. I won’t include it in this blog post, but hop on over here if you want to read all about it, or, you can check out this book here to get an idea of how sprawling Mammoth Cave really is. What I will say is Mammoth Cave it is the longest known cave in the WORLD (impressive, right?) with over 400 miles of explored cave– 10 of which you can explore guided with park rangers. One last fact: did you know that cave exploring is called spelunking?! It’s my new favorite word.
If the thought of climbing into a very dark, wet, cavernous space sounds like your idea of a great adventure, Mammoth Cave National Park is for you. Or, of course, if you’re like me and the thought of crawling into a dark, drippy, tight space makes you want to run for the hills, no worries– the majority of the Mammoth Cave Tours are large, sprawling, wide open spaces that don’t feel claustrophobic at all.
We chose the Frozen Niagara tour for our first day (this is a smaller, tight space, which I admit that I chickened out on). We met at the Visitor Center and took a short bus ride to the entrance to the cave. The full trip from getting on the bus to getting off of the bus took about an hour. The actual cave tour itself was about 30 minutes. The park rangers are so kind of knowledgeable. Our rangers told us that the majority of the sprawling cave is NOT like what is seen on the Frozen Niagara tour with stalactites and stalagmites. It is considered an easy tour, with not many stairs (12, to be precise!)
If a place where you have to duck, twist and watch your head for stone icicles and remain fairly confined isn't for you, then you may want to consider the self-guided Discovery tour. We did this on our second day visiting the caves. It was incredible, and claustrophobia friendly. There is a nice walk down a gradual paved hill that leads to the sprawling entrance to the cave. We spent about 45 minutes on this tour. There is nothing small and closed in feeling about this tour at all. There are large, open walkways and people with claustrophobia shouldn't have any issues.
We went during Spring Break, but were pleasantly surprised that there weren’t huge crowds, and parking was easy (and free!) It is advised to purchase tour tickets weeks ahead of time on their website. We purchased our Frozen Niagara tour just over a month in advance. We were able to purchase the Discovery self-guided tour in person the same day.
If you’re into rocks as much as our Emma is, we highly suggest skipping the gift shop at the national park, and heading to Cave City (a short 10 minute drive) to go to Mike’s Rock Shop.
Most people who visit the caves usually choose to stay at the campgrounds or nearby Bowling Green, KY. We chose to stay in Nashville, TN which I wouldn't necessarily advocate for, but we couldn’t take the Airstream as we don’t have our trailer plates yet, and we had travel points so we got to stay at the Gaylord Opryland for free! It was about an hour and a half away, and Nashville traffic isn’t awesome.
Overall, Mammoth Caves was really impressive. I would have loved to have had more time to do the Historical Tour. This is a trip that is great for all ages and ability levels (though you might consider investing in some hiking shoes if you do any of the longer tours). If you’re really into spelunking, you could make a week long vacation of it. There are so many other caves around to explore as well– Diamond Caverns, Lost River Cave, Crystal Onyx Cave, and so many others. Next time, we will definitely be taking the Airstream (there are a handful of campgrounds in the area). Have you been to Mammoth Cave before? What did you think? We want to know!
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