Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky
Gorp.com
Frozen Niagara in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky (Nancy Nehring/Photodisc/Getty)
Mammoth Cave National Park

Established: 1941
Acreage: 52,830
Average Yearly Visitors: 1,899,000
Location: South-central Kentucky, 90 miles from Louisville, 100 miles from Nashville

Contact Details
Mammoth Cave National Park
P.O. Box 7
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
Phone: 270-758-2180

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From the beginning, underground explorers doubted that they would ever find the end of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. With more than 365 miles explored and 379 feet deep, Mammoth Cave is known as the longest cave in the world—the Ukrainian cave Optimisticeskaya comes in a distant second at just a quarter of Mammoth's length—and exploration continues on today.

In Mammoth's vast subterranean world, there are giant vertical shafts, from the towering 192-foot-high Mammoth Dome to the 105-foot-deep Bottomless Pit. Some passages and rooms are decorated with sparkling white gypsum crystals, while others are filled with the colorful, sculpted shapes of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. Underground rivers with names like Echo River and the River Styx flow through Mammoth's deepest chambers. And in the cave's absolute blackness dwell many rare and unusual animals, including eyeless fish, ghostly white spiders, and blind beetles.

One early visitor recalled his tour of the cave: "No ray of light but the glimmer of our lamps; no sound but the echo of our own steps; nothing but darkness, silence, immensity."

While most visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park come to view its subterranean wonders, its surface beauty should not be overlooked. Above ground, Mammoth offers 52,830 acres of scenic parkland perfect for hiking, fishing, paddling, and wildlife viewing—including Big Woods, a 300-acre old-growth forest. Along with the plant and animal life common to an eastern hardwood forest, the park is home to a number of atypical plant communities, which support some rare and endangered species.

In 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was established to preserve its maze of passages, cavernous domes and pits, underground rivers and lakes, unusual animals and plants, beautiful navigable rivers, and rugged topography. Visitors still come by the thousands, drawn by the dark frontier that is Mammoth Cave.

Cave on the Wild Side
Family friendly tours highlight Mammoth Cave's history of mining and exploration, as well as the history of its amazing geology. The park also offers three wild caving tours for would-be spelunkers. Unlike a developed show-cave tour, a wild tour offers no man-made paths and no installed lights. Cavers go fully equipped—flashlights, hard hat, headlamp, boots, and knee pads—and get down and dirty, slogging through muddy tunnels and squeezing through cramped crawl spaces.

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Hike for Sinkholes
Besides the incredible caverns below, Mammoth's surface acreage includes large tracts of second-growth oak and hickory woodlands, sinkhole-ridden karst topography—the limestone foundation for Mammoth's underground wonders—and modest wetlands. About 70 miles of trails wind through the park, most of them open to hikers and horseback riders. The Maple Spring Trailhead serves as a jumping-off point for a number of the park's North Side backcountry trails, such as Sal Hollow Trail (nine miles), which winds past a wild cave, sinkholes, and springs. Ganter Cave Trail, a Sal Hollow offshoot, leads to the park's longest wild cave (8,000 feet) on the north side of the Green River—it's the only chance for small groups to go spelunking on their own. The North Side's Good Spring Loop Trail (eight miles) traverses the park's rolling, oak-covered hills, running alongside streams and waterfalls and past small caves.

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Catch a Mammoth Fish
Anglers will find good fishing in Mammoth throughout the year, with spring and summer being most productive. Black bass, crappie, bluegill, muskellunge, and catfish—not to mention almost 100 other species—frequent the Green and Nolin Rivers. Nolin River supports an unusual diversity of fish—including five species found nowhere else in the world—as well as three species of cave fish. Over 70 species of freshwater mussels, including three endangered ones, can be found in Green River. Nolin Lake's tailwaters (just north of the park) are stocked with nonnative rainbow trout. State creel and size limits apply, but a Kentucky fishing license isn't needed inside the park.

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Add to Your Life List
Mammoth Cave National Park is home to more than 200 species of birds, making it one of the best sites for birding in the United States. Spotted thus far in the park: 37 species of warbler (11 of these actually nesting in Mammoth), barred owl, horned owl, pileated woodpecker, scarlet tanager, sparrow, and wild turkey. Besides more common park inhabitants such as the great blue heron, the red-tailed hawk, the spotted sandpiper, and the belted kingfisher, Mammoth also receives a number of rare visitors: the snow goose, the double-crested cormorant, the bald eagle, the osprey, and the snowy owl. The bird-watching near Green River is notable for both variety and diversity. As elsewhere, the early watcher (i.e. at sunrise) spots the bird.

Paddle the Cave Maker
Within the boundaries of Mammoth Cave National Park, 25 miles of the Green River and six miles of the Nolin River carry boaters past dramatic bluffs, scenic woodlands, and wildlife. Boating from Dennison Ferry Campground to Houchins Ferry down the Green—the very waterway that shaped the cave system of Mammoth some 300 million years ago—is a popular, six-hour voyage. The access at Dennison is steep and therefore suitable for small johnboats and canoes only. For a longer, overnight trip, launch at Munfordville —located upstream from the park boundary. No launch fees are necessary in the park, but riverside camping requires a backcountry permit. Dotted within sandbars, islands, and subsurface springs, the Green River averages 200 feet wide and ten feet deep; at normal water levels, it runs at about five miles per hour. Motorized craft are permitted, although canoes—available for rental outside Mammoth—and rowboats fare better against the rocks in Nolin River.

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