February 2, 2012

An Underground Labyrinth

I’ll start out by admitting that I’m not all that fond of caves.  I’ve toured a few caves over the years, but only because they were in national parks.  Mammoth Cave National Park, however, has been on my bucket list for some time, and Tim and I spent the entire day at the park.

Mammoth Cave National Park contains the most extensive cave system in the world.  Almost 400 miles of passageways have been surveyed, which is twice as long as any other known cave.  It is likely that twice that many additional miles have yet to be explored.  The rooms and passageways here are vast, hence the name “Mammoth.”  Mammoth Cave has been a tourist attraction since 1816.

This is a perfect time of year to visit Mammoth Cave, since the crowds are almost nonexistent.  I can’t imagine being on a tour with 120 other people.  Talk about experiencing claustrophobia.  We took two tours today, and there was only one other couple on our afternoon tour.  It was like having a private tour, and even the ranger enjoyed the small size.

Tim and I decided to take both of the two-hour, general tours that are offered in the winter.  The Historic Tour began at the natural entrance to Mammoth Cave and followed the route that has been followed since the 1800s.  We learned how the cave was a source for saltpeter during the War of 1812, heard about the early tour guides and the stories they told and witnessed the “historic” graffiti on the walls.  Adding one’s name to the cave walls was a popular component of the early tours.  We squeezed our way through Fat Man’s Misery and gazed down at Sidesaddle and Bottomless Pits.

The Natural Entrance
Saltpeter Operations
Historic Graffiti
One of the Early Tour Guides Signed His Name
Vast Passageways Distinguish Mammoth Cave
Sidesaddle Pit
Bottomless Pit
Our afternoon New Entrance tour began at a more remote entrance that was discovered in the 1920s.  Here we made our way down 280 twisting and turning stairs through a slim, vertical shaft into an open area known as Grand Central Station.  We saw domes and pits and walked through huge passageways where rivers once flowed.  For me, the highlight of the tour was Frozen Niagara, the most decorative area of Mammoth Cave.

Unlike most other caves like Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave has few decorative areas of stalactites, stalagmites, draperies and other dripstone formations.  Instead, it is known for its length and size.  Although those elements were certainly impressive, I prefer to be “rewarded” with “pretty” formations if I’m going to drag myself into a cave.  That said, I really did enjoy both tours, and the small size of our groups made the visit that much more pleasant.

Water Created Frozen Niagara
Features at Frozen Niaagra 
Dripstone Formations
More Dripstone Formations


  1. I am surprised Tim went in. I will tell the story when you get here. Love A

    1. A, Well, you have certainly aroused my curiosity. Tim can't seem to remember a thing, so I am so looking forward to hearing the story. Sarah

  2. Wow - Glad you summoned up the courage to go and take these beautiful pics. I'm thinking how brave the first people to go into them must have been! :-) LV

    1. LV, How true! Our guide turned off the lights at one point, and it was total and complete darkness. I never would have had the nerve to enter a cave with only a kerosene lantern for light. Sarah