The hills of Kentucky conceal what has so far proven to be, the longest cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave has been mapped and explored to a length of over 359 miles, and is thought to extend to well over 600 miles. Mammoth is not alone here; the whole area is riddled with caves. Many are commercially run, and it may be that, in years to come, connections will be found between these, and Mammoth.
The park itself has a very secluded, natural feel to it; but it is only a 20 minute drive to the freeway. At the freeway ramp is a tourists Mecca. There are numerous motels, fast food stops, gas stations, and convenience stores, as well as rock shops, general stores, and the usual tourist traps. There is an amusement park, some miniature golf, and all of the expected souvenir shops. This should not be a huge surprise, as Mammoth is kentucky's number one tourist attraction. The area around the freeway reminds me a bit of that of the Wisconsin Dells, or Branson Missouri. What is surprising, is that all of this is kept far enough from the park, to prevent any spillover.
As extensive, and spectacular as they are, the caves of Mammoth are not the only reason that people come to the park. The place is known for it's bridle paths, riding trails, hiking, boating, and historical sites. Even if there were no caves, there should still be a park here. Away from the freeway, you would think that you were out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest convenience. Though we had quite the selection of lodging by the highway, we decided to stay in the park.
The Hotel in Mammoth is probably the best place to stay. It is in the park, near the cave entrances, just across a little bridge from park headquarters, and is not particularly expensive. It is a brick structure with a two story wing of rooms, as well as a restaurant, coffee shop, and a pair of gift shops. There is also an annex, of larger rooms, off across the parking lot. The rooms in the back are the best, with those on the second floor being preferable to those on the first. This is where our rooms were. The location gave us each a nice balcony, overlooking a trail winding through the wooded hills.
The Rooms themselves are nice, in the tradition of the classic motels of the fifties/sixties. They are also clean, and well tended. There is cable; but it is fairly limited, which is a good thing. There are too many better things to do, than to lay around the room all day, watching cable. We spent two days here, and were comfortable, and relaxed in our rooms. The only exception to this was that, on the second night, we went out to the freeway to get ourselves some fast food (Kentucky Fried Chicken, of you must know), and to stock up on soft drinks. Everything in the park closes early, encouraging an early to bed, early to rise schedule, from the visitor.
The hotel generally has a breakfast buffet; but during our stay, there were not enough registered guests. The main room and lobby are very nice, and the staff is quite friendly. I don't work for the hotel; but was taken back by the contrast between it, and the facilities at Carlsbad the month before. Carlsbad has no guest facilities within it's borders, and the lodging at adjacent White's City is adequate at best. In contrast, to the wilds of New Mexico, Kentucky is well traveled, well populated, and well settled.
In addition to the quiet, the seclusion of the park provides a marvelous night sky, and wonderful air. The surrounding woods add the perfect touch. Unfortunately on this, my first visit, I only had two days. Future visits are planned, and I hope to aquant myself with the countryside, and with all that there is to do out in the woods of Kentucky.
As with most caves, access is by guided tour. There is no admission fee, to enter the park; but ticket purchases are required for visits to the various parts of the cave. Tickets may be ordered on line, over the phone, or at a ticket office in the park HQ. Some of the tours overlap, so you may wish to check with the rangers, or other staff, if booking multiple tours. As an example, the Historic tour includes and extends the sights seen on the Discovery Tour, as does the Star Chamber Tour, while the Frozen Niagara Tour includes everything seen on the much shorter Travertine Tour. Tickets are remarkably cheap, as are the costs on all services in the park.
Several of the tours are staged at the natural entrance, which is in pretty close proximity to park headquarters. For the rest, there are buses which take the visitor off to one of a number of other entrances to the cave system. The buses are comfortable enough, and the rides are not very long. Riding through the pleasant hills of the Kentucky woods is hardly a hardship, and the ride only adds to the anticipation of what might be found down in the caves.
The caves are protected by the park service; but are hardly pristine, at least in certain sections. Parts of the cave have been extensively mined, used as a hospital, as a hiding place for slaves and outlaws, and even as a burial ground for some ancient tribes. This is the second oldest tourist attraction, in the country, behind Niagara Falls. The first tours of the cave were offered in 1816, and included a boat ride on an underground river (no longer offered, due to preservation efforts).
This is an extensive cave system with many caves and many entrances. Not all can be visited. There are some wild cave tours available for the adventurous. Most have physical requirements, which are listed on the park website. Portions of the caves are open only to researchers, or to official exploration. In 1990, the cave was declared an international preserve, due in large part to the over 130 species of animals and insects, some of which are found nowhere else.
A list of requirements is on the park website, for visitation of the caves. In many ways, caves are an alien environment, and humans are a discordant element. The park does not allow food or drink, other than bottled water, in the caves. Everything taken in, must be taken out. Needless to say, in that spirit, there are no rest rooms down there, and the tours can sometimes last for a couple of hours. Cameras are allowed; but tripods are not permitted, and the rangers sometimes do not allow flash photography. It is also emphasized that visitors must be in reasonably good physical condition. Unlike Carlsbad, there are no elevators here. If you can not go down, and then back up, the stairs, and paths leading to the caves, you should not take the tours. Even for this, though, there is an exception. The Travertine Tour has few steps, is very short, and offers a journey through a very impressive portion of the cave. There is even a special tour, just for children.