Under a swath of Kentucky hills and hollows is a limestone labyrinth that became the heartland of a national park that was established on 1 July 1941. The surface of Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses about 80 square miles. No one knows how big the underside is. More than 365 miles of the five-level cave system has been mapped, and new caves are continually being discovered. Two layers of stone underlie Mammoth’s hilly woodlands. A sandstone and shale cap, as thick as 50 feet in places, acts as an umbrella over limestone ridges. The umbrella leaks at places called sinkholes, from which surface water makes its way underground, eroding the limestone into a honeycomb of caverns. Mammoth, the world’s longest known cave system, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the core area of an international biosphere reserve, still is as “grand, gloomy, and peculiar” as it was when Stephen Bishop, a young slave and early guide, described it. By a flickering lard-oil lamp he found and mapped some of Mammoth’s passages. Bishop died in 1857. His grave, like his life, is part of Mammoth; it lies in the Old Guide’s Cemetery near the entrance.
Most visitors see the eerie beauty of the caverns on some of the 10 miles of passages available for tours. Rangers dispense geological lore and tell tales about real and imagined happenings 200 or 300 feet down. The tours are hikes inside the Earth; uphill stretches can be hard going for some visitors. Few seem frightened; people terrified by darkness or tight spots naturally avoid caves. Rangers say they rarely have problems guiding the 390,000 men, women, and children who venture below yearly. Mammoth does not glamorize the underworld with garish lighting. You never forget that you are deep in the Earth. And nowhere else can you get a better lesson in the totality of darkness and the miracle of light. Usually, on a tour a ranger gathers everyone and, after a warning, switches off the lights. The darkness is sudden, absolute. Then the ranger lights a match and the tiny dot of light magically spreads, illuminating a circle of astonished faces.
Mammoth Cave, nine miles northwest of I-65, is nearly equidistant (about 85 miles) between Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. From the south, take the exit at Park City and head northwest on Ky. 255 to the park; from the north, take the exit at Cave City and head northwest on Ky. 70 to the park. Airports: Nashville, Tenn. and Louisville, Ky. The park can be visited year-round. Underground, all days are about the same; temperatures in interior passages fluctuate from the mid-50s to the low 60s. Summer brings the most people, and frequent tours are offered. Though there are fewer tours the rest of the year, they are less crowded. The tours vary greatly; pick ones to fit your time and stamina. All require you to purchase a ticket. Reservations are strongly advised in summer, on holidays, and on spring and fall weekends. For a half-day visit, you might take the Historic Tour, which combines geology with Mammoth’s rich history, or the challenging Introduction to Caving Tour. If you plan to stay longer, consider the fairly strenuous four-mile Grand Avenue Tour (there are three steep hills, each nearly 90 feet high). To enjoy the caves safely and comfortably, wear shoes with non-skid soles and take a jacket. Complete your underground trips with a river trip or a walk on the River Styx Spring Trail. The least arduous cave tour (0.25 mile, 75 minutes) is the Frozen Niagara Tour. A modified version of the tour has only six steps each way (plus an optional 49) and is designed for visitors who want a short and easy trip. The toughest challenge is the five-mile, six-hour, belly-crawling Wild Cave Tour, offered daily in summer and weekends year-round. By reservation. Credit: National Geographic.