Explore the Underground World of Mammoth Cave National Park
For a fun, educational experience, check out Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s the longest cave system on Earth and a UNESCO world heritage site. It covers more than 52,000 acres or 400 miles. Several tours are available, and you can learn about the long history of the area. Here’s some more information about Mammoth Cave National Park.
The history of the Mammoth Cave system dates back almost as far as human civilization, spanning over 5,000 years. Mammoth Cave National Park was a traditional burial location that people used continuously for centuries, and archeologists have found several remains of indigenous tribe members inside. They’re some of the oldest mummified remains left by indigenous tribes in North America.
One of the people who lived in Mammoth Cave is now called Lost John. This pre-Columbian indigenous miner lost his life in a cave collapse. His remains were on display in a viewing area for the public. However, people have now laid him to rest in a secret location in the cave system out of respect for the funerary practices and spiritual beliefs of his tribe.
People also used the Mammoth Cave system for food storage and shelter. Eventually, the people there switched from hunting and gathering to plant domestication and agriculture. For reasons entirely unknown to researchers and scientists, Mammoth Cave and its surrounding cave system fell out of use at the end of the Archaic Period, around 2,500 years ago.
Exploration and Surveying
British and American settlers made claims related to Mammoth Cave in the area’s early colonial history, but no one had surveyed the cave system until the Houchin brothers, Francis and John, in 1797. According to local legends, one of the brothers was hunting in the forest near the main cave entrance. He wounded a bear and chased it into the caves.
There’s also a version of the story where the brother who was hunting the bear failed to kill it and was actually chased into the caves by the bear. He escaped to safety through the cave system’s many passageways. No one is sure which tale is true.
Explorer Valentine Simons conducted the first officially registered survey of the cave system in 1798. After discovering them through the survey, he also took advantage of the system’s plentiful saltpeter resources to make gunpowder.
The Economic Importance of Mammoth Cave National Park
The saltpeter deposits originally discovered by Valentine Simons changed hands repeatedly until Thomas Jefferson signed the Jefferson Embargo Act of 1807. It prohibited all foreign trade until the passage of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. This act lifted most previous embargoes, but it kept them in effect against the British and French. Mammoth Cave remained in American hands, and its high saltpeter content increased its value immensely during the War of 1812. The cave system is still important to the region’s economy today. According to the National Park Service (NPS), in 2019, 552,000 visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park spent $48.1 million in communities nearby.
The Area’s Environmental Importance
Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest cave habitat on Earth, and its environmental importance is hard to overestimate. It includes the scenic river valleys of the Green and Nolin rivers and some of the hilly landscape of south-central Kentucky. Many species of animals and plants live here, including the eastern pipistrelle bat, the big brown bat, the little brown bat, the Indiana bat, and the gray bat. You can also find two species of eyeless cave fish, Typhlichthys subterraneus and Amblyopsis spelaea.
The Kentucky Cave Wars
When tourists first started coming to the area, tour guides and their companies became involved in a bitter, intense conflict. Different groups claimed territory within today’s Mammoth Cave National Park as their own, often employing creative and deceptive tactics to take customers from their competition. Some guides placed signs on the routes of other guides, directing tourists toward their own area of control. Others placed fake notices of official cave closure “for safety reasons” outside of their competition’s cave entrances, diverting customers to their own territory.
After the original set of guides and company owners died, many citizens of the surrounding areas of Kentucky established the Mammoth Cave National Park Association in 1926. The Federal government authorized the park in 1941.
Present-Day Park Amenities
Mammoth Cave National Park hosts tourists and campers from all over the world. Camping areas with central water systems and dump stations are available, and the park is handicapped-accessible. Whether it’s a service animal or not, you can feel free to bring your pet inside. The guided cave tours are very popular, so it’s a good idea to reserve your ticket as soon as possible. Numerous tours are available, including fully wheelchair-accessible, short or long walking, lantern, adventurous crawling, and self-guided tours.
The short walking tours usually last around one or two hours, and long walking tours can stretch for as long as six hours. During lantern tours, every participant holds their own lantern for light. The self-guided tour covers three-quarters of a mile. It takes about an hour and a half and includes 130 stairs. Touring season runs from June to Aug. 27, and difficulties range from easy to very strenuous. You can check the website to see which tours are on the schedule.
Some routes are occasionally closed for maintenance, and some require a short bus ride to get to the cave entrance. Flash photography, strollers, large backpacks, and similar items aren’t allowed to preserve the area’s natural beauty.
The same Mammoth Cave tours are available during both time periods but a
t different hours. Tour difficulties range from easy to moderate and strenuous, so make sure you choose a difficulty that everyone in your party can handle. The wheelchair-accessible tour zone is closed regularly due to the need for maintenance. Call ahead to make sure it is open before purchasing a ticket if that is your preferred tour.
Along with exploring caves, Mammoth Cave National Park is a great place for hiking, horseback riding, biking, picnicking, camping, canoeing, fishing, and scenic drives. Which activities at Mammoth Cave National Park do you like best? Contact us and let us know what your favorite activities are.