Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest cave system. Mammoth Cave currently has 405 miles of documented cave within its system. It is still being explored and more tunnels are being discovered. Mammoth Cave is a great place to visit for an easy to explore cave with many interesting rock features. We visited a couple of summers ago and explored the self guided area near the Historic Entrance and took the 4 hour long Mammoth Cave Grand Avenue Tour.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is located about 90 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky. There are several campgrounds inside Mammoth Cave National Park. There are towns nearby with hotels. We stopped on the way home to Michigan from Lake Cumberland so we did experience the campgrounds or any local accommodations.
Mammoth Cave Facts
The cave is 405 miles long. The areas of the cave accessible to the public are between 100 and 300 feet below the surface. The temperature inside the cave is 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Cave temperatures tend to be the average year round temperature of where they are located.
History of Mammoth Cave
Native American artifacts dating 5000 years old have been discovered inside Mammoth Cave. The cave has a very storied history. It has served as a Native American burial ground, a tuberculosis hospital, it has been mined for several minerals and it has been a concert hall. Mammoth Cave was designated as a National Park in 1941. To learn more about Mammoth Cave click here.
What can you bring with you inside the cave
Currently, you can bring food and water with you inside the cave but you most dispose of all your waste. No littering, please. You are not allowed to bring tripods, walking sticks, weapons, or large backpacks into the cave. Tri-pods would truly make taking photos inside the cave much easier. You’ll have to be creative and find places to prop your camera to keep it still enough to get an in focus image.
We did 2 tours while we were at Mammoth Cave National Park. We took the self guided tour from the Visitor Center and Historic Entrance to the cave. We also took the 4 hour Mammoth Cave Grand Avenue Tour.
Mammoth Cave Historic Entrance – Self Guided Discovery Tour
The self guided discovery tour from the Historic entrance costs $6 for adults and starts from the Historic Entrance to the cave near the visitor center. This tour lets you go about 1/2 mile into the cave and takes 30 minutes to an hour to explore everything you can see on it. To learn more about the Self Guided Discovery Tour click here.
Many people visiting Mammoth Cave ask, “May we visit the cave without a guided tour?” The answer is yes! This self-guided tour requires a ticket, and proceeds into the Historic Entrance. Focusing on early history and prehistory of the cave, this section of cave houses many great artifacts. This tour is ideal for people wanting to move at their own pace or are looking for a cave experience without much time commitment. This tour is the self-guided version of the guided Mammoth Passage Tour. Please note: this tour is offered as visitation warrants, and is not always available.https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/tour/108
The historic entrance looks like a giant hole in the ground. This is the very stereotypical cave entrance you’ve always imagined. Inside the cave you can see the remnants of the salt peter mine and some Native American Artifacts. You get to walk through some really large underground chambers.
This tour is interesting but you will really want to book one of the longer tours that goes deeper into the cave to see the really interesting rock formations and other features inside the cave. If the 1/2 mile self guided discovery tour is all you see of Mammoth Cave you might be a little disappointed.
Mammoth Cave Grand Avenue Tour
The Mammoth Cave Grand Avenue Tour is a 4 hour hike through the cave that covers about 4 miles. According to the tour information you will walk up or down 670 stairs. There are a ton of ramps also that add a lot to the amount of vertical you’ll be hiking. The tour costs $30 for an adult. To learn more about the Grand Avenue Tour click here.
At 4 hours long, this lengthy tour explores the geologic diversity of what Mammoth Cave has to offer. Going through slot canyons, tubular passageways, tall canyons, and tunnels sparkled with gypsum, this tour is the longest walking tour we offer. This tour also encounters hundreds of steps and ascends and descends many tall, incredibly steep hills. Covering a wide variety of the history and geology of Mammoth Cave, this tour is ideal for those wishing for a lengthy, half-day hike inside of the cave.https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/tour/100
The Grand Avenue Tour has been closed since late 2019 for restoration of the stairs and walkways. The original closure was supposed to last 18-20 months. Who knows how long it will last due to Covid. Currently because of Covid they are only offering a single self guided tour inside the cave that goes 2 miles from the historic entrance. If you are thinking of going on the Grand Avenue tour you will have to wait a bit.
The tour leaves from the visitor center. Before getting on the bus to go to the Frozen Niagara cave entrance where the tour actually begins you will get sat down and get a lecture from the tour guide about how strenuous this tour is going to be and how many stairs and hills you will have to go up and down during your 4 mile hike.
The tour guides will say everything they can possibly think of to encourage you to walk away and not go on the tour if your not sure if you can physically handle it. If someone has a hard time, the only option is one of the tour guides slowly walking with that person to the nearest place you can exit the cave. There is only 1 exit midway through the tour. The guides want to make sure that the Mammoth Cave Grand Avenue Tour is for you before you start down the path.
You will also get lectured not to use any flashlights or flash photography. The cave is lit and flashlights are not neccesary even though they are allowed into the cave. According to our tour guide the flashing lights can cause anyone with PTSD to have a reaction. Leave your flashlights in the car.
You can take food and water with you into the cave. Water is really highly recommended. There are a few restroom stops along the way during this tour. As the tour guides pointed out. It is a very strenuous hike and you will get tired and thirsty.
After all the lecture it’s time to board the bus and head to the Frozen Niagara entrance. This entrance to the cave is down a small stair case and then down several flights of stairs into the cave where there is a nice gathering area with benches.
From here it’s time to hike. The tour is rather fast paced. There is a lot of distance to cover. Much of it is wide open long corridors that aren’t all that interesting once you get used to looking at them. Don’t worry. There is some really interesting formations to be seen deep in the cave.
About a 1/3rd of the way into the tour you will come to what is known as the Mt McKinley of Mammoth Cave. It is a long steep hill climb followed by a long steep descent. Fortunately you get a rest and a bathroom break at the top.
As you walk through the cave you’ll see several really large stalactite and stalagmite formations, rock bridges, and really deep looking pits. You’ll have time to stop and admire most of the really large features for a few minutes being before urged along.
About 2/3rds of the wave through the tour you will get to an area that is very tight with a lot of staircases that wind through tight passages. Taller people need to be really cautious to not bang their heads on the passage ways or the stair cases. I’m 5’11” and I had a few near hits. My friend who took us here is 6′ 7″ and had some struggles. This is the one area of the cave we were in where someone claustrophobic might feel a bit cramped. The rest of the cave passages are pretty big and open.
It is dark inside the cave. There is no natural light. The cave is lit by lighting anywhere you’ll be going. Pictures are a challenge inside the cave because it is still fairly dim. If you have the ability to, this is the place to bring the fastest prime lens you’ve got. I took a few hundred photos in here and had about 30 that were anywhere even close to in focus.
The cave temperature is a study 54 degrees Fahrenheit inside the cave no matter how hot or cold it is outside the cave. You will be getting your exercise in during this hike. Layering is a good approach to dressing inside the cave. A small backpack is really useful or adding a jacket or sweatshirt as you go in and out of the cave. In our case it was 90F outside and rained really hard while we were in the cave. We exited at the end to a really hot humid glasses fogging afternoon.
After your 4 hours of hiking inside the cave you’ll eventually get to the Carmichael entrance where the tour ends. This exit to the cave is similar to where we went in. A non-descript door built into the side of a hill leading to some stairs.
Other Mammoth Cave Tours
A variety of other tours are offered at Mammoth Cave National Park. The tours range from shorter hikes, water tours, lantern tours and the wild cave tour. On a future trip we would like to do the Violet City Lantern Tour and the Wild Cave Tour
Violet City Lantern Tour
A truly historic way to experience Mammoth Cave, this tour travels exclusively by lantern light. At three hours long, this tour winds through the history and prehistory of Mammoth Cave as you wander through huge, broad tunnels. This tour climbs and descends many incredibly steep hills on historic dirt trails as you experience the cave in the light of the earliest explorers. This tour is ideal for visitors who like to hike and are wanting a unique way to experience the cave. Please note that this tour, at 3 hours long, has no restroom facilities available.https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/tour/104
This tour is 3 hours long, 3 miles long and has 160 steps. To learn more about the Violet City Lantern Tour click here.
Wild Cave Tour
The most extreme tour offered at Mammoth Cave, this crawling tour is an all-day adventure underground. Focusing on a wide variety of topics such as the history of Mammoth Cave exploration, this tour is very physically demanding. Lengthy amounts of time will be spent crawling through extremely tight crawl spaces and climbing through difficult areas. This tour is ideal for people who wish to spend the entire day performing a wide variety of extremely challenging physical obstacles in a unique environment.https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/tour/96
This tour is 6 hours long and covers 4 miles. It has 500 steps in addition to a lot of crawling and climbing natural terrain. To learn more about the Wild Cave Tour click here.
Surface Activities at Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave is a really unique experience and well worth the trip if you can do some of the longer cave tours. There is also a lot of outside activities around the cave including camping, hiking, mountain biking, etc… It is also a great place for fishing and boating on the rivers and streams that run through the national park.
Before becoming a national park in 1941, the Mammoth Cave area was home to several communities. There are many historic churches and cemeteries in the surrounding area to visit if that is your interest.
To get more information on Mammoth Cave National Park click here.
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About the author
My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water. I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions. I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.