Kentucky

Mammoth Cave: The Natural Wonder of Kentucky

The Bluegrass State is home to this unique cave system

Kentucky is well-renowned for its horse racing, bourbon, and bluegrass hills. In addition to the Appalachian Mountains and rolling hills, there is another natural wonder that you may want to visit. You can find the longest cave system in the world at Mammoth Cave National Park.  It might not be on your to-do list for the state, but you need to make time and visit this underrated natural wonder in the heart of horse country.                                      

Mammoth Cave National Park, north of Bowling Green, Kentucky / Stanislav Vitebskiy / Flickr

The Mammoth Cave National Park is home to both the 400-mile cave system and 53,000 acres of protected forest. While many places in this part of the country have caves, you will not find another system like the one in Kentucky. The park is located in Edmonson County, with some of it extending into Barren and Hart counties. Officially called the Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System, the World Heritage Site added this park to its list in 1981. The park itself was established as a national park by the federal government on July 1, 1941. Today, you can visit the 13 backcountry campsites, three campgrounds, 20 miles of rivers, and 70 miles of surface trails. As you already know, Mammoth Cave has the most extensive cave system in the world with 400 miles. The second-longest cave system in Mexico’s Sac Actun is about half that size at 259 miles.     

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky / Thomas James Caldwell / Flickr

Humans have been using Mammoth Cave for over five thousand years. Researchers found several Native American remains in the caves, with many signs pointing to this spot as a burial site.  Many of the burials even date back to the pre-Columbian times in the area. However, there was one person who was a victim of an accident. In 1935, researchers found the bones of a pre-Columbian miner. Some researchers theorize that a boulder crushed him. He was named “Lost John,” and his remains went on public display in the 1970s. Due to the sensitive issue of displaying human remains, he was eventually given a proper burial in a secret location with the aid of local Native American tribes.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky / Garden State Hiker / Flickr

By the 1800s, several settlers moved into the area, and Mammoth Cave became a mining spot. In 1812, Hyman Gratz purchased part of Mammoth Cave after he discovered saltpeter in the cave system. Slaves were used to dig out the commodity, which plays a vital role in the creation of gunpowder. Gratz saw a profit with the cave as he began saltpeter extraction during the time of the War of 1812. There was another person who made a profit on Mammoth Cave as well. During the 1840s to 1850s, Stephen Bishop was a slave on the property. He was credited with being the first person to map the cave system and also the first person to cross the cave feature known as the Bottomless Pit. During this time, Bishop would give tours of the massive cave system to curious visitors.  



In 1839, Dr. John Croghan purchased the Mammoth Cave. He believed that there was preservation power in the cavern system as the cold and damp environment would be an excellent place for tuberculosis patients to recover. From 1842 – 43, the caverns operated as a hospital for respiratory illnesses. Dr. Croghan would ultimately die from tuberculosis, and his nieces and nephews inherited the grounds.

Saltpeter Mines, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky / Thomas James Caldwell / Flickr

By the end of the 1880s, the caverns became a tourist destination. Louisville and Nashville Railroad opened up a train line that would stop at Mammoth Cave. Tickets were two dollars, and the cavern system saw a boom of new visitors every day. In 1910, the first tour buses made an appearance in the park. This form of transportation was a more convenient way to get to the cave. The Mammoth Cave Inn also opened during this time, along with other facilities for people to camp and lodge on the property as well. The cave was so popular that smaller, privately-owned caves would try to sway visitors from the Mammoth system with tales of dangerous conditions. However, the Mammoth Cave prevailed, and it remained a famous travel destination throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.



When the last Croghan heir passed away, there was talk about turning the Mammoth Cave into a national park. In 1924, local citizens formed the Mammoth Cave National Park Association. There were many studies of the area, and it took quite a few years to dedicate the park. On September 18, 1946, the famous Mammoth Cave became formally known as the Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave / Garden State Hiker / Flickr

Today, the park is a popular spot, but there are still quite a few people that don’t know about this magnificent site. There are several tours throughout the day, and they range from $5 to $37 per person. You can choose a tour that meets your need for excitement. Many of the trips will take you through the “avenues.” These sites are some of the most exciting passages in the cavern. If you love history, there are even historical tours that delve into the importance of the caverns to the local area.  Some tours, like the Snowball Domes Tour, are tame, while others will have you squeezing through the caverns.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky / Brianne / Flickr

On any tour, you will see the awe-inspiring stalactites and other formations throughout the cave. You can see the spot where Stephen Bishop first crossed over the Bottomless Pit. Many of these sites are otherworldly, and you will swear that you are not in Kentucky anymore. The best part of the caverns might be the constant temperature. Whether summer or winter, the caves stay at a constant 54 degrees.     

You will want to visit this natural attraction in the Bluegrass State at least once in your lifetime. You can see sights that you cannot view at any other place in the world. Mammoth Cave National Park has been entertaining visitors for many years, and you should definitely visit this unique and incredible place just under the surface of Kentucky.

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