Kentucky’s scenery is that of rolling mountains, wide valleys, broad rivers and tumbling waterfalls. The hiking trails are great, the landscapes beautiful. Its natural features show that the state has more to offer than what its traditional image portrays—bourbon, fried chicken and horse races.
Underneath those peaceful forests and undulating landscapes lies something that may come as quite a surprise to some people. Below the surface of rural Kentucky, you’ll find the world’s most extensive known cave system. There’s a lot of history—both human and natural—involved with this place.
Mammoth Cave, actually a collection of linked cave systems, encompasses more than 400 miles (650 kilometers) of known passageways, halls and tunnels. No other cave in the world comes even close to that massive size. In fact, Mammoth Cave is almost twice as long as the world’s second-largest cave system, which is the Sac Actun Cenotes in Mexico.
Even though it was given way before anyone realized its enormity, the cave’s name, in other words, is more than appropriate.
UNESCO World Heritage
Mammoth Cave became Mammoth Cave National Park in 1941. Forty year later, it was designated World Heritage by UNESCO, which is the most solid proof you can find for anything’s uniqueness, greatness and importance.
In the case of Mammoth Cave National Park, it stands out from all other environments on this planet not only because of its vastness, but also because of its delicate and fragile cave ecosystems, which depend almost entirely on what happens above ground. This is why it’s so important to have the surface land protected as well. Mammoth Cave National Park does just that. It protects the entire cave system as well as some of the Green River valley and rural landscapes of south central Kentucky.
In 1990, the park also became an International Biosphere Reserve, again indicating and pointing out both the vulnerability and significance of this amazing place.
Although there are a numerous fun hiking trails in the woods above ground, the major attraction in this fascinating park is without question the caves. Previously called “a grand, gloomy and peculiar place” by one of the cave’s earliest tourist guides, Stephen Bishop, Mammoth Cave is definitely impressive.
The only way to see the caves is on a guided ranger tour. And there are many of those. In fact, there are almost twenty different cave tours on offer. No matter how much time you can spend in Mammoth Cave National Park, you should do at least one of the cave tours. Frankly, it would be silly to visit Mammoth Cave National Park without heading underground.
These tours range in duration from about twenty minutes to six hours, with pretty much everything in between. There are many different options. This variety in tours ensures that people of all ages and abilities can see a part of this vast cave system.
Recreation.gov, the official booking website for tours and accommodation in most of the American national parks, provides plenty more information. It’s definitely recommend to reserve a spot in advance. Many tours sell out and you do not want to arrive at the park, walk up to the ticket booth and find out the day’s tours are all fully booked.
When you pre-book your tour, you can simply pick up your tickets when you arrive. You’ll then have some time to explore the park’s visitor center. The exhibits are awesome and watching the film is mandatory.
After your tour, you can head out on one of the trails around the visitor center. The River Styx Spring Trail combined with the Green River and Dixon Cave Trails makes for a nice woodsy loop. An essential part of Mammoth Cave National Park is the landscapes above ground, so you’re encourage to explore these, too. It’ll give a more complete understanding of what Mammoth Cave National Park is about.
If you have more time, though, you might want to hit some of the park’s several backcountry trails. Bisected by rivers, it’s also a great place for canoeing and kayaking. It’s actually a marvelous destination for a quiet camping vacation, home to many miles of peaceful hiking trails, great rivers for boating, exceptional cave tours and excellent facilities.
Location: Central Kentucky, United States
Nearest Towns: Brownsville, Cave City, Bowling Green
Area: 82.5 square miles (213.8 square kilometers)
Features: Immense and endless caves, passageways and halls; lush woods; rivers and streams
Main Attractions: Frozen Niagara, Cathedral Domes, Sand Cave, River Styx Spring, the Big Woods, Chief City, Cave Island, Green River Bluffs Overlook
Main Activities: Cave touring, hiking, boating, fishing, camping
Suggested Stay: 1-2 days
More Information: National Park Service
(Somewhat) Nearby National Parks
Unlike in the West, the national parks in the Eastern United States are pretty spread out and there often are some seriously long drives in between them. These are some of the parks nearest to Mammoth Cave National Park.
Mammoth Cave National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Death Valley National Park.