Underground Hiking at Mammoth Cave National Park

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It’s October 2018.  We’ve been finished with our Appalachian Trail thru-hike for over a month now (read about that here).  Our travel bug is back, and we’re heading North for some adventure.  The first stop on our journey is Hot Springs National Park.  Read about this unique historical park here.  Now, we’re driving to Kentucky to do some underground hiking at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Land between the Lakes

To break up the drive a bit, we visit Land between the Lakes National Recreation Area.  This 170,000-acre park between Tennessee and Kentucky offers dispersed camping for only $7 per individual for 3 nights.  You can also camp for up to 14 days in one place.  This park is crowded.  It’s affordable, and there’s a variety of outdoor activities and historical sites to visit.

One of the neatest aspects of this place is that it has a population of bison and elk.  They are within a fenced enclosure, and you have to pay $5 to drive through.  Try to go first thing in the morning on a weekday.  The drive-through “zoo” is not fun when there are too many cars competing for a view.

There are also miles of hiking trails.  We hiked the Canal Loop Trail.  It was a lovely, wooded hike with intermittent views of the lake.  There is little elevation gain or loss here.  Because this park is popular and heavily used, you will see a large amount of trash on this trail.  This is unfortunate.  It seems that the trash washes into the woods from the lake.

Another unfortunate consequence of being in a crowded area is that not everyone is considerate.  We set up our camp in a nearly-perfect site by the lake at the Taylor Bay Campground.  We were enjoying the sunset and the peaceful quiet when a family camping nearby set up an amplifier and started playing a guitar and singing.

The sound echoed all over the lake and completely spoiled the moment.  When I asked them to stop, they were rude and couldn’t understand why what they were doing was inconsiderate.  They continued to play even louder until we left the campground for the Pisgah Point Camping Area.  Things like this happen sometimes, and it’s just part of sharing public lands.  The Land between the Lakes is a worthy spot with much to offer.

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The World’s Longest Cave

Mammoth Cave National Park doesn’t feel like a wilderness area.  There are towns within close proximity.  There are tour buses coming and going.  Like many parks, this one is crowded.  The cave tours have 50 to 100 people in a group.  I don’t mean to dissuade you from coming here, but it is good to go in knowing what to expect.  I highly recommend that you make reservations for the cave tours beforehand.

The drive into the park is lovely.  The road is lined with beautiful, deciduous trees.  Deer and turkeys are a common sight along the drive.  We camped for two nights at the Mammoth Cave Campground, which is spacious and clean.  There are coin showers, a camp store, and laundry facilities.

The museum at the visitor center covers the natural history and the various cultures in this area over the years.  Mammoth Cave is not your typical cave full of formations and enormous caverns but is what is referred to as a “dry” cave.  It is over 400 miles in length so far.  More of the cave is being discovered still.

Underground Hiking

Mammoth Cave offers an array of ranger-led cave tours for a price.  While there, we did the Historic, Domes & Dripstones, and the Violet City Lantern Tours.  The tours meet 5 minutes beforehand at one of the shelters behind the visitor center.  Be sure to use the bathrooms before departure.  There are none in the cave.  Bring a jacket, wear practical shoes, and remember no flash photography.

The Historic and the Domes & Dripstones tours cost $17 per adult and are 2 hours long.  It includes the “classic” landmarks in Mammoth Cave and some interesting and surprising history.  The Domes & Dripstones Tour requires a short bus ride and feels a bit more adventurous.  There are many stairs and a long descent.  The tour culminates in a short viewing of stunning formations.

The Violet City Lantern Tour was our favorite.  It costs $20 per adult and is meant to simulate what early visitors to the cave would have seen.  It is 3 hours in length.  Lanterns are dispersed among the group at regular intervals.  This tour is the most physically demanding of the three; however, it is not challenging for someone in good shape.  Sometimes it feels hard to see and you’re forced to look at the ground more than you would like, but the tour stops often.  This adventure is full of fascinating histories, and I highly recommend it.

Big Hollow Trail

Although most people go to Mammoth Cave to see its underground wonders, there are hiking trails and mountain biking trails.  From the Mammoth Campground, we took the Ferry across the Green River.  This Ferry is unique.  It is small, holding only 3 sedans and travels about 100 feet to the other side of the river.

We parked at the Maple Springs Trailhead and walked along the Maple Springs Trail (about 1 mile) to the Big Hollow Trail.  This hiking trail is flat and wooded.  The trees are beautiful, especially in the fall.  The North Loop is about 5 miles and the South about 4.  Be sure to bring plenty of water and a map.

Mammoth Cave National Park is steeped in history.  The cave tours are cool, especially the Violet Room Lantern Tour.  Make reservations before coming.  The Big Hollow Trail is an easy, pretty hike that allows visitors to experience the amazing trees.  I like to imagine the wondrous caves below as we walk above.

For other great road trip ideas, click here.

Hiker Tips

  • Make a reservation ahead of time for the cave tours.
  • Take a hike above ground, too.
  • Visit other cool blogs for tips.  Like this one here.

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