When first hearing of Mammoth Caves National Park years ago, I envisioned caverns filled with woolly mammoth remains. These large, hairy, elephant-like creatures with big tusks roamed the northern part of North America before becoming extinct in the last ice age. I thought this park was one of the their habitats. Daria and I visited the park last week to get the real story.
There are no mammoth bones, fossils or other remains in Mammoth Caves, and it’s unknown if a woolly mammoth ever stepped foot in the area. Mammoth in this usage means BIG, and this cave system is very big. In fact, it’s the longest known cave system in the world with more than 400 miles explored and many more miles yet to be explored. Early cave guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place” with its vast chambers and complex labyrinths earning it the name Mammoth. The National Parks Service (NPS) preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky.
The caves have been formed in limestone over millions of years and they’re still growing. Water collects in hundreds of sink holes around central Kentucky before going down into the limestone beneath. Underground rivers carry the water to Green River, which is above ground but below the level of the underground rivers. As the riverbed erodes away over time, the underground rivers drop deeper into the earth. This process has left upper caverns and passageways hollow as shown in the diagram below. The system of caves this process left behind has been used by humans for thousands of years.
The NPS offers several guided tours through different parts of the cave system. Daria and I took two tours over two days. Each tour required a bus ride to an entrance before descending down.
BThe first was the Domes & Dripstones Tour. We went in the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave and descended down approximately 280 stairs into a dramatic series of domes and pits. The tour continued through several large passages and a variety of dripstone formations. The highlight was a massive dripstone formation called Frozen Niagara. It’s was a great way to see the many faces of some of Mammoth Cave’s passage ways.
One of the the park rangers who guided the tours highly recommended we do the Great Onyx Lantern Tour next. The Great Onyx cave was privately owned and operated until the 1960’s. The owners where very strict about tourists touching anything so the cave survived the so-called “cave wars” against vandalism. It emerged as one of the most pristine show caves in the region. We explored this beautifully decorated natural wonder by lantern light and got a different perspective on the multitudes of dripstone, gypsum, and helictite formations.
Our visit to Mammoth Caves gave us a renewed appreciation of the great work the NPS is doing to preserve, protect and promote our natural wonders. The park system is an important part of our heritage that provides all visitors today and in the future with unique opportunities to learn, explore, or just relax. I also got a few ideas about what my next career might be!