Mammoth Cave National Park
Location: Cave City, KY
Price: Free, Tours cost
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, one in the main Visitor’s Center and another in the secondary building
We visited Mammoth Cave National Park on a Saturday morning in late April. As usual our large group was present: me (35), my husband (33), our two girls (8, 2), my sister (29), her husband (31), their two kids (6, 3), my two parents (60) and my grandmother (80). Mammoth Cave is about two hours and fifteen minutes Southeast of Evansville, an hour and half South of Louisville and an hour and half North of Nashville making it an easy day trip from any of these locations. The park is best known for its extensive cave network but also offers lots of above ground activities including hiking, fishing, canoeing/kayaking, and camping.
Our trip was focused on doing a cave tour. The Park offers over a dozen different tours. Tour lengths vary from a half hour to all day tours. Some tours are fully handicap assessable while others are ranger led caving expeditions that will require climbing and crawling through the caves. Each cave tour has different age restrictions and cost. Additionally certain tours are only over seasonally or on certain days of the week. You’ll have to visit the parks website prior to your visit to determine which tour is going to work best for your group. During busy seasons cave tours will sell out, you can reserve your spot online prior to arriving at the park. We did this since we had a large group.
This was a fairly busy park. When we arrived at the Visitor’s Center the line to book cave tours was about 30 groups deep. Regardless of if you pre-book your tour you are still going to have to wait in that line to print the tickets. So arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of your tour. Our experience with the reservation system wasn’t an overly positive one. The tickets are purchased through a third party website that required us to set up an account and it wasn’t very user friendly. And again despite buying tickets ahead of time someone still had to wait in the super long line.
While one member of our party waited in line to pick-up the pre-ordered tickets, the rest of us visited the main information kiosk in the center of the Visitor’s Center to collect our Junior Ranger booklets and then toured the museum while working on activities. The Visitor’s Center also has very large restrooms and several water fountains to refill water bottles. Cell service at the park was nonexistent so make sure to set a meeting area for your group (a lesson we learned the hard way). Most tours require you to take a shuttle to the cave entrance. They will start announcing boarding for tours about 15 minutes before your shuttle is to load. Shuttles load at a series of bus stops just outside the main building.
We had reserved tickets for the Domes and Dripstones Tour. This tour is about ¾ of a mile hike and should take about two hours. The tour is also considered a moderate level hike with over 500 stairs on the hike. There isn’t an age limit on the tour however if you are nervous with heights or narrow spaces this is not the tour for you. Also backpack carries are not allowed on any tour so younger kids will have to be carried. I did see one lady with a soft chest carrier on the tour but I’m sure there were still a few spots that were hard to navigate with that on.
This tour starts out at the bus stops where your ranger will meet everyone and do a basic safety briefing and go over cave rules. It’s all pretty basic stuff: watch your step, use the hand rails, don’t touch the cave formations, don’t be a jerk and don’t take flash photography, stay with the group. I would advise that everyone should wear good hiking shoes as the metal stairs and limestone ground were damp and slick in many areas. Also the temperature in the cave is a constant mid 50 to low 60 degrees so pants and a jacket are probably a good idea. After the safety briefing, everyone will board the shuttle buses to the cave entrance. At the cave entrance the ranger will give a little bit of background about the caves and the route through the cave that the tour covers. This was a large tour with over 120 people on our tour. It was difficult to hear the ranger at times so I would advise trying to be semi close to the front of the tour group.
The initial part of the tour is literally just 300 steps down. The steps are mostly metal so take your time as the steps are slick. With over 100 people on the tour this part is really slow moving, be patient. We did end up having to carry the toddlers through most of this tour (including the three hundred steps) so I really wouldn’t recommend this tour if you have very young children in your group. There were a few formations to see on your way down the stairs but mostly this is a switch back of stairs going down a vertical descent to the cave floor.
Once you reach the bottom you will follow a narrow passage way until it opens into a larger cavern. In this cavern, there are rows of benches. Everyone will take a seat. The ranger will allow everyone in the group to work their way into the cavern and will do a short talk on the cave formation and the cave’s history. Our ranger was really good at speaking and we were able to hear him from the back benches without problem. The ranger will also take the opportunity to show you exactly how dark a cave is and will turn off the lights for a few seconds.
From this point everyone will file back out of this cavern up a semi steep path (after this point I felt the trail became easier although there were several sets of staircases but none as long as the first decent). The hike continues through a series of passages and caverns. I’m not sure if the ranger gave commentary as to what we were passing, we were too far to the back of the group and the group was really spread-out. This part of the hike continued for a little while until we came to another cavern with benches where everyone was able to sit to wait for the last members of the group to catch up (there is a ranger at the end of the group as well) and did another talk here.
The trail remains a little wider from here on (until the very end). The ranger will stop everyone once more for a short chat (no benches though). Then there is an option side tour down to see the bottom of the Frozen Niagara formation. This is the biggest and best cave formation on this tour. There are a number of steps to go down and then back up. You don’t have to do this portion of the tour if you don’t want. You can get a very nice view of the formation from the main trail path and everyone else will end up right back with you after hiking to the bottom and back up. From here the trail goes through a few more passages before exiting the cave. After leaving the cave you’ll board the buses again and return to the Visitor’s Center. We were one of the first one’s out of the cave and once our bus was full it left so there was no waiting for everyone to exit the cave.
Upon returning to the Visitor’s Center area, you will be required to walk across these soapy mats designed to kill a fungus that is killing off local bat populations. The buses drop you off behind the lodge so you’ll have to walk through that building and across a short bridge to get back to the Visitor’s Center.
The park does have an onsite lodge that you can rent rooms. There are several different options including small family cottages. There are also two restaurants onsite Green River Grill and Spelunkers Café & Ice Cream Parlor. Both are located in same building as the lodge as well as two privately run gift shops. There is also a gift shop run by the Parks Department in main Visitor’s Center.
After completing our tour and doing a little souvenir shopping, we returned to the information desk to turn in Junior Ranger books and receive our badges.
Overall: Mammoth Cave is a very large park. There are many different activities to do here making it a very easy trip for just a day trip or a longer stay. I think it is very important that you really look at the cave tours closely to decide what the best fit for your group is. There are several other attractions in nearby Cave City (https://cavecity.com/) as well as lodging and food options. Overall we enjoyed our trip to Mammoth Cave and since its fairly close to home will come back in the future and try other tours as the kids get older.