Family Field Trip: Mammoth Cave National Park

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When I think of amazing national parks, I usually think of high mountains, amazing vistas, and deep, open canyons.  But, did you know there is a national park in Kentucky that lies mostly underground?  It is aptly named Mammoth Cave!

Mammoth Cave is a cave system of at least 412 miles.  It contains large rooms of 1-2 acres, narrow slot canyons and many areas of interest in between.  It is a mostly dry cave so stalagmites and stalactites aren’t as prevalent as in some caves, but it has an interesting history dating back to the 1800s and hiking through it is so much fun.  There is plenty to learn and enjoy for science and history lovers!

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Read below to plan your visit, find books and learning activities to get the most out of your visit, and to learn more about the tours our family did while we were there.

Large open room in the cave.
Large open room shown on the Historic cave tour.

Plan Your Visit to Mammoth Cave National Park

How Long to Spend There:

Two days is plenty of time to experience the park and if you only have one day, you can definitely have a good experience.  If you want to spend more time, you can add to the experience with more above ground hiking, kayaking on the Green River, and/or more underground tours.

Book a Tour or Two:

While there are plenty of self-guided hikes above ground, you will need to book a tour or two to explore the caves underground.  There are a variety of cave tours depending on how much time you want to spend, the distance you want to walk, what you want to see and how much climbing you want to do.  Make sure to book the cave tours you want ahead of time.  Most tours occur between 9:00 and 5:00, but there are a few evening tours.  The price ranges from $6.00 – $60.00 per adult and $4.00 – $23.00 per child.

Must sees on your tour include:

Frozen Niagara (See on the Frozen Niagara Tour, Domes and Dripstones, Grand Avenue, Introduction to Caving and Wild Cave Tours.)

The historic part of the cave, which includes smoke writings from early visitors. (See on the Historic, Extended Historic, and River Styx Tours. Seen partially on the Violet City Lantern, Star Chamber and Gothic Tours.)

The Rotunda, which is one of the largest rooms in the cave system and where you can learn about the saltpeter mining operation that was there during the War of 1812.  (See on the Discovery Tour and Historic Tour.)

If you need an accessible tour or want to see the caves by lantern only or even crawl through tight openings, there are tours for all of those needs and desires, too!

Lodging:

There is a lodge with motel rooms and small cabins as well as a campground in the park.  There are also plenty of hotels in Cave City and Park City, which are about 15-20 minutes from the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center.  Bowling Green, KY is 45 minutes from the Visitor Center and has many more amenities if you are looking for something more.  There is also a Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Campground with small cabins 15 minutes from the Visitor Center that looked super fun!

Learn Before You Go:

We found two children’s books about Mammoth Cave at our local library.

The first is a picture book titled Lift Your Light a Little Higher (by Heather Henson).  While it is a picture book, I read it aloud to our 9 and 11 year old and it got them excited to look for Stephen Bishop’s signature in the cave.  Stephen Bishop was a slave who is one of the most famous guides of Mammoth Cave.

The second is Kit, Menace at Mammoth Cave (from the American Girl series).  This book gives a good background about the beginning of the park.  It shares the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps coming in to build out the park, but also how many families were removed from the land against their desires to make room for the park.  This book definitely gave us a greater appreciation for the park.

Once we were at the park, we found there were more children’s and adult books in the shops there that you can also purchase on Amazon.  A few of them are:

Nine Miles to Mammoth Cave: The Story of the Mammoth Cave Railroad

Kids to the Rescue: Adventures in Mammoth Cave

The Life and Death of Floyd Collins

It would also be good to introduce or review some basic geology, especially types of rocks and layers of rocks as this topic came up quite a bit on the tours.

If your children are unfamiliar with caves, then reading some books about caves would be good to prepare them!  Here are a couple:

Once You Get to Mammoth Cave National Park

Visit the Museum

When you arrive at the park, head to the Visitor Center.  You can pick up any tour tickets you have reserved, grab a map for the above ground trails, and tour the small museum.  The museum covers the history and geology of the cave system.  Allow about 20 minutes to tour it.

Take an Above Ground Hike

The park has about 85 miles of hiking trails, many of them back country trails.  But there are several easy hiking trails around the Visitor Center that are perfect for a family.  Make sure you grab a trail map at the Visitor Center.

The Heritage Trail will lead you to the cemetery where some of the guides have been buried, including Stephen Bishop.  At the back of the cemetery, you can find another trail that will take you down to the river and the River Styx trail.  This allows you to see one of the places where the Green River and the cave system connect.  From there, you can hike on the bluffs along the river or hike back to the visitor center.

There are other longer hikes that take you to some sink holes, other cave entrances, and where Echo Spring enters the river from the cave system.

Educational sign with the back drop of an old cemetery.

Tour the Caves

When you pick up your tour tickets, you will be told what shelter to meet at for your tour.  Both shelters are next to the Visitor Center.  From there you may proceed on foot or by bus depending on which cave entrance you will be entering.  The caves are a constant 54 degrees so dress accordingly.  And wear shoes you would hike in.  Photography is allowed, but no flash is allowed.

On our first day there, we did the Grand Avenue Tour, which is a four hour tour labeled as very strenuous. On this tour, we climbed steep underground hills, walked through slot canyons, and saw the Frozen Niagara and other dripstones.  The ranger leading the tour explained the geology and history of the caves.

Dripstone formations. Dripstone formations

 

 

 

 

 

 

The label of “very strenuous” had me a little worried, but it was really very doable.  There are some steep inclines with lots of ramps or stairs that had me a little winded at the top, but the tour is designed so you have some time to sit at the top of these inclines and catch your breath while the ranger speaks for a bit.  The boys (9 and 11) were definitely ready to be done by the end of the four hours, but they tolerated it well throughout the tour and appreciated all they were able to see.  The slot canyons on this tour could bother one who is claustrophobic, but the ‘ceilings’ were high and they felt much more open than the slot canyons on the Historic tour we did the next day!

A couple notes: There are full functioning bathrooms on this tour.  You may bring a backpack with drinks and food, but you are encouraged to only eat if necessary as to protect the cave.  This tour is going to be closed soon so they can do some trail work.  Reportedly, many of the ramps are going to be replaced with stairs.

Our second day there, we did the Extended Historic Tour.  This is a 2 hour, 15 minute tour that covers the same route as the Historic tour with an additional side trip to the underground hospital used for tuberculosis patients in the 1840s.  We also learned about the saltpeter mining operation used here during the War of 1812 and saw lots of cave writings from the 1800s, including the signature of Stephen Bishop.  The ranger shared many historical anecdotes about the cave.  This tour also had slot canyons with much shorter ceilings.  As in, I had to duck my head, which is rare at 5 feet, 3 inches!  So if you have significant claustrophobia, then this tour may not be for you!  If you are not claustrophobic though, these slot canyons are super cool!

People walking through a narrow slot canyon with low ceilings lit in orange light.
Slot canyon on the historic tour.
Black writing on cave walls.
Cave writings done with smoke.
Old mining equipment laying on floor of cave.
Saltpeter Mining Equipment

Other Activities at Mammoth Cave

Ranger Programs:  There are a variety of free ranger programs that go on throughout the week.  They include a driving tour, junior ranger activities, an evening talk and more.  Click the Activity Schedule for the time of year you will be there and scroll to the bottom to see the different ranger programs.

Canoeing and Kayaking on the Green River: There are canoe and kayak tours offered by two private companies that are licensed to operate in the park.

Mammoth Cave Canoe and Kayak

Cave Country Canoe

National Corvette Museum: If you have a car enthusiast in the family, you will want to check out the National Corvette Museum about 45 minutes away in Bowling Green.  This museum also provides an interesting lesson on sinkholes as they had a major one in 2014 that caused a lot of damage to cars and the building!

Dinosaur World: If you have little ones, then Dinosaur World near the park can be a fun place.

Learn More at Home

The National Parks Service has a set of Curriculum Materials for Mammoth Cave you may want to check out.

Have you been to Mammoth Cave? What other tips would you add? Comment below!

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One thought on “Family Field Trip: Mammoth Cave National Park

  1. Wow! I had no clue that there are different tours – that is so very interesting. Makes me really want to go now. I have been to most of the caves in PA and a few in MD & VA a long time ago but this sounds so amazing. Thank you so much for sharing!

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