Mammoth: Of enormous size, extent, or amount; huge. Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park lives up to its name.
It’s the world’s longest cave system. So far, explorers have mapped 412 miles of the cave, the distance from Boston to Baltimore. Explorers are still discovering new passages, and they say no end is in sight. The cave hosts 130 animal species and thousands of years of human history.
But the park isn’t only about the cave. Explore the Green River and Nolin River valleys via the park’s numerous trails and waterways. The park is busiest in the summer. Winter offers fewer tours, but far fewer crowds.
UNESCO has recognized the area as a World Heritage Site and created the Mammoth Cave Biosphere Region.
The park entrance is near Interstate 65, 90 miles from Louisville and half an hour from Bowling Green. (We recommend Louisville as one of America’s most affordable cities to visit.)
Note: Do not trust navigation devices to take you to the park. Use the park’s directions.
Things To Do In Mammoth Cave National Park
In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld, including all the wealth buried underground, such as minerals and fertile soil. When you’re under the ground in Mammoth, you’ll feel the weight of the land above you. And, as in Hades’ realm, you’ll find numerous treasures waiting below the earth. Cave tours range from the fully-accessible, no-stairs Mammoth Cave Accessible Tour to the strenuous all-day Wild Cave Tour.
The surface is Demeter’s realm. She was the Greek goddess of fertility and agriculture. Explore her realm on foot, bike, or horseback through Kentucky’s lush landscape. Paddle the Green and Nolin rivers and catch fish.
Explore Hades’ Realm On A Cave Tour
Don’t expect massive displays of stalactites and stalagmites in Mammoth. Shale and sandstone caprock prevent dripping surface water from creating them. Instead, Mammoth’s marvel is the gargantuan size of the rooms within the cave. Tours often sell out. For peace of mind, make reservations. The cave’s temperature stays at 54 degrees. Bring a jacket.
Fun Fact: To distinguish between stalactites and stalagmites, remember this: Stalactites hold tightly to the ceiling, while stalagmites might reach the ceiling someday.
Mammoth offers 20 tours, although not all are offered every day.
1. Explore A Bottomless Pit Of History
Start your day with the 2.25-hour Extended Historic Tour. Be prepared for 2 miles of walking and 540 stairs. The rangers will share many fascinating stories, but Stephen Bishop’s story was our favorite. Before the Civil War, enslaved guides led tours and explored many miles of the cave. Stephen Bishop was the first Mammoth guide, and he trained other guides. Among many exploits, he extended a ladder across the 105-foot-deep Bottomless Pit, held a lantern in his teeth, and crawled to the other side. His signature in candle smoke adorns many areas of the cave that frighten even modern cavers.
Fun Fact: Bishop is buried in the park’s Old Guide’s Cemetery, along with three tuberculosis patients who died in the cave. In 1842, tuberculosis patients lived in huts in the cave, part of an experimental treatment.
2. Domes And Dripstones: Where Niagara Is Frozen
In the afternoon, join the 2-hour Domes and Dripstones Tour for the cave’s best formations. The tour starts in a sinkhole, meanders through gigantic domes, ending at Frozen Niagara. The tour requires three-quarters of a mile of walking and includes 500 stairs, starting with 280 at the beginning.
3. Beauty And Commercial Warfare At Great Onyx Cave
Great Onyx Cave is not connected to Mammoth, but the park offers a one-mile lantern tour there with 40 stairs. Onyx is full of gorgeous formations, but the cave’s history is even more fascinating. During the Kentucky Cave Wars, Onyx, Mammoth, and many other caves’ owners engaged in cutthroat competition for tourist dollars. Onyx lay beneath two property owners’ land. The one without cave access successfully sued the other, determining property rights case law to this day.
Pro Tip: The cave offers a River Styx Tour, but flooding often renders it impassible. Instead, explore Mammoth’s River of the Underworld outside. From the historic cave entrance, walk toward the Green River. Look for the River Styx where it joins the Green, then follow it downhill to the cave. Continue on the 3.4-mile Echo River Trail, one of our recommended Kentucky hikes.
Fun Fact: The word styx means shuddering. The mythological river was the boundary between the lands of the living and of the dead.
Explore Demeter’s Realm On The Surface
The park offers more than 80 miles of trails. Sixty miles are available for horseback riding and 19 miles are for bikes. All the equestrian trails are north of the Green River. Observe safety principles.
Pro Tip: If you want to know where you are in relation to the cave system below, visit the Beneath Your Feet website or scan the QR code on a sign.
4. Follow The Mammoth Cave Railroad Route
A railroad reached the cave in 1886, but it closed in 1931. The Mammoth Cave Railroad Hike and Bike Trail mostly follows the railroad’s route, but unlike many former rail routes turned trails, this trail is not flat. It extends into neighboring Park City. Download a map (PDF).
5. Get In Sync On The Cedar Sink Trail
The park’s above-ground world syncs with its subterranean world on the one-mile-loop Cedar Sink Trail. The top is 300 feet above the sinkhole bottom. The sinkhole is often full of seasonal wildflowers. When the water table is high, the underground river rises into the sinkhole’s bottom. Visitors must descend stairs to enter the sinkhole and ascend another set of stairs to exit it.
Pro Tip: Hike the loop clockwise to walk down the longer staircase.
6. Remember A Kentucky Cave Wars Casualty At The Sand Cave Trail
In 1925, Floyd Collins went searching for a new cave. His family’s Crystal Cave was losing in the Cave Wars, and he hoped to find a new attraction at Sand Cave. While he was in a tight passageway, a falling rock pinned his leg. Rescuers sought to extract Collins from the cave as his plight captured the nation’s attention. Tragically, every rescue attempt failed. After 18 days, Collins died of exposure. He is buried in the park at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church after a long, strange posthumous odyssey.
7. Experience Local Culture At Historic Churches And Cemeteries
Before Mammoth became a park, nearly 30 rural communities lived within park boundaries. When the land became a park, the residents left three churches and 70 cemeteries. The churches are open to guests. Search the cemetery database before you explore. Be respectful and leave no trace.
8. Fish, No Fishing License Required
Fishing on the Green and Nolin rivers in the park is best in the spring and summer. Catch bass, perch, catfish, crappie, and bluegill, and other game fish. The park does not require any fishing licenses, but catch and creel regulations apply.
9. Paddle 30 River Miles
Four suggested river trips last from 1.5 to 6 hours of paddling time. Look for wildlife and riverside caves. Beware of downed trees and logjams. Always wear personal flotation devices and follow river safety guidelines.
Pro Tip: The park provides a list of canoe and kayak outfitters.
10. Catch A New Passion For Horses
Double J Stables offers guided horseback rides. The park’s equestrian options include everything from smooth paths to daring ridgeline trails. Park your horse trailer at one of five trailheads on the park’s north side.
Best Camping In Mammoth Cave National Park
11. Sleep Above The Cave In The Lodge At Mammoth Cave
12. Authentic Meets Amenities At Mammoth Cave Campground
Only a quarter-mile from the visitor center, Mammoth Cave Campground offers 111 campsites. It has two accessible campsites and accessible restrooms on each loop. In season, the campground offers a store, dump station, potable water, and laundry facilities.
13. Groups And Horses Are Welcome At Maple Springs
Eight sites at Maple Springs Group Campground offer greater seclusion and are perfect springboards for backcountry exploration. Sites one through four are designed for people with horses.
14. Enjoy Peace And Quiet At Houchin Ferry
Houchin Ferry Campground is reserved for tents only. Drive up to one of 12 first-come, first-served campsites.
15. Rough It In The Backcountry
Thirteen backcountry sites are ready for those who like adventure. The campsites, accessible only to hikers and horseback riders, offer only fire rings and hitching posts. Boaters may camp on islands or floodplains along the Green and Nolin rivers. All backcountry and riverside campers must obtain permits. River campers should always check river levels and weather.
Cell phone service is hard to come by in the park. Beware of poison ivy, poison oak, ticks, and mosquitoes. And if Mammoth Cave has given you the cave-explorers’ bug, check out these caves nearby.