Visit To Mammoth Cave National Park Shows Off Above- and Below-Ground Wonders

The Star Chamber was immortalized on a postcard. Image courtesy of the NPS.

While most folks head to Mammoth Cave National Park with the intent to spend their time underground, during a recent late-summer visit with my wife the weather was so delightful we decided to invest a good amount of time above ground hiking the trails.

For those who savor solitude, following the park's trails through the forests is a perfect way to sense being alone. The surface weather at this time of year -- late August -- is T-shirt comfortable, with daytime highs in the mid to upper 70s that were at least 20 degrees warmer than the steady 54 degrees Fahrenheit underground.

Touring The Landscape of Mammoth Cave National Park

Starting with the Heritage Trail, we walked past the Old Guides' cemetery to Sunset Point for a view over the Green River gorge. From there we ventured down the Green River Bluffs Trail, hiking in nearly complete silence beneath the canopy of mixed deciduous forest. We were surrounded by trees -- oak, shagbark, hickory, tulip poplar, loblolly pine, and eastern red cedar -- and shared the woods with an occasional white-tailed deer.

Most of these trees are second-growth, but the canopy appears to have recovered completely from the extensive logging and farming that occurred prior to the establishment of the national park in 1941. Fortunately, about 300 acres of the old growth forest (which once covered most of Kentucky) remains. The old growth tulip poplars (Lirodendroan tulipifera), which are the state tree of Kentucky, are enormous. Indeed, the park's natural resources -- those above and below ground -- led to Mammoth Cave being declared a World Heritage Site in 1981 and an international Biosphere Reserve nine years later.

Following the ridge line, we hiked down to the River Styx and along the gorge of the Green River to the springs of the Echo River. Both of these surface water sources drain from the base of Mammoth Cave into the Green River. Numerous sink holes funnel water from the surface into Mammoth Cave. A particularly large sink hole system, indicative of the surrounding Karst topography that is a tell-tale sign of caves down below, is the source of water that forged the large underground vault known as Mammoth Dome.

While enjoying the solitude offered by the above-ground trails of the park, I recalled that it was my former ranger-naturalist colleagues who worked with me in 1966 at Crater Lake National Park, Drs. Adolf Faller and Marion Jackson, who first published a description of the ecology of the above-ground flora of this area. I wondered by how much the forest ecosystem has changed since they published their results almost 40 years ago.

On To the Main Attraction

Of course, the above-ground landscape of Mammoth Cave is only an enjoyable precursor to what awaits down below in the numerous guided trips offered at the park. We decided on the evening Star Chamber lantern tour for our first entry into the cave, followed the next day by a trip into the New Entrance. These two guided trips gave us completely different impressions and information about the world's longest cave. For those of us having the Golden Age "Geezer" Pass, tour prices are reduced by 50 percent. As is the case for other parks of the Southeast, there is no charge for park entrance.

The lantern tour into the Star Chamber was led by two knowledgeable young female rangers. They did an excellent job re-creating the experience entering the cave from its natural entrance prior to the time of electric lights. We saw the saltpeter works, the short-lived tuberculosis treatment shelters, the 180-year old soot-signatures (historic graffiti) on the ceilings and walls of the cave.

I found it surprising to learn that for the past 2,000 years there has been no evidence of Native American entrance nor use of the cave. What artifacts and mummified remains that have been found are pre-Columbian. Somewhere in a secret place, the intact remains of "Lost John" have been re-inserted in the cavern for permanent rest.

We learned that the first guides to the cave were slaves. The Star Chamber was a favorite for special effects stories and solicitation for tips by these early guides. Lantern light inside the Star Chamber presented the illusion of a black night sky with the Milky Way, the Moon, a comet, and single stars as dim light reflected off fresh chips in the gypsum ceiling that was otherwise blackened from the smoke of historic use of lanterns and torches.

By collecting all of our lanterns as we sat on benches in the Star Chamber, our ranger guides re-created a ritual performed by former cave guides of sunset fading into dusk as they walked off into the west, followed by complete darkness and silence. After some minutes of blackness, a faint hint of dawn appeared in the east with sounds of a rooster crowing, followed by sunrise and the return of our ranger guides holding all of our lanterns. They returned into the Star Chamber from a totally different direction from that from which they left the room.

We were told that many of the piles of rocks we passed on our way to the cave exit were actually monuments erected by former cave guides for tips to celebrate each state from which visitors came. Of course, the largest monument, reaching from floor to ceiling, was for Kentucky.

Our second trip underground, via the New Entrance tour, was led by two veteran male rangers, one with seven seasons' experience, and the other who had just transferred from Carlsbad Caverns and who had worked for the concession previously at Oregon Caves. On this trip we descended hundreds of stairs through tight fissures in the rock to a depth of some 400 feet below the surface. This trip revealed the ornamental features that are normally associated with large caverns like Carlsbad.

Photos of the park and its underground wonders can't deliver the impact and excitement generated by a first-hand experience. We learned about the Cave Wars of the early 1900s and the recent discoveries that connected several cave systems to Mammoth Cave, which now reaches 392 miles in overall length.

Experiencing total natural darkness with the extinguishing of the electric lights, our guides told us in soft tones not to be frightened and said that we had sufficient lighting within our group to find our way to the surface if a disaster happened and the electric generators were to fail completely.

We asked "what kind of lights are you talking about?" Our ranger guides invited us to turn on our cell phones, digital cameras, and uncover our luminescent wrist watches. The blackness of the room brightened right up! It was astounding how much detail underground can be seen with dark-adapted eyes.

During this journey we also learned the details of the failed rescue of famed local spelunker, Floyd Collins, who in 1925 at the age of 37 became trapped when he dislodged a rock of a mere 27 pounds in a narrow passageway in Sand Cave some 65 feet below ground, wedging his lower leg and foot. He was discovered alive the following day by his brother; however, the rescue attempt continued for another two weeks. As the rescue proceeded media attention grew and the story went national.

The prolonged rescue eventually attracted a crowd estimated to reach 10,000 persons. We were told that the story of the rescue of Floyd Collins became the biggest non-political/non-war news story in the United States at the time, rivaling the sinking of the Titanic and the Lindberg kidnapping.

Charles Lindberg himself played a bit part in the Floyd Collins story, as he flew photographic negatives from Mammoth Cave to newspapers in Chicago.

One of the persons who assisted with the rescue was a reporter, William Burke "Skeets" Miller, from Louisville, Kentucky, who just happened to be of very small build, facilitating his entry into the cave. He brought food and drink to Collins and interviewed him seven times while trying to figure out different ways to free him from his underground trap. His articles eventually brought him the Pulitzer Prize.

I personally thought the hype about the fate of Mr. Collins was a bit much, bordering on rank sensationalism, until I realized that this massive publicity event is what initiated organized efforts in 1926 to get Mammoth Cave established as a national park.

Although the National Park Service has been working hard over the past several decades to improve diversity in the workforce, and although the first cave guides were African Americans, we noticed none wearing the green and grey on these three days at Mammoth Cave.

Why Do Bats Need Teeth?

To the ranger stationed at the information counter on our final morning in the park, my wife asked the question, "Why do bats need to have teeth if their diet is entirely made up of mosquitoes?"

This question brought the lady in uniform to her reference books on bats. But soon, the off-duty resources management specialist noticed the conversation and made himself available to produce the answer: "The bats of Mammoth Cave eat much more than only soft bodied mosquitoes....they need their teeth to bite through the hard wings of beetles, to tear off the large wings of moths, and to consume other larger insects."

We stayed at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, now run by Forever Resorts (a name we'd like to see changed). We found the rooms to be adequate for the price, the staff helpful and friendly, and the restaurant and service therein to be excellent. The restaurant was nicely decorated with enlarged black and white photos from years past. A sack lunch for hikes could not be obtained at the snack counter, nor dinning room, but custom sandwiches were readily produced at the nearby camp store.

It's been decades since I was last at Mammoth Cave. This return visit was special. I will most certainly return again.

Resources

Mammoth Cave National Park -- www.nps.gov/maca

Lodging: Forever Resorts, http://mammothcavehotel.com/

Comments

Thanks for the article. We too loved Mammoth Cave and do plan on returning. The caves are awesome and definitely worth seeing, but we are surface-dwellers and actually had the best times kayaking the Green River and hiking the secluded trails in the Park.

thanks. This park is on the top of my list. Hope to visit it next year so wonderful to read more about it.

Great post prkranger!..Hope to see more from you here.