Editor's note: Mammoth Cave National Park marked the final stop on David and Kay Scott's nation-spanning tour of national parks, a tour that has provided much-needed information for them to update their guidebook, The Complete Guide To The National Park Lodges.
Greetings from Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, where more than 50,000 acres of ravines, rivers, and hardwood forests overlay the park’s major draw, the world’s longest cave.
Mammoth Cave has more than 365 miles of discovered passageways in an underground system that is thought to be over twice this length. The park welcomes nearly a million visitors annually, about half of which take one or more of the many cave tours offered by the National Park Service.
Fourteen types of cave tours are offered at different frequencies throughout the day. For example, the popular “New Entrance Tour” is given seven times daily, while “Introduction to Caving” is offered only once per day. Other popular tours are the “Niagara Tour” and the “Historic Tour.”
Tickets for the tours can be purchased on site, but it is wise to call ahead for reservations (877-444-6777), especially during the busy summer season. The park brochure states that weapons of any kind, including brass knuckles, are not permitted on the tours or in the visitor center.
The park offers more than cave tours. Dozens of miles of trails are available for hikers and bicycles are rented at the camper store near the hotel. A large grassy area near the hotel is perfect for Frisbee, playing catch, or reading under a hardwood tree. The hotel offers three dining options during the summer months, all of which sell food at very reasonable prices.
The park also has an interesting ferry to carry vehicles across the Green River.
Not much seems to change between our visits to this park, but this time we encountered two surprises. One related to the visitor center. The old visitor center is gone and a new larger version is under construction.
Actually, the attractive new visitor center is half completed. The remaining half, which will contain exhibits, is being constructed using the steel frame of the old visitor center.
The new center is quite impressive and a major improvement over the old one. The really big surprise concerns Mammoth Cave Hotel, but more about this later.
Mammoth Cave Hotel offers four types of lodging at prices that range from $60 to $99 per night. Compare this against most national park lodging and it is easy to see that the cost of rooms in this park is quite modest.
All the lodging is within walking distance of the dining room and coffee shop, and also near the visitor center where tickets are sold for cave tours.
The current hotel, which is one of the four lodging options, is actually the third major hotel here. The first, built in the late 1800s burned, while the second was torn down in 1979.
The least expensive rooms are Woodland Cottages, frame buildings that are actually pretty nice, but do not have air-conditioning, a real negative during much of the hot, humid summer the park experiences. The cottages are available with one, two, three, or four bedrooms.
Fourteen of the 20 Woodland Cottages have two bedrooms, which cost $70. Ten Hotel Cottages on the opposite side of the visitor center do have air conditioning. These cottages hold two adults, sit on a wooded hillside, and cost $79 per night. This is about $40 per night less than tent cabins in Yosemite National Park.
The third lodging option, Sunset Terrace rooms, are essentially single-story motel units constructed in the 1960s that have more interior space than most cottage units. The rooms are a superior choice for families and rent for $99 per night.
These are the most expensive rooms in the park unless you opt for a very large Woodland Cottage unit that can sleep up to 20 people.
The fourth option is recently redone Heritage Trail Rooms in the main hotel that rent for $89 per night for two adults. These rooms are relatively small, but quite comfortable, and where we generally stay. Bedding choices are two doubles or one king.
Lodging and dining facilities in Mammoth Cave National Park are operated by Forever Resorts, which took over the concession several years ago from National Park Concessions. The contract is currently on its ninth one-year extension, with a new prospectus anticipated by 2013. It appears the new prospectus is expected to include a major renovation of the main hotel that opened in 1965.
The National Park Service would like larger rooms and an exterior appearance to match the new visitor center. Larger rooms in the same building means the concessionaire would lose nearly a third of the existing rooms.
The possibility of a major renovation, or, perhaps, even a new hotel, was the major surprise we encountered during our visit. Not as big a surprise as learning the NPS will be replacing the current cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge in Badlands National Park, but a major surprise nonetheless.
Mammoth Cave Hotel is our last stop on Road Trip 2011, and we are now on our way south to our home in Valdosta, Georgia. We intend to submit a future article with a trip summary. First, however, we need some rest.
It has started to feel like we are moving even when we are in bed. We sometimes wake up in the morning and can’t remember where we are, or even what state we are in. Help!
Thanks to all of you who read our articles and took time to submit comments. We appreciate your interest in the national parks and the lodges that allow all of us to stay in such beautiful places.