From Mammoth Cave To Death Valley And Back Again In One Career With The National Park Service

Sarah Craighead, who started her Park Service career as a seasonal ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park more than three decades ago, is back as superintendent. Here she and Facilities Management Chief Steve Kovar inspect electrical issues along the Frozen Niagara tour route. NPS photo.

Sarah Craighead has come full circle.

Oh, it took trips through Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Saguaro and Death Valley national parks, and some other units of the National Park System, but she's back where she started her career several decades ago. While that first National Park Service job was as a seasonal at one of Mammoth Cave National Park's campgrounds, these days Ms. Craighead oversees everything in the park as superintendent.

"I did my first seasonal appointment here. Actually worked for the concessionaire before that. So, I’ve just been around the area for a long time," the superintendent recalled while discussing her lengthy Park Service career. "So, when the job came up, it was just a great opportunity for me to get back to an area that I really liked. Actually, really love."

A Kentucky native who grew up just 10 miles from Mammoth Cave, Ms. Craighead attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where she received a degree in biology. It was during her college summers that she landed a job for a concessionaire in a park hotel that since has vanished.

"I pretty quickly realized that Park Service people where making a whole lot more money, and probably having more fun than I was, so I was able to get a job working in the campground. Thought it was the best job I ever had in my life, and it probably was the best job I ever had in my life," she said.

That job launched Ms. Craighead on a career that took her through Independence Hall National Historical Park in Philadelphia and to Manassas National Battlefield in Virginia, to Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma as its first superintendent, and to Saguaro in Arizona and Death Valley in California and Nevada, also as superintendent in both those parks.

From Scorching Desert To Deep Underground

The back-to-back assignments at Death Valley and Mammoth Cave are unique if for no other reason than the climatological and ecological juxtapositions. One is the hottest place on earth, an arid, seemingly barren landscape of dunes and bare-faced geology, the other the world's longest cave worming deep below a heavily forested surface. While Death Valley requires lots of moisturizer, sunscreen, and drinking water, Mammoth Cave demands a sweater, comfort in tight, dark spaces, and a flashlight at the ready.

“I love the park (Death Valley), it’s just a phenomenal place. The summers are truly, truly hot. I mean, they are beyond hot," Superintendent Craighead said with a chuckle. "There were nights in July, particularly, that the temperature never got below 100. You’re OK for the first couple of months, but by about mid-September, you get cabin fever there just like the cold parts of the country because you can’t get out and do anything (it’s so hot)."

Just the sheer size of Death Valley -- more than 3.3 million acres -- makes it a complicated park to administer, as it can take days to reach some areas of the park. Mammoth Cave, though not quite 53,000 acres, has its own very unique aspects.

“Cave environments are kind of a thing unto themselves. I feel like I haven't worked in a traditional park in a long time because the deserts are sort of a little bit new to the park system. They're certainly not as old as the big tree parks (such as Yosemite and Sequoia)," pointed out the superintendent. "And then caves are a totally different beast as well. Cave environments are so different, they’re so dark and so underground. We say here that we really manage two parks. We manage the surface trails and camping and all that, and then we have a whole underground environment, which has its own complications.

"... It is a little different trying to get used to managing that whole subsurface environment with the complexity of just getting goods and services down there," said Superintendent Craighead. "We have a big project to upgrade our park elevator because it’s not in great condition, and that’s going to take several years and lots of money to upgrade that. But we’ve got to do it because you just have to get down in those sections of the cave where people are and where you have to provide services, bathrooms and all that sort of stuff. It’s complex.

"... Death Valley was so big that it took us hours and hours and hours to get to the other side of the park. It would take us whole days to get to sections of the park, and that’s certainly not the case here. It’s just having those two sets of assets to keep in place and having the resources with both. You have threatened and endangered species on the surface, but you also have blind cave shrimp, which are endangered, and bats with the whole white-nose syndrome issue.”

Turning to another stop in her career, at Saguaro National Park, the superintendent pointed out that in that 91,439-acre park there were roughly 85 miles of hiking trails, while at Mammoth Cave, a park roughly half as large, there also are about 85 miles of hiking trails on the surface.

"We also have the river environment, the Green and Nolin rivers that run through the park. And we have canoeing and fishing and all of the river uses," she went on, ticking off the various aspects of Mammoth Cave that speak to the park's great recreational and cultural diversity. "And then the cultural resources, I think there are in the neighborhood of 83 documented cemeteries that are within park boundaries, and so we maintain something like 15 of those."

If you're heading to either Mammoth Cave or Death Valley national parks and wondering what to do, here are some suggestions from the superintendent:

Death Valley

"Favorite spot: Sidewinder Canyon You can just pick a canyon in that park and walk into it. In most, you won't see anyone else during the entire hike. They all have outstanding views, with no human sounds, and most are cool even into the summer, particularly in the morning."

"Must see: Badwater. It's the hottest place in the world and the lowest in North America."

Mammoth Cave

"Favorite activity: Canoeing on the Green River. It's very beautiful with limestone cliffs and of course, incredibly green. Lots of wildlife and very peaceful."

"Must see: Historic entrance of the cave and the tour that leaves from there. The entrance is huge and very iconic. The tour is great because it through tremendous rooms with lots of historic artifacts from different periods of Mammoth Cave's history."