By Cortney Fries
It was so completely pitch-black I couldn’t see my hands waving inches from my face. The National Park Service ranger leading my tour of Mammoth Cave had cautioned us of this before she turned off all the lights. However, the stark darkness was still incredibly eye opening.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Under the rolling hills of south-central Kentucky, equidistant between Louisville and Nashville, sits the longest known cave system in the world. The limestone labyrinth at Mammoth Cave National Park lies 200 to 300 feet underground with over 400 mapped miles in five levels of passageways. A UNESCO World Heritage site and epicenter of an International Biosphere Reserve, this geological wonder was one of America’s first tourist attractions. A visit to this gigantic cave system is as intriguing as its history.
Formed over 15 million years as water slowly carved through rock, tight passageways give way to grand domes. Interesting formations, incredible creatures and even a river runs through this underworld. Rangers lead an array of tours from introductory to adventurous. They also share tales that range from true to tall. It was bittersweet to learn about Stephen Bishop, the young enslaved tour guide whose dangerous work of negotiating the unknown cavern’s tunnels, underground rivers and black pits made touring the caverns possible. I felt lucky to spot a small bat that rangers described as a fuzzy chicken nugget. I wish I could have spied one of the eyeless fish that never see the light of day.
Mammoth Cave is a cool 54 degrees year round. As you venture below the Earth’s surface, you can see prehistoric artifacts, remnants from saltpeter mining for gunpowder used in the War of 1812 and structures from the underground tuberculosis hospital of the 1840s. Marvel at Frozen Niagara, a flowstone formation that cascades down like a stone waterfall and see the River Styx at the lowest level, where water still works to extend the cave system.
Once you emerge from the darkness inside the cave, brilliant beams of sunshine and vibrant greens across the 52,830 acres of park above ground burst into life in stark contrast. In summer, you can enjoy hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, birdwatching and more.
You’ll find many family-friendly activities and rustic accommodations in the towns surrounding Mammoth Cave. I overnighted in Bowling Green, where there are a number of AAA–approved properties from which to choose. I opted for Home2 Suites by Hilton, which feature convenient kitchenettes and spacious separate sitting rooms. Historic Bowling Green is also home to tempting restaurants and inspiring attractions.
The National Corvette Museum will get your blood pumping even if you aren’t a Corvette enthusiast. At Lost River Cave, I had to duck down into the boat as my guide steered us into the cave that Union and Confederate soldiers had camped in during the Civil War.
Dining options are plentiful, too. The creamiest, most savory shrimp and grits I’ve ever eaten are served at The Bistro. Near the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you simply must try bourbon ice cream from Chaney’s Dairy Barn, bourbon tenderloin filet from Montana Grille and perhaps imbibe in some of the beautiful brown liquid as well. Feel the warmth of the people light your spirit and the bourbon wrap you up in a Kentucky hug.