Welcome to the world's largest cave system, a whopping 400+ mile labyrinth of subterranean adventure. Whether you're a professional spelunker or a caving novice, navigating Kentucky's incredible Mammoth Cave National Park is easier than you might think. Plus, it boasts one of the most colorful histories and coolest attractions of all the country's National Parks. From mummies to sinkholes, there's a lot to see above and below the ground.
Some tips for visiting Mammoth Cave National Park:
-The NPS puts on different tours that highlight various parts of the cave, so you don't have to worry about getting lost underground in a 400 mile maze of creepy darkness. The Historic Tour, the Frozen Niagara Tour, and the Domes and Dripstones Tour are always popular, but there's also a more adventurous "Introduction to Caving" tour, and "The Violet City Lantern Tour" is especially awesome, since it encompasses parts of several shorter tours, plus you do the whole thing by lantern light, which adds an air of mystery and excitement to the whole thing. -The tours they offer (and when they offer them daily) change depending on the seasons, so check ahead of time to pick out what you want to do. Also, some of the tours have height, age, or other restrictions, so keep that in mind as well. -Above the ground, you'll find 70 miles of trails and the Green River, where you can kayak, canoe, swim and fish. You can also find horseback riding, camping, and more. -Inside the cave, it's about 54 degrees, although it can be warmer or colder, depending on various factors. Pack a sweater and good walking shoes!
Since Mammoth Cave is all about geological wonders hidden below the Earth, Big Mike's Rock Shop is a kitschy, fun place to pick up some souvenirs. Choose a geode and have them cut it open for you, browse the colorful rocks and minerals, and check out the dinosaur fossil upstairs.
There aren't tons of restaurants around rural Kentucky, but Porky Pig Diner is a solid bet. Plus, the mom-and-pop vibes are pretty great; they even have a basset hound named Pound Hound who hangs out outside. Order the fried chicken or fried catfish, a coffee or a sweet tea, and some pie for dessert and you'll be prepared to take on the cave.
Cedar Sink Trail is one of the most unique hikes in the park. The relatively short, but staircase-heavy, trail leads past a river, through lovely forests, and around a huge sinkhole. Plus, you can see the river dipping in and out of the cave.
After exploring the caves, you'll probably be in need of some sustenance (and maybe a drink). Make like a local and grab some filling Mexican food at El Mazatlan. Consider splitting the delicious fajitas with someone. You'll want to save room for a giant margarita, fried ice cream, and plenty of chips and salsa.
Most people think of the Wigwam Village motel as a Route 66 attraction, but not everyone knows that there used to be multiple Wigwam Villages dotted across the US. Only a few are still standing, including the ones along Route 66 (like Wigwam Village #7), but there's one right near Mammoth Cave, Wigwam Village No 2!
If you're looking for something homier and less kitschy, nearby Bear Wallow Belles is a Victorian home turned into a bed and breakfast, situated on a quaint dairy farm. Country-style breakfasts, private bathrooms, and loads of tasteful antiques add to the cozy feel of this little spot.
If you're looking for a more low-key cave tour, the leisurely 45-minute walk through Onyx Cave, located just outside the park, is pretty easy but no less impressive. It's a wet cave (which means it's still actively forming) that contains features like "cave bacon", "cave coral", and more.
Another subterranean adventure in the area is Outlaw Cave. The 45-minute tour doesn't have any stairs whatsoever, so it's great for strollers and wheelchairs. You'll see stalactites and stalagmites (and learn the difference between the two) along the way. Pro tip: the last tour of the day is usually around 6pm, and it's a pretty cool old-school lantern tour.
Diamond Caverns has been stunning visitors with its beauty for almost 150 years, but just because it's been around for awhile doesn't mean its not worth visiting. It's got state-of-the-art lighting that illuminates the cathedral-esque caverns.
Looking to grab a bite between hikes and tours? Luckily enough, Crystal Lake Coffee Shop is located near the visitor center, and it serves up tasty, no-frills breakfasts, lunches and dinners (all with a side of retro diner vibes), complete with vegetarian options!
Mammoth Cave was first extensively mapped out by a slave named Steven Bishop, and when the cave was sold to John Croghan of Louisville in 1839, Bishop stuck around, since he was pretty much the guide to the caves. Croghan had an interesting plan for the massive caverns, he thought that the air in the caves had fumes in it that could cure tuberculosis, a disease that was running rampant at an almost-epidemic level at the time. So, he built a hospital, which was very short-lived...and ironically enough, TB would eventually kill both Croghan and Bishop. Bishop is buried nearby on a hill above the cave in what is known as "The Old Guides' Cemetery," which makes for an interesting stop while visiting the park.
Believe it or not, the Cub Run Cave was discovered fairly recently, in 1950. It was opened for a short time, then closed before being reopened in 2006. It's got all-new elevated wooden walkways, and the tour groups are kept small and personal. Plus, the drive out here from Mammoth Cave National Park is quite pretty.
The best time to visit Mammoth Cave National Park: Snow and cold temperatures definitely limit your tour options of the cave in the winter, and summer is by far the most popular time to visit. Spring is lovely, with mild temperatures and wildflowers, and there's lots of great fall foliage in the autumn, plus transitional seasons are less crowded as well.