At 420 miles, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. No visit to Mammoth Cave National Park would be complete without a cave tour (or two or three). Sadly, many people do miss out, though, because of poor planning. We’re here to make sure that you’re not one of those people! Keep reading for all the tips you need to plan your trip to Mammoth Cave NP.
Of course, the cave is only one part of Mammoth Cave NP. In addition to the vast underground labyrinth, above ground you will find hiking trails, a river for paddling and fishing and, at night, ranger-led Night Sky programs.
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Exploring Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave NP offers many different cave tours of varying length throughout the year. Seriously, compared to other cave parks, such as Wind Cave NP or Timpanogos Cave NM, the options for cave tours is dizzying. Still, these cave tours do sell out frequently, especially during the busy summer months.
So, our number one tip for visiting Mammoth Cave NP is to reserve a cave tour well in advance. How far in advance? That depends. Some tour reservations are available up to 6 months in advance, but the full schedule may not be announced until 1-3 months prior to the tour date. Check the park’s website and recreation.gov for the tour schedule and reservations.
If you prefer to keep things spontaneous and flexible, arrive early and hope that a tour is available. During peak visitation, the park sometimes offers a self-guided tour when ranger-led tours are sold out. This allows you to explore a small part of the cave at your own pace. While it’s not ideal, it is better than nothing. Note: this tour is only offered at certain times. Do not rely on this being an option. It’s always best to make reservations ahead of time.
Choosing the Right Tour
With roughly 20 different tours, choosing the right one for you can be overwhelming. I know it was for us! Of course, depending on your interests and abilities, not all of the tours will be right for you.
For example, the Wild Cave Tour is an all day adventure that requires crawling through tight spaces. By contrast, the Accessible Tour is designed for those with limited physical mobility who cannot easily navigate stairs. While it is available to all visitors, the park service rightly requests that you not book this tour if no one in your group has physical limitations.
Of course, there are plenty of other tour options that visit different parts of the cave and spend varying amounts of time underground. If caves make you a little nervous, consider the Mammoth Passage Tour, which is just over an hour long and avoids tight spaces. The Frozen Niagara Tour visits one of the most naturally decorated areas of the cave.
The park website has a thorough description of each cave tour along with the duration, distance, number of stairs, difficulty, age requirements, if a bathroom is available, number of tickets for each tour and the cost. Be sure to check this information carefully when choosing your cave tour. You may even want to book two short tours to see different parts of the cave.
The Grand Tour
We chose the Grand Tour, which is 4 hours long and covers nearly 4 miles of the cave. We chose this one in an effort to see as much of the cave as possible. While we enjoyed the tour and the contrast of large rooms, slot canyons, history and geology, it was physically demanding at times and did not allow a lot of time for pictures.
This tour, like several others, required a short bus ride to get to the proper cave entrance. From there, we walked over hills, up and down stairs, and through some tight spaces. Perhaps the most interesting aspect for us was that much of this route was not very ornate. And that makes sense when you consider that the cave is more than 400 miles long! Not all of it is stalactites, stalagmites, dripstone and other cave formations.
Overall, I’d say this was a good tour but I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend it for a first-time visitor.
What to Expect Inside Mammoth Cave
Each cave tour description will give you an idea of what you will see inside the cave. Some feature large rooms, others take you to historic areas, and some to the parts of the cave with elaborate features.
In terms of the cave environment, the temperature inside the cave is generally around 55 degrees year-round. It’s always best to wear pants and bring a sweater or jacket inside the cave. On the plus side, if it’s raining, you don’t need to worry about that inside the cave!
Finally, as of January 2022, masks are required for all visitors inside the cave. While we certainly understand the requirement, I have to be honest that this was not fun for us during our 4-hour strenuous tour.
Above Ground at Mammoth Cave National Park
Not only are there 400 miles of underground passages at Mammoth Cave, there also are 80 miles of hiking trails, recreation on and around the Green River and a few historic buildings. The visitor center also has a nice exhibit display about Mammoth Cave, some of the nearly invisible life found inside the cave, its history and how it compares to other cave systems.
You should definitely plan to spend 20-30 minutes checking out the exhibits and learning more about Mammoth Cave either before or after your cave tour.
Even with just a short visit, you should make time for at least a short hike near the visitor center. In fact, right outside the visitor center there are roughly 7 miles of interconnect trails that you can choose from to create a short or long hike before or after your cave tour.
If your cave tour does not start at the historic entrance, you should definitely take the short walk out the back of the visitor center to see it. A paved path takes you just about a tenth of a mile to the large natural entrance. From there, two different trails lead down to the Green River.
While these trails do involve a bit of elevation change and uneven surfaces, most are easy-moderate in difficulty. Be sure to get a trail map with mileage and descriptions and explore as much as time allows.
Along Mammoth Cave Parkway, the Sloans Crossing Pond Walk is a short wheelchair accessible boardwalk loop around a small pond. The trail is so short and easy that I hesitate to call it a hike, but it is a nice walk and a good opportunity to spot birds and other wildlife. You’ll find this trail between I-65 (exit 48) and the Visitor Center.
On the other side of the Green River, a number of backcountry hiking trails are available for a day hike or even an overnight backpacking trip. Unfortunately, there are no bridges connecting the north and side sides of the park.
Near the visitor center (on the south side of the park), the Green River Ferry carries vehicles across the river. The ferry typically operates 6:00 am – 9:55 pm daily (except Christmas Day) but is subject to closures when water levels are high. During our visit, the ferry was not running due to maintenance issues. Check the park’s website for more information on the ferry.
You can also reach the north side of Mammoth Cave NP via highways outside of the park but the ferry saves you quite a bit of time and distance.
Where to Stay When Visiting Mammoth Cave NP
There are several options for lodging inside the park. The Lodge at Mammoth Cave and Mammoth Cave Campground are both located near the visitor center and cave entrance. Additional campgrounds and backcountry campsites are located on the north side of the park.
The Lodge offers basic hotel rooms and cottages just steps from the visitor center. While these accommodations are not luxurious, it may be worth it if you have an early tour or are trying to get tour tickets at the last minute.
Mammoth Cave Campground is open March – November and includes 109 campsites. Some sites can accommodate RVs up to 38 feet in length (26 feet for trailers) but there are no hookups. The campground is nestled in the woods just 1/4 mile from the visitor center and is a great location if you don’t require hookups.
We chose to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bowling Green, which is about 30 minutes west of Mammoth Cave. Being in Bowling Green gave us a good number of restaurants to choose from, along with easy access to shopping or anything else you might need. There are also a few hotels in the communities of Park City and Cave City, right outside the park.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park
Whether you are a national parks buff or are just looking for something fun to do, Mammoth Cave is well worth your time. But you do want to spend a little time planning ahead for your visit.
Be sure to check out all of the cave tour options at least a month or two in advance. While you should pay attention to the cave features that you’ll see, you should also consider the physical requirements and make sure that you can handle any stairs or tight spaces. If you’re having a difficult time deciding, you could even book 2 different tours.
And, while the cave is certainly the highlight of Mammoth Cave National Park, you should plan to spend a few hours outside the cave as well. The exhibits at the visitor center and the hiking trails right outside both give you a better understanding of the tremendous ecosystem and history of this area.
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