Mammoth Cave National Park: The Complete Guide

Mammoth Cave National Park
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Mammoth Cave National Park

Address
Kentucky, USA
Phone +1 270-758-2180

Home to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave National Park spreads out over nearly 53,000 acres in west-central Kentucky. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the park is divided by the Green River into two halves with distinct personalities. The south side of the park is where you’ll find the visitor’s center, cave tours, and easiest trails. The wilder north side, accessible only by ferry crossing, hosts more than 60 miles of backcountry trails. From things to do to where to stay, here's how to plan your trip.

Things to Do

When professional spelunkers finally found a passage in 1972 linking Mammoth Cave to the Flint Ridge system, the unified cave system became the most extensive in the world. Even with more than 400 miles of caverns and passages already surveyed, new passages continue to be discovered and explored each year. Visitors can get a peek inside the cave with numerous guided tours and one self-guided walk (see more below).

For things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park above ground, hiking, camping, biking, and horseback riding can be enjoyed. Likewise, a handful of private outfitters rent kayaks and canoes on both the Green River and Nolin River. The most popular stretch for paddling flat, scenic water is from the Dennison Ferry to the Green River Ferry (7.6 miles). Continuing on to the Houchin Ferry adds 12.4 miles of scenic paddling that’s often less busy.

Within the boundaries of the national park, you can legally fish in the Green River and small creeks without a license or permit. Game fish species include bass, perch, crappie, and catfish. Thanks to the cave connections, the Green River is also home to rare species of mussels and an endangered freshwater shrimp!

Best Hikes and Trails

  • Visitor Center Trails: Many short, easy trails spider out from the visitor center; the longest, the Green River Bluffs Trail, is only 1.3 miles. These trails lead to historic churches and cemeteries, an old locomotive engine, cave entrances, and scenic overlooks. The most accessible trail is the Heritage Trail (0.75 miles)—it's paved and has benches spaced along the way.
  • South Side Trails: In addition to the visitor center trails, almost 11 miles of enjoyable trails are available on the south side of the national park. The Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail is a wide, signed trail that covers 9 miles of interesting terrain, boardwalks, and historic sites. As the name implies, this is the perfect trail for biking.
  • Backcountry Trails: For serious hiking, you’ll want to cross the Green River by ferry and explore the north side of the national park. An extensive network of trails covers the 37 square miles of backcountry. You’re going to need a map—phone service is unreliable. The McCoy Hollow Trail curves through 6.4 miles of backcountry while the Sal Hollow Trail meanders for 8.6 miles.
Mammoth Cave
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Cave Tours

Rangers lead a long list of cave tours ranging in difficulty from easy strolls to arduous crawls through tight passages. For the easiest experience, opt for the Discovery Tour (30 minutes; all ages). If you're looking for a serious spelunking adventure, sign up for the Wild Cave Tour, which involves six hours of crawling and climbing. The self-guided Extended History Tour (90 minutes) allows visitors to enjoy an easy route at their own pace. Guides are posted along the way.

Although entering Mammoth Cave National Park is free, cave tours vary in cost and availability. Popular tours can fill up on weekends; schedule in advance or at the visitor’s center as soon as you arrive.

Where to Camp

  • Mammoth Cave Campground: The largest and most convenient campground in the national park is Mammoth Cave Campground, located only half a mile from the visitor’s center. An on-duty ranger, camp store, and 111 developed sites make camping here the easiest. Sites 37 and 38 offer paved access to restrooms, but do not have water or electricity.
  • Maple Springs Group Campground: Located on the north side of the Green River, Maple Springs Group Campground is ideal for larger groups and campers with horses. Two of the eight sites have water and electric hookups. This campground isn’t as convenient for accessing the visitor’s center (30-minute drive and a ferry crossing), but it’s perfectly situated for hiking in the backcountry. All campsites at Maple Springs Group Campground are level and paved for accessibility.
  • Houchin Ferry Campground: For inexpensive, primitive camping, Houchin Ferry Campground on the far west side of the park has 12 sites (tent only) open year round. Portable toilets and a picnic shelter with fireplace are available.

Where to Stay Nearby

Your only option for indoor accommodation within the park is the Lodge at Mammoth Cave. The Lodge offers a mix of rustic cottages and rooms in a motel-style layout. The Heritage Trail rooms are ADA accessible, while the Woodland Cottages are pet friendly.

Cave City (20 minutes by car) is home to many hotels for all budgets, and a few private B&Bs can be found in the community just outside the national park. Although further away, Bowling Green (45 minutes) and Glasgow (30 minutes) have many more choices for accommodation and dining.

How to Get There

Mammoth Cave National Park is situated nearly equidistant between Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. Public transportation isn’t an option, so you’ll need a car. Plan to drive around 90 minutes on I-65 to reach the park. Lexington, Kentucky is about two hours away.

Accessibility

Cave tours often require navigating narrow, uneven surfaces without aid or railings. The 0.5-mile Accessibility Tour is an exception and suitable for wheelchairs. Service animals are welcome on cave tours.

For surface hikes, the 0.75-mile Heritage Trail (look for the trailhead at The Lodge) was designed for visitors with special needs. The trail leads to an overlook with views of the Old Guide’s Cemetery and Mammoth Cave’s Historic Entrance. For another option, the Echo River Spring Trail is flat, accessible, and has touch-activated descriptive audio along the way.

Sign language interpreter service is available free of charge for cave tours and guided walks. You'll need to make arrangements by calling 270-758-2417 at least two weeks prior.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Cell service is spotty in much of Mammoth Cave National Park. Have a map, know where you’re going (either on foot or while driving), and don’t depend on a smartphone for navigation.
  • The temperature inside Mammoth Cave stays around 54 degrees F no matter the time of year. The natural AC will probably feel good after Kentucky’s summer heat and humidity, but carry a jacket for cave tours if you get chilled easily.
  • Due to an infestation of invasive insects, bringing your own firewood into Mammoth Cave National Park is prohibited. You can collect wood already on the ground or buy it at the Caver’s Campstore shop.
  • The Green River Ferry operates every day except Christmas, but sometimes halts due to high water conditions. If traveling with an RV or trailer, keep an eye on the ferry's official Twitter account or call 270-758-2166 to learn the status.
  • Despite the name, no fossil of a woolly mammoth has been discovered in Mammoth Cave—but at least 40 different species of fossilized shark remains have been found!
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This National Park Is Home to the Longest Cave in the World