With 400 miles of known caves, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the largest cave system in the world. Located just east of Brownsville in central Kentucky, near the city of Bowling Green, Mammoth Cave National Park offers a large variety of cave tours that cover different sections of the cave and highlight different rock formations and underground rivers. There are even special cave tours that have been made accessible for wheelchair users. If you'd rather stay on the surface, you can also take a birding tour, canoe down the Green or Nolin Rivers, or hike the trails in the backcountry.
The Wild Cave Tour is the longest and most in-depth tour offered at Mammoth Cave, and it even has guests crawling on their hands and knees at some points in the journey. Fortunately, you'll be provided with overalls, helmets with lamps, kneepads, bandanas, and gloves to protect you during your trip.
This guided tour, which is offered from the spring through fall each year, lasts about six hours and includes lunch inside the cave. During the tour, your guide will point out stalagmite and stalactite formations in some of the park's largest underground rooms.
It's important to note that the Wild Cave Tour is not for those who may be afraid of heights, claustrophobic in tight spaces, in poor health, or under the age of 16. While reservations are not required, they are recommended in the spring and fall seasons, when the park tends to be the busiest.
Offered year-round, the Frozen Niagara Tour is much more accessible and less strenuous than the Wild Cave Tour, which makes it ideal for visitors who want to see the wonders of Mammoth Cave without going too deep into the extensive cave system. The Frozen Niagara Tour takes visitors over the top of the cave to the Frozen Niagara Entrance and then down about 50 feet into the Drapery Room to explore the rock formations. The whole tour takes about an hour and goes at a slow pace, perfect for those looking for an introduction to the cave or for those traveling with younger children.
If you're visiting the park from spring through fall with your family, consider reserving a spot on the Violet City Lantern Tour, which explores some of the largest passageways in the cave. With only the light of a lantern and a guide to show you the way, you'll learn how the caves were used for prehistoric mining, as Native American dwellings, and for saltpeter production. Along the way, you'll also visit an underground hospital that was used for tuberculosis patients during the 1840s.
The tour covers about three miles in three hours and goes at a relatively slow pace. You'll also have time during the tour to sit and discuss stories and appreciate the grandeur of rooms like the Star Chamber, Broadway Avenue, and Elizabeth's Dome. Though there are a few hills and stairs to climb, this isn't a very strenuous tour. However, children under the age of 6 are not allowed and those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Boat, Canoe, or Kayak on Two Rivers
Mammoth Cave National Park covers over 52,000 acres of land and the Green and Nolin rivers stretch across nearly 30 miles of the park. Boats can be rented outside the park at local outfitters who can gear you up for an hour, three-hour, or even overnight excursion. Traveling along the water will provide a unique view of Mammoth Cave National Park. The land is full of dramatic bluffs, sinkholes, and stunning forests.
Go Camping in the Park
Mammoth Cave National Park offers three developed campgrounds that are easily accessible and perfect for a night out in nature. Mammoth Cave, Maple Springs, and Houchin Ferry campgrounds offer different levels of ease, amenities, and access to the rest of the park without having to stray too far from the road to camp there.
The Mammoth Cave Campgrounds are located just a quarter of a mile from the Visitor's Center and within walking distance of the cave entrance and the rivers. Alternatively, the Maple Springs Group Campgrounds are located six miles north of the Visitor's Center, closer to the backcountry trails, and can accommodate larger groups of campers as well as those camping with horses. Meanwhile, the Houchin Ferry Campground offers 13 primitive-style campsites that are located right along the Green River.
The Mammoth Cave and Maple Springs Campgrounds are open seven days a week from March through November while the Houchin Ferry Campground is open year-round.
Hike Through the Backcountry
If you'd rather get away from the other visitors, you can enjoy the solitude of the backcountry of the park, where there are 12 peaceful and scenic campsites. To get to the backside of the park, you'll have to take a short minute-long ride on the mini-ferry, which only has room for one car at a time. After that, you'll need to park and choose which trail to take.
A few trails will take you near water, such as First Creek and Second Creek, and offer great sites to camp. Homestead is a great campsite if you want a home base for shorter day hikes nearby, and Collie Ridge is a good one if you really want to feel like you're in the wilderness. Keep in mind, you will need to get a free backcountry pass from the Visitor Center and none of the ferries available can accommodate RVs, so plan accordingly.
Whether you have your own horse or you want to pay for a horseback experience in the park, there are plenty of trails and campgrounds that can accommodate. Double J Stables offers guided horseback riding excursions that explore over 60 miles of backcountry trails north of the Green River. Make sure to grab a free trail map and stay on the marked trails while riding. If you want to stay overnight with your horse, Maple Springs Group Campground has seven campsites for horses and their riders.
Bike the Trails
Bicycle enthusiasts can also experience the backcountry of Mammoth Cave National Park on four designated off-road trails. Both the Mammoth Cave Railroad and the Big Hollow trails run about nine miles while the Maple Springs Trail is one mile long, and the White Oak Trail is about two and a half miles long. In addition, street bicycles are permitted on all paved roads while mountain bikes are permitted on all administrative roads in the park.
When all that cave exploring makes you hungry, there are several places to find great food in the park. You can always bring a picnic to one of the many designated areas of the park, or visit the Lodge at Mammoth Cave, which operates two restaurants: the Spelunkers Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor, which provides food-to-go, and the Green River Grill, which offers fine dining.