Well, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky named its tour correctly. Other options may have included, "Wicked Awesome Cave Tour", "Most-Fun-Ever Cave Tour", or "The Best Cave Tour of Mammoth Cave National Park." The "Wild Cave Tour" is the longest tour the park offers and takes visitors into depths of the cave you can't see anywhere else. For a little over six hours, I got to see natural formations, massive rooms of rock, and meet some of the coolest people visiting the park. It was my favorite part of my trip to the Mammoth Cave National Park and I hope I can inspire others to check it out.
Before the tour began, we assembled at the Visitor Center. The tour maxes out at 14 people (see more under Tour Restrictions below) which is good for safety reasons and to help create camaraderie among the group. It was fun to meet those visiting Mammoth Cave for the first time and even a few who have been on the Wild Cave Tour before. Visitors return again and again because the tour takes you to different areas of the caves each time. Be sure to tell your guide where you went last time and they will not only take it into consideration, they will be sure to introduce you to a part of the cave you haven't explored yet!
Our guide for the day was Gabe Esters, a delightful adventurer, with a great sense of humor and love of the park. Gabe grew up in the area and became a guide 7 years prior when he learned that teaching high school just wasn't for him. After a brief intro, we were shuttled over to another building to get geared up. We were given overalls, helmets with lamps, kneepads, bandannas, and gloves. After only two attempts, I found a pair of overalls that fit me perfectly and handed over my boots to be disinfected. In an effort to ward off White Nose Syndrome, no outside gear is allowed inside the caves and all boots must be sprayed before and after the tour. The syndrome affects the bats who live in caves and started cropping up in 2009. In fact, Indiana closed off its caves to tourists in Hoosier National Forest to slow the spread of the disease.
Once my boots were cleaned and laced up, I was ready to rock. And it was only 10 a.m.! We hopped back on the shuttle and took a ride over to the Carmichael Entrance to begin our day.
"I Wanna Rock!"
My first thought as we walked down the stairs into the cave was, "Man, it's chilly." The caves hold a temperature in the mid-50's -- a perfect escape for a humid summer day. We took a short walk and found a comfy spot to sit and introduce ourselves to one another. It was a nice way to start the tour, since you really work together during the day. Whether you need a hand up a rock or a simple, "You can do it!" the group really works closely all day. In fact, whether you know others or not, you are responsible for the hiker behind you at all times. If you don't see them, you must yell out, "Hold up!" so the group can stop and make sure all hikers get caught up and move together through the caves.
After our brief introductions, we set out through a variety of passages and fairly quickly came upon our first physical challenge. Gabe stopped us and explained what to do when crawling through a tight space. We were told to relax, to breathe slowly, even what direction our head may feel the most comfortable. I had my nerves but I was determined to kick butt. Then I saw where he pointed. It didn't even look like a passageway! He gave a brief demo which looked like a man diving head first into a hole in the earth with his feet dangling in handstand formation. But without much more thought, it was our turn. One my one we crawled, and I mean crawled, through the passageway. And you know what? It was awesome! Sure it is not for everyone. In fact, some people actually may not fit, but it was so cool. I felt like a true explorer, getting to peak into parts of the earth that no one else has seen.
Everyone made it through and what I saw at the other side were some of the biggest smiles ever. We all felt pretty proud of ourselves. I had that feeling of accomplishment, like, "OK, that was easy. I got this!" And the rest of the day was just as exhilarating. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we crawled, and sometimes we just plain wiggled our way through passageways and saw Mammoth Cave like some will never see. After a few hours, our energy began to dip but luckily it was time for a lunch break.
We arrived in the Snowball Room which was fully equipped with multiple picnic tables, bathrooms, and a selection of sandwiches, soup, beverages, and candy. And boy did we need it. The rest of the tour was full of some easy walks and other strenuous activities like scaling walls and crawling. But every trail we hit, every passageway we explored, and every landmark we saw was totally worth it. The tour was phenomenal and offers so much to its participants.
Just Do It
While the park tends to describe the tour as "very strenuous" and not for those "afraid of heights or tight spaces," I think a lot more people can handle this tour than they think. In fact, I think the park may actually scare people off. When I read the warnings, I felt quite panicked. Can I handle this? What am I doing? What if I freak out down there? But within 15 minutes of being in the cave, I was laughing and having a lot of fun. The only thing talking visitors out of the Wild Cave Tour is themselves.
Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying this tour is for everyone. If you walk with a cane, don't go on this tour. If you are overweight or very unhealthy, this tour is not for you. However, if you are in good health and meet the other specifics of weight and age, go for it! You may be scared at first, but trust me, at the end of the day, you will be so proud of yourself and glad you did it.