Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park? Here's Everything You Should See & Do
There’s something magical about descending into the subterranean world, where the darkness and humid, earthy air signal that you’ve entered an ancient place. For more than 4,000 years, humans have wandered Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where massive chambers with towering rock formations create underground cathedrals.
As one of the world’s longest known cave systems, with more than 400 miles of mapped corridors, Mammoth’s underground passageways are the centerpiece of Mammoth Cave National Park (MCNP). A variety of cave tours, ranging from easy to challenging, provide adults and children opportunities to explore the cave. But, if you don’t dig caving, you can also enjoy yourself above ground as you hike and bike backcountry trails, paddle the Green River, or investigate other area attractions, such as museums, a zoo and even a zipline.
Offering such a broad spectrum of activities, MCNP is a perfect destination for all types of travelers, from hardcore adventurers to casual wanderers and families with children. To help you map out your own park visit, we’ve highlighted some of the top things to see and do as well as suggestions for places to eat and rest for the night.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
More than 365 miles and five levels of Mammoth Cave have already been mapped, with unknown lengths still to be explored and investigated. Established as a national park in 1941, Mammoth Cave became a World Heritage Site in 1981, and in 1990 it was dubbed an international Biosphere Reserve, an ecosystem with plants and animals of unusual scientific and natural interest. Of the 130 animal species that call the cave home, three of them are endangered.
The caves are a focal point of the of the park and draw millions of visitors each year. Due to the volume of visitors it’s advised, if not necessary, to pre-book one of the tours guided by the knowledgeable park rangers. Tours vary greatly and offer a wide selection of options for guests based on the time available for a visit and participants’ stamina.
The best all-around option for families with small children or those who find a lot of stairs a challenge is the Frozen Niagara Tour. Lasting about an hour and 15 minutes, it’s a short trip and passes through a relatively well-lit part of the cave, so it’s better for those who might be a little claustrophobic.
The most popular option is the moderately difficult, two-hour "Domes and Dripstones" tour, which includes everything seen on the Frozen Niagara Tour, plus a number of other dramatic cave features.
If you’re pretty adventurous, book the Wild Cave Tour. The most strenuous option available, this six-hour journey covers 5 miles of cave that are delightfully dirty, damp, a bit spooky. Among the public tours available at Mammoth, this is the most authentic spelunking adventure in the developed cave system.
ADVENTURES ABOVE GROUND
Above ground, the MCNP sprawls over 52,800 rolling, wooded acres with two rivers. Six trailheads throughout the park provide access for paddling, hiking, and biking through some of the most stunning and lush forest in south-central Kentucky. Camping is available in three developed campgrounds, and there are more than a dozen primitive sites in the backcountry and along the Green and Nolin rivers. The Green River cuts the park in half, running roughly east-west. The National Park Service manages the south side of the park as "frontcountry" and the north side as “backcountry.”
The frontcountry includes the cave tours, visitor center, lodging, and developed camping areas. There are a variety of short, easy hikes with interesting karst formations and sinkholes along the almost 11 miles of trails here. The main trails in this area are the Cedar Sink Trail, Sand Cave Trail, Sloan's Crossing Pond Walk, Turnhole Bend Nature Trail, and the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail. At the visitor center you can get a map of all of the park trails.
The trailheads of the backcountry areas are bustling much of the year with equestrian traffic and area residents enjoying their local park on weekends. So, if you plan to camp, arrive early or book ahead. Most backcountry trails are for hikers and horseback use only, with the exception of Big Hollow Trail, which doesn’t allow equestrian use.
Mountain biking at MCNP is allowed on a small selection of "Gateway Trails" that are designed for beginner and intermediate riders. The best option is the 9-mile Big Hollow trail, but bikers and hikers can also spend a day on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail (also 9 miles), a rolling crushed-gravel path following part of the original railway through the park.
If you like to kayak or canoe, it’s possible to paddle the 26 miles of the Green River that flow through MCNP. During the summer season, sightseeing tours are offered through a variety of local providers that travel the river via motorboat, canoe or kayak. Featuring dramatic bluffs, bald eagles, and hawks, the river offers great opportunities for photography and wildlife enthusiasts. If you’re interested in doing a multi-day trip on the river, you can camp on islands and along river floodplains, as long as you’re more than a half-mile from a ferry crossing or campground. If you like to fish, keep in mind that you don’t need a license to fish inside park boundaries, and recommended areas to try are The Big Woods, Sloan’s Crossing Pond, and Cedar Sink.
OTHER AREA ATTRACTIONS
It’s hard to beat the majesty of Mammoth Cave, but the park is close to several other attractions that are well worth a visit, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Dinosaur World, Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, Kentucky Action Park, and Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum are all within a 20- to 30-minute drive of MCNP. Plus, Mammoth Cave Adventures and other outfits in the area offer zipline tours. It also bears mentioning that this is the heart of Kentucky’s cave country, and there are eight other caves in the region offering tours for all experience levels.
FOOD & ACCOMMODATIONS
For fast eats close to the park, stop in at Porky Pig Diner in Smiths Grove for some solid Southern fare—any park ranger should be able to give you driving directions. For the most options near the park, head into Cave City, where the Watermill Restaurant offers a top-notch buffet with homemade offerings. If you’re willing to drive a bit for a good meal, head to The Lighthouse Restaurant in Sulphur Well and sit down to catfish, fried chicken, and country ham served family style.
When you’re planning where you’ll stay during your visit, keep in mind that Cave City is the main gateway town for the park, and it’s home to a variety of accommodations that will suit any budget, from campsites to hotels. For an unique experience, and a taste of classic Americana, visit the WigWam Village Inn, where you’ll sleep in a private teepee. For a romantic getaway try the Serenity Hill Bed and Breakfast on Mammoth Cave Road in Brownsville. The owners and hosts provide clean, comfortable rooms with lovely views and a fresh, home-cooked breakfast that gets rave reviews.
What you’ll discover about MCNP and the surrounding area is the sheer variety of experiences available. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing escape or a down-and-dirty adventure, you can tailor your visit to suit your needs. From its deep, dark caverns to its deep-green forests and wild rivers, Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the country’s most unusual, diverse and surprising destinations.
Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.