Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system known in the world, is located in Southwest Kentucky’s Cave Country. It has over 400 miles of surveyed passageways! That distinction definitely makes it worth a visit.
As with most national parks, the place to start is the Visitor Center. Inside you can watch an orientation film and explore exhibits that educate visitors about the geology of the area, types of cave passages, and animals found within the caves. I really liked the 3D model of the cave passages.
The Visitor Center is also the starting point for cave tours. I strongly recommend making tour reservations in advance so that you are able to take the tour that is best suited for your family. Tours DO sell out. As you can see from this photo, by the time we arrived that morning, the Frozen Niagara Tour was completely sold out for the day.
The park’s website has descriptions of the different tour options that include the duration, distance, total number of stairs, difficulty rating, tour capacity, price, and times. Look at this ahead of time and consider what your family will be able to handle. We took the two-hour Historic Tour which covers two miles, has a moderate difficulty rating, and includes 440 stairs. There were very young kids on our tour who were completely miserable and screaming. I’m guessing their parents were wishing they had taken one of the shorter, easier tours. (Please know that I am trying to be helpful not judgmental. On my first visit to Mammoth Cave 10+ years ago, I was the parent with the screaming child.) The Frozen Niagara Tour lasts an hour and 15 minutes, covers a quarter mile, has an Easy rating, and only 12 required steps (98 more are optional). While that tour was sold out the day of our visit, the Mammoth Passage Tour (which is not available by reservation) is also an easy, hour and 15 minute tour. For more adventurous spelunkers, longer, more strenuous tours are offered.
The Historic Tour was interesting and the park ranger who led the tour was funny and entertaining. You won’t see stalactites and stalagmites on this tour, but you will see huge cave “rooms” and interesting rock formations.
Flash photography is not permitted on the tour, so you have to rely on the lighting provided in the cave.
This was one of the big rooms. At one point during the tour, our guide turned off all the lights so that we could experience complete darkness. My kids found that very interesting.
There are a few places that have head-bonkers, so they do not permit backpacks, including child carriers.
While some recommend wearing a jacket in the caves, note the variety of what my kids wore. Two had jackets; the other wore a t-shirt. Two had long pants; one had shorts. I found that I was comfortable without a jacket.
As I stated above, don’t expect to see stalactites on the Historic Tour, but that doesn’t mean the formations aren’t interesting.
DO expect lots of stairs on the Historic Tour.
There were a lot of stairs at the end of the tour.
By the time we finished this tour we were ready to sit down and relax for a little while. It was lunch time and the Mammoth Cave Hotel proved to be the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely meal. The Travertine Restaurant provided a sit-down meal at a very reasonable price. It was a nice meal in a relaxing setting without being too formal. Even though there were tablecloths and cloth napkins, casual attire was the norm.
The lunch menu offered a variety of sandwiches and salads, including some Kentucky specialties like a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich (which I had and thought was very good). A sandwich platter with fries costs around $8. If you’ve eaten at many other national parks, you’ll recognize that as a bargain. Other dining options include a coffee shop and a fast food restaurant.
While the big draw at Mammoth Cave National Park is the cave tours, there are other ranger-led programs on the surface, including walking tours, a Junior Ranger program, and campfire programs. These programs do not require reservations. There are also many other caves and attractions in the area. You can easily turn a trip to Mammoth Cave into a week-long vacation. I will be writing about several of those in the weeks to come. While there is a hotel, cabins, and campground at the park, I recommend Jellystone Park for families because of the additional family activities it offers.
Ready to visit?
Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Parkway
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
Check website for tour schedules and prices
Disclosure: Many thanks to the Cave City Tourist and Convention Commission for coordinating our trip and arranging complimentary cave tour tickets and lunch at the Travertine Restaurant.
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