Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, is a descent into the subterranean world. The darkness and humid, earthy air indicate that you’ve entered an ancient place and have a certain allure. For over 4,000 years, humans have explored Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where massive chambers with towering rock formations create underground cathedrals.
Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky covers nearly 53,000 acres in west-central Kentucky and is home to the world’s longest cave system. The park, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, is divided into two halves by the Green River, each with its personality. More than 60 miles of backcountry trails can be found on the wilder north side, which is only accessible by ferry. Here’s how to plan your trip, from activities to lodging.
With so many activities to choose from, Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky (MCNP) is ideal for all types of travelers, from hardcore adventurers to casual travelers and families with children. To assist you in planning your park visit, we’ve highlighted some of the top things to see and do, as well as restaurant and lodging recommendations.
1. Prepare For Your Visit
Mammoth Cave has already been mapped over 420 miles and five levels, with unknown lengths still to be explored and investigated.
The caves are a major draw for visitors to the park, drawing millions each year. Due to the high volume of visitors, it is recommended, if not required, to pre-book one of the park ranger-led tours. Tours vary greatly and provide guests with a variety of options based on the amount of time available for a visit and the participants’ stamina.
For families with little ones or those who struggle with a lot of stairs, the Frozen Niagara Tour is the best all-around option. It’s a short trip that lasts about an hour and 15 minutes and passes through a relatively well-lit part of the cave, so it’s better for those who are claustrophobic.
The most famous tour is the moderately difficult two-hour “Domes and Dripstones,” which includes everything seen on the Frozen Niagara Tour as well as several other dramatic cave features.
Book the Wild Cave Tour if you’re feeling daring. This six-hour journey covers 5 miles of caves that are delightfully dirty, damp, and a little spooky, making it the most challenging option available. It is the most authentic spelunking adventure in the developed cave system among Mammoth’s public tours.
2. Above-Ground Adventures
The Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky, has over 400 miles (640 km) of passageways that have been explored and surveyed. This makes it the longest cave system in the world. of rolling, wooded land with two rivers above ground.
Six trailheads throughout the park provide access to some of the most beautiful and lush forests in south-central Kentucky for paddling, hiking, and biking. Three developed campgrounds are available, as well as over a dozen primitive sites in the backcountry and along the Green and Nolin rivers. The park is divided in half by the Green River, which runs roughly east-west through it. The south side of the park is known as “frontcountry,” while the north side is known as “backcountry.”
The cave tours, visitor center, lodging, and well-equipped camping areas are all located in the front country. Along the nearly 11 miles of trails here, there are a variety of short, easy hikes with interesting karst formations and sinkholes. The Cedar Sink Trail, Sand Cave Trail, Turnhole Bend Nature Trail, Sloan’s Crossing Pond Walk, and Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail are the main trails in this area. The visitor center has a map of all the park trails.
Equestrian traffic and residents enjoying their local park on weekends keep the backcountry trailheads busy for much of the year. So, if you’re going to camp, arrive early or make a reservation. Except for Big Hollow Trail, which does not allow equestrian use, most backcountry trails are only for hikers and horses.
Mountain biking is permitted on a small number of “Gateway Trails” designed for beginners and intermediate riders at Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky (MCNP). The 9-mile Big Hollow trail is the best option, but bikers and hikers can also spend a day on the 9-mile Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail, which follows part of the original railway through the park.
If you enjoy kayaking or canoeing, you can paddle the 26-mile Green River that passes through Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky (MCNP). During the summer, a variety of local providers offer sightseeing tours that travel the river by motorboat, canoe, or kayak.
The river, which features dramatic bluffs, bald eagles, and hawks, provides excellent photographic and wildlife opportunities. You can camp on islands and along river floodplains if you’re more than a half-mile from a ferry crossing or campground if you’re planning a multi-day trip on the river. If you enjoy fishing, keep in mind that you do not need a license to fish within park boundaries, and The Big Woods, Sloan’s Crossing Pond, and Cedar Sink are recommended areas to visit.
3. Attractions In The Area
The majesty of Mammoth Cave is difficult to match, but the park is close to several other attractions worth seeing, especially if you’re traveling with children. Within a 20- to 30-minute drive of Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky (MCNP) is Dinosaur World, Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, Kentucky Action Park, and Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum.
Zipline tours are also available from Mammoth Cave Adventures and other local outfits. It’s also worth noting that this is the heart of Kentucky’s cave country, with eight more caves in the area offering tours for people of all skill levels.
4. Food And Restaurants
- Stop in at Porky Pig Diner in Smiths Grove for some solid Southern fare close to the park—any park ranger should be able to give you driving directions.
- Head to Cave City, where the Watermill Restaurant offers a top-notch buffet with homemade offerings, for the most options near the park.
- Head to The Lighthouse Restaurant in Sulphur Well for catfish, fried chicken, and country ham served family-style if you’re willing to drive a little further for a good meal.
When deciding where to stay during your visit, keep in mind that Cave City is the park’s main gateway town, with a wide range of accommodations to suit any budget, from campgrounds to hotels. Visit the WigWam Village Inn for a one-of-a-kind experience and a taste of classic Americana, where you’ll sleep in a private teepee. Serenity Hill Bed and Breakfast on Mammoth Cave Road in Brownsville is ideal for a romantic getaway. The owners and hosts provide clean, comfortable rooms with beautiful views and a delicious, home-cooked breakfast.
The sheer variety of experiences available in Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky (MCNP) and the surrounding area will astound you. You can tailor your visit to your needs, whether you want a relaxing getaway or a down-and-dirty adventure. Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky is one of the country’s most unusual, diverse, and surprising destinations, with deep, dark caverns, deep-green forests, and wild rivers.
5. The Best Way to Get There
Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky is roughly halfway between Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. You will need a car because public transportation is not an option. To get to the park, take I-65 for about 90 minutes. It takes about two hours to get to Lexington, Kentucky.
Cave tours frequently necessitate navigating narrow, uneven surfaces without the use of railings or other aids. The 0.5-mile Accessibility Tour, which is wheelchair accessible, is an exception. On cave tours, service animals are welcome.
The Heritage Trail (look for the trailhead at The Lodge) is a 0.75-mile surface hike designed for specially-abled visitors. The path takes to an overlook with views of the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave and the Old Guide’s Cemetery. The Echo River Spring Trail, for example, is flat, accessible, and features touch-activated descriptive audio along the way.
7. Nearby Places to Stay
The Lodge at Mammoth Cave is your only option for indoor lodging within the park. The Lodge has a motel-style layout with a mix of rustic cottages and rooms. The Woodland Cottages are pet friendly, while the Heritage Trail rooms are ADA accessible.
Many hotels for all budgets can be found in Cave City (20 minutes by car), and a few private B&Bs can be found in the community just outside the national park. Bowling Green and Glasgow are both closer and have more options for lodging and dining.
8. Best Things to Do Near Mammoth Cave
8.1 Dinosaur World
Dinosaur World, located just outside Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky, allows families to walk among hundreds of life-size dinosaurs. With interactive exhibits and plenty of outdoor play areas, this is a hands-on experience. For well-behaved, leash-trained dogs, Dinosaur World is also a dog-friendly attraction.
8.2 Big Mike’s Rock and Gift Shop
For an out-of-this-world collection of rocks, geodes, crystals, and fossils, visit Big Mike’s Rock and Gift Shop (Kentucky’s largest gift shop!). You can pose with a giant Mosasaurus or enter the bizarre Mystery House and “experience the unexplainable” if you’re into bizarre roadside attractions.
8.3 Spelunkers Café & Ice Cream Parlor
In Mammoth Cave, the snack spot is Spelunkers Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor. Their breakfast and lunch menu includes diner-style breakfast sandwiches, fresh fruit parfaits, sandwiches, burgers, and more, in addition to Kentucky-made ice cream and a variety of sweet treats.
8.4 Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo
Kentucky Down Under is an animal park in Horse Cave, Kentucky, themed after Australia. Visitors can go gem mining, take a walk through the open “outback” with kangaroos and emus, and feed a large family of Lorikeets.
8.5 Green River Canoeing
Green River Canoeing is the best way to experience Kentucky’s famous Green River, which winds through Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky. Green River Canoeing offers a variety of kayak and canoe trips that last anywhere from three hours to two nights. The rivers are calm and easy to navigate, making this an ideal activity for paddlers of all abilities.
8.6 Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum
In Cave City, the Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum has over 14,000 square feet of exhibit space with rare and exotic animals, marine life, insects, birds, and more.
8.7 Mammoth Cave Historic Train
During Mammoth Cave’s early development, the Mammoth Cave Railroad was instrumental in increasing tourism. The surviving steam engines today tell the story of life in Kentucky a century ago. While there are no moving train cars, visitors can still walk or ride their bikes along the rail path, which was converted into the Mammoth Cave Bike and Hike Trail in 2004.
8.8 Old Guides Cemetery
Stephen Bishop, one of the region’s first cave guides, is buried in Mammoth Cave’s Old Guide’s Cemetery. Bishop was a Black American cave tour guide who worked for Mammoth Cave for nearly 20 years, first as an enslaved guide and then as a free man. During his time as a guide, Stephen made significant discoveries, and the stories of his discoveries are still told to visitors today.
8.9 Double J Stables
Guided horseback rides are available at Double J Stables and campgrounds on the trails within Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky. Double J promises an experience like no other, with exclusive access to over 85 acres of park trails.
8.10 Green River Ferry
The Green River Ferry, which opened in 1934, is the park’s last remaining active river ferry. The ferry crosses the Green River 364 days a year, transporting vehicles, hikers, and bikers.
8.11 Kentucky Action Park
Kentucky Action Park has something for everyone, from horseback riding and golf to zip lining and go-carting. The park is best known for its Jesse James Riding Stables, where anyone (from 2 to 92 years old, according to the website!) can take a guided trail ride through cave country where outlaws like Jesse James once roamed.
9. Hikes And Trails To Try
9.1 Trails from the Visitor Center
The visitor center has several short, easy trails, the longest of which is the Green River Bluffs Trail, which is only 1.3 miles long. Historic churches and cemeteries, an old locomotive engine, cave entrances, and scenic overlooks are all accessible via these trails. The Heritage Trail (0.75 miles), which is paved and has benches spaced along the way, is the most accessible.
9.2 South Side Trails
In addition to the visitor center trails, the south side of the national park has nearly 11 miles of enjoyable trails. The 9-mile Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail is a wide, well-marked trail with interesting terrain, boardwalks, and historic sites. This trail is ideal for biking, as the name implies.
9.3 Backcountry Trails
For serious hiking, take the ferry across the Green River and explore the park’s northern side. The 37 square miles of the backcountry are covered by a vast trail network. Because phone service is unreliable, you’ll need a map. The Sal Hollow Trail meanders for 8.6 miles while the McCoy Hollow Trail curves through 6.4 miles of backcountry.
10. Where Should You Camp?
10.1 Mammoth Cave Campground
Located only half a mile from the visitor’s center, Mammoth Cave Campground is the largest and most convenient campground in the national park. Camping here is made simple by an on-duty ranger, a camp store, and 111 developed sites. Sites 37 and 38 have paved restroom access but no running water or electricity.
10.2 Maple Springs Group Campground
Located on the Green River’s north bank, Maple Springs Group Campground is ideal for large groups and horseback riders. Water and electricity are available at two of the eight sites. This campground isn’t as close to the visitor center (30 minutes and a ferry ride), but it’s ideal for backcountry hiking. All of the campsites at Maple Springs Group Campground are accessible and level.
10.3 Houchin Ferry Campground
Located on the park’s far west side, Houchin Ferry Campground offers 12 tent-only campsites that are open all year. There are portable toilets and a picnic shelter with a fireplace.
11. Visitor Recommendations
- In much of Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky, cell service is spotty. Have a map, know where you’re going (on foot or by car), and don’t rely on your smartphone for directions.
- Regardless of the season, Mammoth Cave maintains a constant temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit. After the heat and humidity of Kentucky’s summer, the natural air conditioning will probably feel nice, but if you get cold easily, bring a jacket for cave tours.
- Bringing your firewood into Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky, is prohibited due to an invasive insect infestation. Wood can be found on the ground or purchased at the Caver’s Campsite shop.
- Except on Christmas Day, the Green River Ferry runs every day, though it occasionally stops due to high water levels. If you’re traveling by RV or trailer, check the ferry’s official Twitter account or call 270-758-2166 for updates.
- Despite the name, no woolly mammoth fossils have been discovered in Mammoth Cave, but there are at least 40 different species of fossilized shark remains.
Loved the article? To read more articles like this, click here.
Also read: Different Types of Salmon in Alaska
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1. Why is Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky so famous?
A1. Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the world’s longest known cave system. Mammoth Cave is a limestone labyrinth with more than 400 miles of it explored, and the park estimates a potential for another 600 miles in its system.
Q2. Who is buried in Mammoth CaveNational Park Kentucky?
A2. The grave of cave explorer Floyd Collins is nestled in the hills around Mammoth Cave National Park, in a cemetery next to an old church. Collins was trapped 150 feet underground in a cave very near here, in January of 1925. The rescue attempt and Floyd’s ultimate demise was national news for weeks.
Q3. What life is found in Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky?
A3. Mammoth Cave is home to a variety of animals known as troglobites — wildlife species that are specially adapted to live in a cave environment. These residents include eyeless fish, cave salamanders and an endangered albino cave shrimp.
Q4. How deep underground is Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky?
A4. River Hall lies 283 feet beneath your feet on the Historic Tour route. Usually dry, this passage fills with water when Mammoth Cave’s River Styx floods into it. Most of the cave stays dry during floods; River Hall is the only toured section of the cave in the floodplain.
Q5. Are there sharks in Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky?
A5. In addition to this rich diversity of primitive sharks at Mammoth Cave, two partial cartilaginous skeletons of different species of sharks occur within Mammoth Cave. One specimen was discovered by a caver with the Cave Research Foundation and the other has been known by the park guides for years.