The name of this park tells you everything you need to know. It’s the longest cave system in the world! At 367 miles it’s double the size of its closest rival (Jewel Cave, SD) and geologists say there could be 600+ miles that have yet to be discovered. This is not quite like the mountains, oceans and rivers I am used to but it really opened my eyes to the incredibly interesting oddities that our beautiful country has to offer. The best part about an underground park is the weather stays the same 54 degrees all year so you can visit anytime. We (my roommate at the time and his fiance) went during the busiest season, the summer, but since we planned well in advance we had no problem reserving a spot on the wild cave tour. If you are not claustrophobic, don’t mind getting dirty and meet the size requirements this is the way to see Mammoth Cave. It is about $50/person for a 6-6 1/2 hour tour and it’s marketed as the longest cave tour offered in the world. I’m skeptical about that fact but in the way that I’ll try and prove them wrong by visiting all its rivals! There are also a number of other tours that are accessible by anyone so it is truly a park for the masses.
When you check in for the wild cave tour you await your two guides with a group of about 12 people. I wish I could remember the names of our guides as they were fantastic. One was a 3rd or 4th generation Mammoth Cave employee so I knew we were in the best of hands. They tell you how strenuous the trip is and how there are no chances of turning back but no one changed their minds so once we suited up (in overalls) we were ready for a real spelunking adventure.
You get to learn a ton about the creation and preservation of the cave and to start it’s a pleasant stroll. After hearing a story or two we stop on the trail and the guide points to a small hole in the ground and tells us that’s where we are going. That quickly became the norm and we ended up spending a few miles crawling and squeezing through small, tight spaces. The names of these passage ways were all very cool. I remember the bare hole, given its name because it would rip clothing of people, and the cheese grater which I think I still have bruises from. My only regret is not bringing my phone to take pictures but it was great to focus on the moment and I probably would have broken it anyways. We were constantly crawling where the heel of my boot was touching the ceiling and my toes were touching the ground. Sometimes you had to turn your head and feet sideways to get through a small space and sometimes you needed a push from the person behind you. All those moments are really fun and that’s only part of the trip.
We also had the opportunity to experience complete darkness and had to shimmy, learning to always use three points of contact, over huge drop offs. Before entering one small passage way our guides were arguing whether we needed to turn right or left at the fork in the middle of the passage. One said the drop off to your instant death is on the right and the other said the left so the group was getting a bit concerned until they filled us in on the joke. They definitely knew how to connect with people, even though they grew up in a cave, and that made the tour just perfect. It was a solid test for the soon to be newlyweds and best of all as we were finishing we got to feel like astronauts returning home after a successful mission. To exit we had to walk by the other tour groups in our muddied gear and helmets and all the kids were giving us high fives and it was just so freaking cool. An experience I will always remember and will come back time and time again for. Per usual another National Park trip has got me itching for the next and I have some new goals to go after. Caves are sweet, start here with the best of them all!