Mammoth Cave is located in the hilly woodlands of Edmonson County, Kentucky, in the same areas as the scenic river valleys of the Green and Nolin rivers. It is the largest cave system in the world, covers nearly 53,000 acres of surface area and has over 367 miles of passageways. Amazingly, this figure continues to grow, as the full extent of this water-formed system is still unknown. New connections and passageways are discovered each year, and it is expected the cave system will in the future prove to be at least 560 miles long. It is 379 feet in depth with at least 5 levels of passages. The history of Mammoth Cave can be dated as far back as 2,000 to 4,000 years ago in the late Archaic Period (1000 B.C.)
Due to the dry conditions in the cave, vast quantities of evidence found in the cave shows early explorers traveled miles within the cave, carrying cane and weed stalks as torches to make their way through the darkness. Such items as remnants of ancient torches, sandals, and American Indian clothing were found. Archeological evidence indicates they were searching for the minerals mirabilite, epsomite and gypsum. Their use of these minerals is unclear, although speculations lean toward their value as medicinal or ceremonial uses.
Archeologists also made discoveries that indicate the cave was utilized by the American Indians to prepare bodies for burial. Parts of 41 human skeletons were found at the Salts Cave campsite in the cave. The bones were broken, split and marked in much the same way as deer bones and their sizes indicate they were both newborns and adults of both genders.
During the early Woodland Period (1000 – 200 B.C.), exploration for minerals ceased and the cave was rediscovered sometime around 1797 by a hunter named Houchin while chasing a bear. The discovery of saltpeter in the cave by frontiersmen, which was used in making gunpowder, led to the establishment of a commercial saltpeter leaching factory there by Hyman Gratz and Charles Wilkens, which was utilized during the War of 1812. Vats and wooden pipes used in the operation are still there and can be viewed on the Historic Tour or the Violet City Lantern Tour.
By 1838, the cave had begun drawing public attention and the owner of the cave began a guided tour led by a 17-year-old slave named Stephen Bishop, who achieved worldwide fame for his familiarization and discoveries in the cave. In 1839, the cave was obtained by a new owner, Dr. John Croghan, who introduced it as one of the great wonders of the world. Roads were built, buildings improved and a large hotel was constructed to provide lodging for tourists. Therefore, as an attraction, the cave predates all other national parks.
With the idea that the stable temperatures, humidity and dryness in the cave may be beneficial in curing tuberculosis patients, Dr. Croghan established an underground tuberculosis hospital, where volunteer patients lived in stone structures with canvas roofs. These structures are still on display in the cave on the Violet City Lantern Tour. The experiment, however, was a failure, and most patients either died or left the underground operation. Sadly, Dr. Croghan himself died of tuberculosis six years after his experiment failed.
In 1926 the cave was authorized as a national park and was fully established by 1941, when only 40 miles of passageway had been discovered and mapped. In 1981, the park was named a World Heritage Site and in 1990 became the core area of an International Biosphere Reserve.
Mammoth Cave also holds the world’s most diverse cave ecosystem; home to at least 130 forms of life. Most of these life forms are quite small. Some use it as only as a haven, but some are cave dwellers and can live nowhere else. The cave dwellers consist of flatworms, isopods, amphipods, eyeless cave shrimp, cave crayfish, bristletails, collembola, eyeless fish, and cave beetles. Others are segmented worms, snails, copepods, spiders, phalangids, mites, pseudoscorpions, millipedes and cave crickets. Those who are considered as cave guests only are crickets, bats, pack rats, flies and gnats. And finally, those who enter the cave only occasionally are raccoons, frogs, and humans. All these life forms must collect their food from the surface and return to the cave, as the cave conditions limit the availability of food.
The Park’s 52,700 acres contains animals typical of an eastern hardwood forest. There are larger animals such as white-tailed deer, fox, raccoon, opossum, woodchuck, beaver, skunk, rabbit and squirrel. Smaller animals, such as bats, mice and chipmunks are also abundant in the area. Many reptiles and amphibians dwell in the park, such as copperheads, black racers, black king snakes and timber rattlesnakes. Birds of all types fly through the forests including mourning doves, owls, hawks, woodpeckers, and warblers, as well as wild turkeys.
The Green River, which winds through the park has a large diversity of fish, five species of which have not been found anywhere else in the world.There are over 50 species of mussels, three of which is on the endangered species list.
Mammoth Cave is open to visitors year-round every day except Christmas Day. Visitors have several cave tours to choose from. Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara and Fat Man’s Misery are lighted tours ranging from one to six hours in length. Two tours which are lit only by paraffin lamps carried by visitors are popular alternatives to the routes lit by electric. The cave’s tours have occasional graphics describing artifacts on display and the various tours have guides giving lectures on the attractions of each tour. Therefore, each tour provides the visitor with different artifacts and historical facts about the cave’s formation, human history and prehistory.
The abundance of surface attractions make up about half of the overall picture. Such activities as biking, camping and hiking, boating and canoeing, fishing, horseback riding, and much more are available to make the visit as fun and exciting for your family as can be found anywhere in Kentucky.
For more information about the tours and attractions of this famous national park, visit the Mammoth Cave National Park Information Page.