Caving Tours: Mammoth Cave National Park

A tight squeeze on the Wild Cave Tour

Caving Highlights: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

  • Mammoth Cave is a limestone labyrinth with more than 365 miles of mapped passageways, and many more yet to be discovered. This makes it the longest known cave on the planet. Cave visitors must visit the underworld only on tours led by rangers.
  • Cave tours vary from quarter-mile strolls that almost everyone can manage to miles-long wild cave tours in which you and your fellow cavers crawl through narrow wet openings far removed from the wide passageways of other tours. Reservations are recommended, especially in the summer.  
  • The Grand Avenue Tour, at four miles, could be classified as an underground hike. It offers a lunch option and explores cave ecology and formations. Descend to the Rocky Mountains before exploring the gypsum of Cleaveland Avenue. Also tour deep pits and flowstone formations.
  • The Great Onyx Tour explores a pristine cave using lanterns. See The Nativity and other formations such as The Chandelier and The Churn. Delicate dripstone formations complete the tour.
  • The Historic Tour travels two miles and lasts two hours. It traces a route that has been followed for 200 years. Enter via the Historic Entrance and see the old saltpeter mine works, stare down the Bottomless Pit, and squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery. Climb out via Mammoth Dome. This tour is offered year-round.
  • The Wild Cave Tour is the most challenging cave tour open to the public and also has the smallest-sized group. For more than six hours, you will be crawling on your belly, squeezing into tight holes, and walking along ledges. Well-trained guides make this an informative and safe outing, and it is arguably the best the park has to offer.

Mammoth Cave is the centerpiece of one of the greatest cave regions in the world. The area, with its multitude of limestone caves, underground rivers, springs, and sinkholes, is known as a karst landscape.

Water has been the guiding force in the creation of this landscape, including the intricate labyrinth of Mammoth. Underground water working in cracks and between rock layers has carved out Mammoth Cave's long, horizontal passageways over the past several million years. The upper passages, dry today, were hollowed out thousands of years ago; the lower passages are still being enlarged by the flowing waters of Echo River and other underground streams. Mammoth's huge vertical shafts, called pits and domes, have been created by groundwater seeping downward through sinkholes or cracks located beyond the edge of the protective hard layer of sandstone that overlies much of the cave.

Water has also been essential in decorating parts of the cave with gypsum formations, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and flowstone. The delicate gypsum formations occur on the walls, ceilings, and floors of some of the cave's drier chambers; the rest of the formations appear in some of the wetter chambers.

Underground Cave Tours

To explore Mammoth Cave, you'll want to go on one of the multitude of ranger-guided tours the park offers. There are two main categories of ranger-guided tours. Underground tours are a great way to learn about the cave's geology and history. Descend into the cave's deepest reaches to find out how the forces of erosion have conspired over hundreds of millions of years to create Mammoth's massive network of tunnels, chambers, and wondrous rock formations. On the Gothic Lantern Tour, see the cave as 19th century cavers saw it and discover the marks of passage they left along the way. The Discovery Tour is a self-guided introductory tour to Mammoth Cave and is impressive in its own right, but it doesn't give you the same chance to comb the caves in-depth that you'll get when you go with a ranger (the Discovery Tour is only available during peak visitation periods in the warmer months).

Cave tours range from 1/4 mile and 1 1/4 hours long to 5 miles and 6 hours. Availability of these interpretive tours varies from season to season. Check the park department's schedule or call the park for information on which parts of the cave will be shown during your visit. These tours range from easy to moderately strenuous.

Travertine Tour
1 to 1 1/4 hours, 1/4 mile (easy). Ride a bus to the Frozen Niagara entrance and view some of the cave's finest geologic artistry, including stalactites, stalagmites, pits, and domes. Must climb 18 steps; an additional 98 steps are optional. Designed for those who experience difficulty in walking, and those with infants and toddlers. Limit: 40

Violet City Lantern Tour - 3 hours, 3 miles (strenuous). Follow the path of the cave's famous explorers along a nostalgic journey into Mammoth Cave's historic past. By the light of coal-oil lantern, view a saltpeter mining operation, evidence of prehistoric exploration, historic tuberculosis hospital ruins, and some of the largest rooms and passageways in the cave. The first half-mile follows the Historic Tour route. Do not bring flashlights. Restrooms not available. Limit: 60

Gothic Tour
2 hours, 1 1/2 miles (moderately strenuous). Visitors began touring the Mammoth Cave in 1816 to marvel at the wonders underground and became themselves a part of the cave's fascinating history. Discover how early visitors saw the cave and how they left their mark on this "grand, gloomy and peculiar place." Must climb and descend two stairways, one with more than 60 steps and the other with about 40 steps. Restrooms are not available. Limit: 60

Great Onyx Tour
2 1/4 hours, 1 mile (moderately strenuous). Even before the creation of this national park, the private owners of Great Onyx Cave understood the need for stewardship. Join a Park Ranger on a visit to Flint Ridge and Great Onyx Cave and learn how past and present ways of treasuring these resources have come together. Must climb and descend 20 stairs and several hills. Use lanterns to explore this beautiful and varied cave that features stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, and soda straws. Limit: 40

Making of Mammoth Tour
2 1/2 hours, 2 1/2 miles (strenuous). Get back to basics—discover the geologic beginnings of Mammoth Cave and learn why it is unique throughout the world. Trip will investigate the cave's ancient origins 325 million years ago all the way to its ongoing formation today. This exploration of the cave's diversity will descend to the very bottom of the cave at the water table. Must descend and climb the entrance stairway with more than 60 steps and climb a steel tower with more than 130 steps. Do not take this tour if you fear heights or close places and/or cannot climb stairs. Restrooms available. Two miles of passageway overlap the Historic Tour route. Limit: 60

Frozen Niagara Tour
2 hours, 3/4 mile (strenuous). Descend in search of the spectacular. Ride a bus to the entrance, explore huge pits and domes and view decorative dripstone formations, including stalactites and stalagmites. Must descend approximately 300 steps and navigate steep terrain. If you fear heights or close places and/or cannot climb steps, do not take this tour. The Travertine Tour route is included in this more strenuous tour. Restrooms not available. Limit: 120

Discovery Tour
1/2 hr. minimum, 3/4 mile (moderate). Visit one of the largest rooms in Mammoth Cave, explore a large canyon passage, talk with park rangers and learn about 19th century saltpeter mining operations and the geologic origins of Mammoth Cave. Must descend and climb one stairway with more than 60 steps. To get the full picture, hike the River Styx Spring Trail or the Green River Bluffs Trail in conjunction with this tour. Unlimited availability during periods of high visitation.

Cleaveland Avenue Tour
1 3/4 hours, 1 mile (moderate). A bus takes you to the cave's entrance. Descend approximately 220 stairs at the entrance. See gypsum-encrusted tube passages and learn about early tours in Mammoth Cave. Food service at Snowball Room is available seasonally (for an additional fee). Extra time will be given at the end of the tour for those wishing these services. Exit by elevator, ascending 267 feet to buses waiting to return to the Visitor Center. Limit: 100

Mammoth Passage Tour
1 1/4 hours, 3/4 mile (moderate). Visit the large passage referred to by early cave explorers as "Main Cave," whose high vaulted ceilings and broad avenues gave birth to the cave called "Mammoth." Park Rangers discuss the cave's creation by water, the absence of what many people refer to as "typical" cave formations, the cave's cultural history, and contemporary environmental concerns. Visitors must descend and climb more than 60 stairs. Must walk up a steep hill to return to the Visitor Center. Limit: 100

Historic Tour
2 hours, 2 miles (strenuous). Visit the cave passages and learn about the rich human history that made Mammoth Cave famous. View artifacts left by Native Americans, discover ruins of mining operations, and see evidence of early visitors, explorers, and workers at Mammoth cave. Must descend and climb one stairway with more than 60 steps and climb more than 130 steps on a steel tower. If you fear heights or close places and/or cannot climb steps, do not take this tour. Limit: 120

"This Old Cave" Tour
1 hr., 1 3/4 hrs., 1 mile (moderate). Join a park ranger on a walk along the surface and through the large cave passage referred to by early cave explorers as "Main Cave." Discuss issues related to managing and restoring a natural resource, such as artifact protection and cave airlocks. Questions and observations welcome. This tour overlaps parts of the Historic and Discovery Tour route. Visitors must climb and descend more than 70 stairs. Restrooms not available. This tour is best enjoyed by adults and older youths with an interest in environmental issues. A portion of this trip will be above ground. Limit: 60


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