Here in the South Sound, it is easy to locate the nearest national park. You just look for Mount Rainier rising above the landscape.
Residents in Southern Kentucky, however, might find it more difficult to find their park sitting amid the rolling, forested hills. The signature feature does not rise up 14,411 feet into the air, but spreads out more than 400 miles beneath the ground.
To best enjoy Mammoth Caves National Park, you have to go underground.
My family and I did just that when we visited the park in the sweltering heat of a July in the South.
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I admit one attraction of a cave tour was the coolness once below ground — about 55 degrees. When we visited the park, the daytime high was 95 degrees with humidity about 70 percent. Spending time in the cool, dark cave seemed like a good idea.
The park offers 11 different caving tours, offering options depending on how much time you have and how adventurous you want to be.
The easy Frozen Niagara tour covers just 0.25 miles and takes 1 ¼ hour.
Some of the tours are for those far braver and thinner than most. The Introduction to Caving Tour, for example, requires participants to have chest and hip measurement no larger than 42 inches. Otherwise, you won’t fit through some of the tight crawl spaces.
The four of us opted to do the Domes and Dripstones Tour, a two-hour walk that covered 0.75 miles and included 500 stairs. We figured it would give us a good sense of the sprawling cave system. Turns out it was a perfect sampler.
The tour starts with a descent down 280 twisting stairs to reach the cave floor. I was surprised that there were places where adults had to twist sideways and stoop a bit to get through.
Along the way, you could lean over the railing and look down as the shaft disappeared into blackness.
On our way down the staircase, we saw a cave cricket, it’s long legs adhering to the damp wall as it skittered away from us intruders, it’s even longer antennae probing ahead.
Later on the tour, our ranger guide saw a bat flee as we entered a large chamber. The cave system also is home to creatures such as cave crayfish, eyeless fish and the shaggy cave snail.
But the main attraction on our tour was the cave and its varied geologic features.
After descending more than 200 feet down the large vertical chute, we walked through a passageway that led to the large chamber, its walls made of limestone stacked like pancakes. Pausing here, we listened to a ranger presentation on the development of the caves and the history of exploring the complex now mapped at more than 400 miles.
Before moving on, we got to experience total darkness when the lights were turned off. There were squeals, gasps and moans as the world went blank. Truly, you could not see the hand in front of your face, let alone the person next to you.
Unfortunately, that lasted only moments before some freaked-out tour members grabbed for anything that could produce light, including the comforting glow from their smartphones.
As the tour continued, we walked through narrow passageways carved out of the layers of limestone by water, looked at stalactites and stalagmites, and watched as water from the surface hundreds of feet above our head cascaded down from a hole in the cave roof at the Devil’s Shower.
The final attraction was the Frozen Niagara. I recommend climbing down, and up, the 49 steps that lead you past the flowstone ripples and folds created over millennia. The amazing patterns reminded me of the ripples you find on a sandy beach.
When we climbed the final steps to the surface and the bus ride back to the visitor center, I was sorry the tour was over. It’s not as if I felt I was now a true cave explorer, but I was left wanting more.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
WHAT: The park was established July 1, 1941. It protects more than 400 miles of mapped and surveyed cave passages, the world’s longest known cave system, and the Green River valley.
WHERE: Northeast of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Take Exit 48 from Interstate 65 if you are coming from the south, or Exit 53 if coming from the north.
SIZE: The park covers almost 83 square miles. Mount Rainier National Park, in comparison, covers 369 square miles.
CAVE TOURS: The park offers almost a dozen tours during the summer season. There is a fee for the tours ($4-$50). Many fill up quickly, so making reservations is a good idea if you are on any kind of time schedule. You cannot make reservations the same day you want to take a tour.
LEAVE THEM BEHIND: These items are not allowed on cave tours: strollers, tripods, metal-framed backpacks, backpacks that extend above the shoulders or below the hips, and child backpack carriers.
ON THE SURFACE: If going into the cave doesn’t thrill you, the visitor center has excellent displays and movies that explain how the caves came to be, the history of exploring the caves and the creatures that live inside and outside of the cave. There also is a 0.75-mile Heritage Walk, led by a ranger. Another option is the Sand Cave Almanac Caravan, a walking and driving tour. It takes about an hour to do the handicap accessible caravan.
HIKING: There are more than 84 miles of trails in the park, the majority north of the Green River.
ON THE WATER: More than 30 miles of the Green and Nolin rivers run through the park, offering fishing, canoe and kayak trips, and camping on islands or along the riverbank. A backcountry permit is needed for camping along the rivers.
ADMISSION: Entrance to the park is free. Campsites are $12-$25 a night. You can reserve a cave tour spot or campsite by calling toll free 877-444-6777.
TAKE THE FERRY
I have to think most of the 525,000 people who visit the park each year head straight to the visitor center, take a cave tour and move on to their next destination.
But taking the short Green River Ferry ride will give you access to the majority of the hiking trails in the park and will allow you to do a loop drive around the park.
When we made the crossing, heavy rains had the Green River flowing very high, where the water was less than a foot from the top edge of the ferry deck.
On the other side, we found the Maple Springs group campground empty, making it a great place for a picnic.
Riding the three-vehicle ferry is free.
The Houchins Ferry, lower on the Green River, was not operating during our visit.
CAVE BOAT TOUR
If you want to explore a cave, but want to minimize the walk, consider the Lost River Cave, in the northeast corner of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Here you can take a short boat ride inside a cave that is filled with as much history as it is geologic wonder. Local legend says famed outlaw Jesse James and his gang used the cave after robbing a bank in a nearby town. The cave was also used by Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. In the 1930s-50s, the cool cave was made into a popular nightclub.
In 1986, the owners donated the cave and other property to Western Kentucky University to protect it as an educational and cultural resource. In 1990, the Friends of the Lost River was created to operate the tours, maintain the grounds and offer educational programs.
Information: During the summer, 45-minute tours are offered from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets are $16.95 (12 and older), $11.95 ages 4-11 and $4.95 (3 and younger). lostrivercave.com.