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Mammoth Cave National Park is located in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. It is the world's largest cave system totalling nearly 350 miles of underground passages. This makes it almost three times longer than the next longest cave system, located in Russia. It was established as a national park in 1941 but exploration of the caves had been going on for hundreds of years and tours since the 1800s.

Mammoth Cave was formed by the erosion of limestone by water. At first, the area of Mammoth Caves was covered by a giant sea. Over time, the sea disappeared and freshwater seeped into cracks in the ground. The water eroded out these cracks creating large underground rivers. After hundreds of thousands of years, the rivers dug their way down deeper into the earth leaving behind the large caves they had created. So, the existing caves are basically dry while the river continues to dig deeper down in the earth. The result is much different from the traditional stalactites and stalagmites found in wet caves.

Tours of various difficulty are offered. These tours range from easy one hour hikes through the caves to an extremely strenuous five hour crawl through dark, muddy passages. I took the four hour walking tour which covered about three miles of the largest caves. There really aren't words to describe how big everything is. Some passages are a hundred feet wide and half a mile long while others are tiny holes through the rocks. Some of the limestone chunks that have fallen from the ceiling weigh tens of tons. One of the strangest parts is the restaurant in the middle of the tour where you stop for lunch. Still, tour sizes are limited so it's not such a tourist spot as some other caves tend to be.

Up on the surface, Mammoth Cave has a hotel to stay in as well as some very nice campgrounds (despite the fact that it's set up for car camping). There's almost one hundred miles of hiking trails as well. Several endangered species live in and around the caves. Deer are all over the place - watch out when you're driving at night!

Mammoth Cave is truly a remarkable place to go. If you go during one of the off-peak times of the year, it's very quiet and not crowded at all in the campgrounds. In addition, the tours will be smaller and with fewer children. The cave itself is absolutely amazing. I can't even begin to describe it with only words. You have to see if for yourself. Finally, don't go into town unless you have to. It's not such a bad place but is really touristy.


This information taken from the appropriate section of the NPS website (http://www.nps.gov) and my own memories of the tour. Much more information is available if you go there yourself.
Intro to Caving Tour

There are a bunch of different tours offered at Mammoth Cave, and it's pretty difficult to decide which one you want. Because the tours tend to book up quickly, it's not an option to walk into the visitor's center and decide which one you want. There is a website where you can purchase tour tickets online, and this is definitely the way to go. Look to http://www.nps.gov/maca/tours.htm for the most up to date information.

On this site there are also descriptions of the various tours. If you've never been to Mammoth Cave, there's a pretty good chance that these will mean nothing to you. Take a look at the level (some say easy while others say strenuous, the amount of time you'll be underground, and most importantly the price. The more expensive, the more experience (or so I say).

On a labor day weekend excursion with Ted we called ahead and tried to book the "Wild Cave Tour" only to discover that it was sold out for the weekend. We reluctantly bought tickets for "Introduction to Caving". The online description doesn't sound too rough, but as soon as we got into the cave, Ted and I knew that we were in for a treat.

The first task was to walk down about 300 steps into the cave. Of course that wasn't hard, but it gave some idea as to how deep we were going. Our first tough task was the "test hole". We were instructed to wiggle up through this tiny hole to make sure that we 1)had the physical strength to do it and 2)that our bodies were small enough to fit into the rest of the spaces along the tour. I made it through without much more than a scraped elbow, but man was I breathing hard. It was quite strenuous. Throughout the rest of the tour, there was a lot of climbing, crawling on knees, a few spots where we had to wiggle on our bellies, really a ton of fun. The whole time we were wearing hard hats with head lamps (we got to keep the hats after the tour!) and kneepads. They were necessary, and I would recommend buying some good quality kneepads of your own to take.

The last part of the tour is called the "keyhole". This is a tiny opening about 6" tall located across a big mudhole. You have to extend over the mud, turn your head sideways to fit it through, then wiggle the rest of your body through the hole. It was awesome! I felt like such a badass when I made it through, and I wish I had video footage.

One of the best parts of the tour was returning to the visitor's center all muddy and tired. People stared and looked frightened.

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