A Bit of Spelunking

Mammoth Cave National Park is located in Kentucky and encompasses portions of the Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System the longest cave system known in the world. The history of the cave goes back thousands of years. Remains have been discovered in the caves that researches believe were interned somewhere in the 2000 to 1000 BC timeframe. Legend has it that the first European to discover the cave did so in 1791. The cave has had a varied history including being used as a source of saltpeter used to make gun powder during the war of 1812, a mine for calcium nitrate, a tuberculosis hospital, and a tourist attraction.

In 1926 Congress authorized the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park. Unlike the formation of many of the other National Parks in the sparsely populated west, thousands of people would need to be forcibly relocated in the process of forming the National Park. Many farms were taken via eminent domain proceedings with the landowners receiving what they considered inadequate compensation for their land. The minimum park area was accepted for administration and protection in May of 1936. In July 1941 Mammoth Cave National Park was officially dedicated. Today the park encompasses over 52,000 acres.

Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave

Mammoth cave is the largest cave in the world with about 390 miles of passageways mapped. Geologists estimate that there could be another 600 miles of undiscovered passageways. A common misconception is that the cave is named for its ranking as the largest cave.  The name “Mammoth” refers to the large width and length of the passages connecting to the Rotunda just inside the entrance to the cave.

The Park Service provides a number of guided tours that allow guests to experience parts of the massive cave system. These tours range from an hour and 15 minute easy tour thru a tour that lasts almost 5 hours and is listed as Strenuous. We decided to do a couple of the easy tours during our visit.

We started with the Frozen Niagara Tour which enters from the New Entrance (a man-made entrance that is a distance from the Historic Entrance). The New Entrance was not what I expected for the entrance to a majestic cave. Once you go thru there door – there is a inner revolving door – are we going into a hotel or department store?

Mammoth Cave - New Entrance

Mammoth Cave - New Entrance

Most of  Mammoth Cave is what is called a dry cave. There is no ground water seeping down thru the ground to the cave due to a sandstone cap over the limestone strata in which the cave exists. The area of the cave that is the focus of this tour however is a wet section. In this section ground water seeps into the cave and has formed stalactites and stalagmites.

Mammoth Cave - Stalactites and Stalagmites

Mammoth Cave - Stalactites and Stalagmites

The focus of the tour is a massive flow wall in which the flow formed a drapery.  It was more impressive than it appears in the pictures below.

Mammoth Cave - Drapry Room

Mammoth Cave - Drapry Room

One excursion into the cave was enough for Leslie. I wanted to see a little more so I went on the Mammoth Passage tour which enters the cave thru the natural  historic Entrance. First a little about our tour guide Jerry Bransford. Jerry is the great-great grandson of Materson Bransford, a slave who was leased to the owner of the cave in 1838 to help map and lead tours in the cave. The Bransford family had land in the area that was taken via eminent domain to form the park. It was really amazing hearing a different perspective on a number of the events that occurred in the area.

As we approached the Historic Entrance we could feel cool wind escaping the cave, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. The cave breaths when it warmer outside cool air leaves the cave and according Jerry when it gets really hot the “wind” escaping the cave can be felt half a city block into the forest. When the outside air is cooler than the air in cave air will flow into the cave. From the pictures below you can see the size of the historic entrance. (It is more what I expect a cave entrance to look like).

Mammoth Cave - Historic Entrance

Mammoth Cave - Historic Entrance

We then walked down the main passageway to the Rotunda. Again you can see why it is called Mammoth Cave from the size of the passageway. Remember it was all carved out by flowing water.

Mammoth Cave - Passageway to the Rotunda

Mammoth Cave - Passageway to the Rotunda

We then stopped in the Rotunda. I tried to take some pictures to show the massive size of the Rotunda, but combination of very low lighting and the size prohibited the flash on my camera from doing any good.  The floor of the Rotunda was where they mined the nitrite rich soil used in the making of Salt Peter. From some of the
pictures below that show the mining operation you might get a notion of the size of the Rotunda.

Mammoth Cave - Rotunda and Nitrate Minning

Mammoth Cave - Rotunda and Nitrate Minning

From there we went down a large passageway to an area called the Church Room.  Prior to becoming a National Park, a preacher use to lead people down into the cave to this area. The preacher would climb up on the ledge pictured below and start his preaching. Our guide says it was the first air conditioned church, and the acoustics were amazing as he demonstrated with a short rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.

Mammoth Cave - Church Room (and the Passage Way)

Mammoth Cave - Church Room (and the Passage Way)

We have mixed views on our trip to Mammoth Cave. Leslie says she has had enough of caves, and really does not need to see any more. I am glad we visited and enjoyed the tours and seeing how different it was from Katchner Caverns which we visited in January of 2011 (http://wheelsunderourfeet.com/2011/01/10/facing-fears/).

I think the highlight of the day for Leslie was the little family of deer we saw on the side of the road when leaving the park. The little ones were too quick for clear pictures, but this guy just stood and posed.

Mammoth Cave - Deer on the side of the road

Mammoth Cave - Deer on the side of the road

 

 

 

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