The United States contains over 3.5 million square of land, filled with natural wonders, cultural and historic monuments, and scenic sites. In fact, 418 of these sites have been set aside by the National Park Service to be preserved throughout time. One of these sites is Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the longest cave system in the world. I’ve been visiting this park for over 10 years and each time I am awed by its beauty and natural wonder, as well as how much there is to do. Although I’ve done a lot around the park (and taken more cave tours than I can remember), there’s still so much to see and explore!
To provide you with some tips for your own visit, this travel guide will dive into the history of Mammoth Cave National Park, provide travel tips, ideas on where to stay, and more.
About Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave is not only a National Park but a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. Considering its status as the world’s largest cave system at over 400 miles long (and they still have not found the end!) and its extensive history (people have been visiting the cave for over 4,000 years), it’s no wonder why the cave has received these distinctions. Mammoth Cave now attracts visitors from all across the world to enjoy cave tours, camping, hiking, horseback riding, and more.
For more information, check out the National Park’s website.
Where is Mammoth Cave Located?
Mammoth Cave National Park is located 1 1/2 hours south of Louisville and 1 1/2 northeast of Nashville. It borders Cave City, KY, which is home to local lodging, smaller caves, and area attractions.
The History of Mammoth Cave
The earliest cave explorers—the Native Americans—ventured into the cave thousands of years ago to collect minerals such as gypsum and epsomite. They left behind many artifacts in the cave (a few of which can be seen in the visitor center’s free museum), including shoes and bowls.
The legend says that around 1800, the first European came across the cave when hunting a bear. From there, Mammoth Cave once again became a place for mining minerals (this time, saltpeter). In addition to mining, Mammoth Cave has also been used as a church, a tuberculosis hospital, and (now) for tours.
For more history of Mammoth Cave, check out the full version here.
Where to Stay at Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park and the surrounding area provide various lodging options, including camping, cabins, RV camping, and hotels. Below I recommend 3 different locations:
Mammoth Cave Campground
Mammoth Cave National Park offers several different campgrounds, but I recommend the Mammoth Cave Campground because of its close proximity to the park’s visitor center. In fact, it’s so close you could walk the distance from the camp store to the visitor center in a mere 5-10 minutes!
Even better, this campground is extremely affordable. Campsites range between $10 and $25 per night and an RV site costs $50 per night.
However, it’s important to know that staying at this campground is a true camping experience. There’s no cell phone reception or WiFi here; you may even walk open your tent one day to find deer just steps away. (I can testify to that experience.) However, a chance to unplug is the perfect opportunity to take part in some of the activities around the park, including hiking, attending ranger talks at the amphitheater, and exploring the museum in the Visitor’s Center.
For more information on the Mammoth Cave Campground, click here.
Mammoth Cave Lodge
Mammoth Cave Lodge is another on-site lodging option at Mammoth Cave National Park that is divided into several distinct options and experiences.
- Sunset Terrace
- Heritage Trail Rooms
- Historic Cottages
- Woodland Cottages
Although each one is in a different location, they are still relatively close to each other. However, it’s important to note that each one is distinct in terms of size, amenities, and cost.
For more information about the Mammoth Cave Lodge, click here.
Jellystone Park at Mammoth Cave
Located just 15 minutes from Mammoth Cave’s visitor center, Jellystone Park is perhaps the most family-friendly and entertaining option for local camping and lodging in the area. Jellystone Park offers tent camping, RV camping, and cabins, along with themed weeks throughout the year.
Examples of Themed Weeks/Weekends and Activities from 2019 include:
- Chocolate Lover’s
- Hawaiian Luau
- Glow Galore
- Hocus Pocus Halloween
Along with themed weeks/weekends and regular activities (such as bingo and hayrides), Jellystone Park has also expanded in recent years, adding a new Ranger Station, pool, splash pad, jumping pillow, man-made lake, and more.
For more information on staying at Jellystone Park, click here.
However, if you are looking for additional lodging options than the ones I listed above, Mammoth Cave’s website provides an extensive list of local lodgings and which exit they’re located off of, so you can get an idea of how close to the park they are.
What to Do at Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park offers an extensive list of activities for visitors. In fact, there are so many activities offered that I haven’t even done them all in my 10+ years of visiting the area! This is a list of some of the top activities to do at the park:
1. Cave Tours at Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave offers a wide variety of tours that vary in the length of time they take, the amount of walking required, and the amount of extraneous activity there is (fun fact: there are “mountains” within the cave system).
There is also an accessible tour available for those with mobility difficulties, as well as an interpreter service (which requires a pre-made reservation) and assisted listening devices available. Learn more about the cave tours by clicking here.
I’ve been on many of the cave tours and have always found myself learning something new. Even more, the cave has many unique features and formations, so no one cave tour looks exactly the same as the others!
Visiting the Historic Entrance of Mammoth Cave
If you don’t want to go on a cave tour, you can still walk to the historic entrance. After exiting out of the Visitor Center, you’ll see a path going under the bridge that looks like a road. There are several different ways to get to that path, but follow it down the hill and it will lead you directly to the historic entrance. If you’re lucky, you might even get to listen in on a tour as they walk by!
2. Canoeing and Kayaking
The Green River runs through Mammoth Cave National Park, which makes for some great canoeing and kayaking experiences! If you don’t have your own canoe/kayak, I recommend using Mammoth Cave Canoe & Kayak, which is the service I used when canoeing. They provided our canoes, life vests, and a ride to the river. On the trip we went on, there was even a small cave that could be accessed by canoe or kayak!
However, before you decide to go canoeing, be sure to check out the trip descriptions. Trips can range from 3-4 hours to several days, so pick your tour wisely and be prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug spray. (The bugs on the river can be quite pesky!)
3. Horseback Riding
When it comes to horseback riding, there are options for bringing your own horse or going on a guided trail tour at the park. Although I haven’t been on this horseback riding experience specifically (as there’s only one horseback riding service in the park), I have been on one nearby and had a ton of fun!
To learn more about horseback riding at Mammoth Cave, click here.
4. Ranger Talks
As a kid, I thought the Ranger Talks were boring, but as an adult, my nerdy self loves attending them. Essentially, a ranger talk is almost like an informal college lecture about some aspect of the park and/or the park’s history. Most of the ones I’ve been to have been held at the amphitheater (be sure to check the schedule for times), but they’ve also done them at other locations, such as at Sand Cave.
5. Junior Ranger Program
Traveling with kids? Have them take part in the Junior Ranger program! Kids will collect the booklet at the desk and complete a certain number of “bat points” (based on their age) from activities within the book during their visit, such as counting the number of turkeys and deer they see in the park or solving different puzzles in the booklet. Once they’ve collected all their points, they can turn in their book and receive a Junior Ranger badge.
6. Visitor Center Museum
Mammoth Cave National Park had a new visitor center built a few years ago, which includes an amazing museum about the history and geology of Mammoth Cave. The best part? It’s completely free!
The museum covers a lot of information about the museum and is a great introduction to the cave before you take a tour. Even if you’ve already taken a tour of Mammoth Cave, it’s a great supplement to the information you may not have gotten while on the tour, as each cave tour is different. There’s also a small film (with seating) that visitors can enjoy.
7. Hiking and Biking
Did you know that Mammoth Cave National Park has over 80 miles of trails? They are divided up between 6 different trailheads and the Mammoth Cave website does a great job on charting where each trail starts, how long it is, etc.
I’ve been on a few of the short trails near the cave entrance and they lead to some beautiful overlooks of the mountains, as well as close-up views of the river (that flows into a cave entrance!). Be sure to check out the National Park website to learn more about the trails at Mammoth Cave National Park.
8. Sand Cave Trail & Mammoth Cave Baptist Church
If you’re entering the park from Cave City, be sure to stop for a photo by the Mammoth Cave National Park sign and then head down Sand Cave Trail. This trail is only 0.1 miles long and is made up of raised wooden planks from the forest floor (almost like a flat bridge), which makes it very accessible.
As you walk down the trail, stop to read the signs about Floyd Collins and what led to his tragic death in Sand Cave and the historic rescue attempt to free him. At the end of the trail is an overlook of Sand Cave, which is not open to the public.
After walking the trail, drive up to Mammoth Cave Baptist Church and pay your respects at the grave of Floyd Collins; don’t forget to check out the church itself, which was established in 1827.
(If you are interested in learning more about what’s available in the local area, be sure to check out my blog post on what to do in and around Cave City!)
Tips for Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park
Bring Good Walking Shoes
When visiting Mammoth Cave, I always recommend bringing good walking shoes that have been broken in and have a good tread on them, especially if you go on a cave tour. Since the cave is a naturally-made structure and still has water running within it, the surfaces can be smooth and slippery.
Bring a Zip-up Jacket
I also recommend bringing a small zip-up jacket. Temperatures can vary throughout the year, but the National Park Service reports it usually being around 54° Fahrenheit. However, depending on the amount of strenuous activity on your tour, you may feel as if you don’t need the jacket, so you may find that having one that you can zip on/off easily would be better for you.
Don’t Bring Your Own Firewood
If you’re camping at Mammoth Cave (or anywhere nearby) don’t bring your own firewood. Insects that aren’t native to the area can be transported in firewood, which can harm the local ecosystem. You can learn more about the firewood quarantine by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
Final Thoughts on Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is both a historic and natural wonder that my own family has enjoyed for many years, as have many others. Although I’ve been visiting the park for over 10 years, I still feel that I haven’t done everything the park offers, even though I try to learn a little more about the park each time I go.
While visiting Mammoth Cave, be sure to check out my recommendations for other local attractions around Cave City and let me know about your own visit to Mammoth Cave if you’ve visited before!