In ancient times what is now known as Mammoth Caves was well known to Native Americans, who used it in various capacities for thousands of years. Eventually, however, the caves were forgotten, until they were rediscovered by white settlers in 1798.
Some of the earliest exploration of Mammoth Caves was done by Stephen Bishop, a slave, who died in 1857. The caves became his life, and many of the monuments and sites within the cave were named by him. To this day Bishop remains a part of Mammoth Caves, buried in a cemetery not far from the entrance.
Today, over 360 miles of the cave system have been explored and map, making it the longest known cave system in the world. Besides being a United States National Park, it is also a United Nations World Heritage Monument and part of an international biosphere preserve.
Only about 10 miles of the massive caves are open to tourists, however they are quite magnificent in and of themselves. There are a total of 14 different tours offered, taking visitors through various parts of the cave system.
For those who are interested in experiencing the cave and learning some of its long history, the Historic Tour is perhaps the best. This tour takes visitors through two miles of the cave, beginning at the original entrance discovered in 1798. It follows the paths first explored by early guides such as Stephen Bishop, has displays of artifacts of the ancient Indians who dwelled there millenia ago, besides offering all of the natural beauty of the caves themselves.
The Historic Tour takes about two hours, but it is well worth it. There are restrooms available, in Great Relief Hall, a large cavern that is the exit of Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow tunnel. Although today it is large enough for the average person to traverse it easily, when Stephen Bishop first explored this area of the cave it was barely large enough for him to crawl through. Upon reaching the cavern at its end, he named it the Hall of Great Relief. As the tour guides will love to tell you as you are on your tour, there are now restroom facilities built into the cavern here.
The grandest part of the tour comes at the end, in Mammoth Dome. This Dome extends an incredible 194 feet from top to bottom, and is magnificent in its splendor. Also part of the Dome are the Ruins of Karnak, brilliant formations that give off the appearance of an ancient Egyptian temple. One will get plenty of time to see the wonder of the Dome, as you will climb up 138 steps to reach the top and then finish the tour. Visitors should be warned that this is quite a steep climb, so you should be able to handle it before starting on the tour.
Besides the Historic Tour there are a number of other tours available. The least strenuous is the Travertine Tour, which takes tourists through ¼ mile of the cave, beginning at the opposite end of the cave system from the Historic Tour at the Frozen Niagara Entrance. Emphasis for this tour is placed on cave development and learning about the natural processes that produce the beautiful formations on display in the cave.
For those who would like to see the caves unguided, there is a short self-guided Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour that begins at the Natural Entrance. About ¾ of a mile round trip, you are able to move at your own pace and see a sampling of the cave.
For the more adventurous there are the Introduction to Caving and Wild Cave Tours. These tours require that visitors bring their own cave equipment, and teach about various elements of spelunking and cave safety while embarking on a more adventurous trek than those taking other tours. These spelunking tours are quite limited, and reservations must be made in advance.
The newest tour offered is the Focus on Mammoth Photo Tour, designed specifically for photographers to come to the cave and photograph some of the incredible beauty. Unlike other tours professional photography equipment is allowed here, and is truly a photographer’s paradise.
Other tours include the Frozen Niagara Tour, the River Styx Tour, and the Trog Tour which is intended for children between the ages of 8 and 12. Each of these tours are an experience in and of themselves, and allow visitors to experience and explore more and more of the caves.
Mammoth Caves is one of the natural wonders of the world, and is an incredible site to see. As it is underground weather conditions affect it far less than other natural monuments, and is open all year round. Due to issues with flooding and other concerns, certain parts of the park might become off-limits, but all in all it is a place that can be experienced at any part of the year.