There’s no doubt that the underground world is a fascinating one. Ever since we visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and were blown away by the surreal beauty of the underground formations, caves have been on our radar. And when we decided to visit Kentucky, a stop at Mammoth Cave National Park was a must.
The campground located in the national park made out visit super convenient. I’m not sure what it’s like at other times of the year, but right now all the sites are first-come-first-serve, and when we arrived on Saturday only a handful were occupied. Most of the RV sites are pull-thrus, and ours was the perfect size for us to fit into without unhooking, which was preferable since we only planned to stay one night.
Unlike Carlsbad Caverns, where we spent hours exploring on our own, the only way to see Mammoth Cave is on a guided tour. We started looking at the tours about a month ago, but since we didn’t want to commit yet, held off on reserving until a week prior. By that time our choice of tours was limited to a short 45 minute stroll, or a 2 hour lantern lit tour. Exploring a cave by lantern sounded awesome and we quickly signed up for the Sunday morning Great Onyx Lantern Tour ($18 per person).
Since we arrived at the campground earlier than anticipated — and gained an hour by driving into the central time zone — we walked over to the visitor center to learn about the cave. Well…it turns out that you can see a very small portion of the cave without going on a tour. For $5 you can walk into the historic entrance and explore a 1/4 mile underground path.
I’m not going to share any photos because I only had my phone with me and I don’t want to bore you with dimly lit photos of a giant cavernous space. Honestly, there’s not a lot to see on this self guided tour anyway. You basically walk though a massive (or should I say mammoth?) underground cavern with lots of interesting looking passageways that are blocked off and only accessible by tour. It’s either enough to get you excited about the tour that you already booked, or pissed that you didn’t book a tour, drove all the way here and only got to see this tiny portion.
Anyway…after that little tease we were pretty excited when it came time for our tour the next morning. The cave we were touring is called the Great Onyx Cave. There is currently no known connection from Onyx Cave to the massive 400 mile Mammoth Cave system, but since it’s located so close to the Mammoth Cave there’s a good chance that a connection might exist. This cave used to be one of the privately owned caves in the area that profited from cave tours. The owners held out longer than most, but eventually caved (see what I did there) and sold to the national park system in the early 60s. Today, the Great Onyx Cave is considered to be one of the most pristine caves in the area, and in an effort to keep it that way, the park only offers tours for a few months each fall.
The tour began outside of the cave entrance where we received some some basic rules about the cave and our use of the lanterns. Our group of 25 had 7 lanterns total which provided more than enough light to guide us around the cave.
We entered the cave through a thick metal door and made our way down a steep set of stairs into the cave.
The first portion of the cave was full of stalagmites and stalactites. This cool looking cave art forms when water and moisture enter the cave. Here’s a trick to remember which is which. Stalactites are the ones that hang down — they are tight to the ceiling, while stalagmites grow up from the ground and “might” some day reach the ceiling.
We walked through the cave for awhile listening to our guide tell us the history of the cave and point out interesting formations along the way. About halfway through we stopped in a large area with a long wooden bench and sat while she told more stories. The bench, and all the trails in the cave were constructed by the original owners who ran a flourishing cave tour business, including a hotel and campground, for many years before the park service bought them out.
The national park service has not made any changes down here and as a result we were able to see some “artifacts” left behind by a previous tour group many, many years ago.
With no tripods or flash photography allowed in the cave it’s pretty hard to take good photos down there, which is why I don’t have many to share. It was a great tour though, and we really enjoyed all the knowledge our tour guides shared with us.
I will say though, that overall this cave doesn’t even compare to the majesty of Carlsbad Caverns. While I am glad that we visited, and I wish we had more time to take a few more tours, now that we’ve seen it I doubt we would go out of our way to make a return visit. In fact, if anything it made us want to return to Carlsbad Caverns and see that incredible cave again.