Outside Nashville: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

When we travel, you can be sure I have done the research.  That includes hotels, things to do and places to eat.  The morning we headed to Mammoth Cave National Park, my research failed us.  All of my breakfast places were downtown, or south of the city.  We wanted a place that was generally north towards Kentucky.

Apple maps said Monell’s was close and had good reviews.  What a wonderful surprise it turned out to be!

Monell’s serves family style so you walk in and are seated at large tables with whomever happened to walk in just before or after you.

The bowls and platters started going around and our table mates were good to explain what we were eating when it wasn’t obvious.  We knew about grits but did not know a thing about corn pudding!  Yum!

We sat with a group of pastors from the campuses of Cross Point Church of Middle Tennessee. They were so pleasant, asking about our time in Nashville, and what people eat for breakfast in the southwest.   In a true act of southern hospitality, they bought our breakfast and created a very nice memory of our trip.  

Adequately nourished, we drove two hours to Mammoth Cave National Park.  There was no entrance fee, only a fee for tours.

I had reserved our cave tour ahead of time.  Because it was December, our options were limited and I chose the History Tour. Very likely it is what I would have chosen anyway.

We knew we would be walking two miles and going down and up 546 stairs.   We would be 310 ft below the surface at the lowest level 

Archeological evidence suggests the cave was used 4000 years ago by prehistoric man.  They scraped minerals at least ten miles into the cave.   (In 1935, a  prehistoric body was found.  It was taken out and analyzed, then returned.) 

After more than 2000 years, the cave was rediscovered in 1798.  Legend says that John Halges shot a black bear and the wounded animal led him into Mammoth Cave. 

Local men explored a bit and found mineral deposits. Saltpeter production begin shortly after and peaked during the War of 1812.  Saltpeter was mined by slaves and sent to Delaware to make gunpowder. 

Mining was discontinued after the war.

By 1816 people starting visiting the cave.  Local men and boys led the tours and those guides and visitors had to work a lot harder than we did! 

Tours stopped at The Bottomless Pit, one and a quarter miles into the cave.  

In 1838 three enslaved men were sent into the cave to be the guides.  They were Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford and Nick Bransford.  The enslaved men were able to keep their tips.  (Years later Bishop’s grandson also guided tours.  The Branfords and their descendants were tour guides in the cave for over 100 years ending in 1939.)

Stephen Bishop was just 17 when he began leading white people into the cave. He later said he felt a sense of respect and authority guiding tours that he never felt above ground. 

Someone hired Bishop to take him beyond the bottomless pit, where no one else had been before.  They went another 25 feet.

Stephen Bishop explored many more miles within the cave over many years. He went down to the rivers and up to Mammoth Dome.   

Bishop was the first to discover the eyeless cavefish.  The enslaved guides sold the fish above ground and were able to keep the money. 

When Bishop found a lantern on the cave floor in an area he had never been, he knew an opening had been found from above. There are eleven natural entrances to the cave but the park service believes only one was ever used by humans.

Bishop, who called Mammoth Cave a “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place” was granted his freedom in 1856.

Steven Bishop  died in 1857 and is buried in the Old Guides Cemetery within the park.  

His headstone was donated by a park visitor 20 years after his death.  The stone had been intended for a union soldier, thus the military symbols.

Tuberculosis patients were brought into the cave in 1842-43 as a proposed cure for the disease.  This experiment was not successful but two tuberculin huts remain.  (The cave was also used for a mushroom farm,  for a famous sleep study, and as a shelter in the 1950s and 1960s.)

The river system above and within the cave was critical to forming Mammoth Cave.  The entire region sits upon more than 400 feet of layered, eroding, limestone. Over millions of years, subterranean streams have honeycombed the region with caves.

This kind of limestone topography is called Karst. The map shows Karst areas in green.

The cave system supports 130 species including northern and southern classes of eyeless cavefish.  Some species are specially adapted to live their entire lifespan in the cave while others come in and out.   

The site that became Mammoth Cave National Park was first commissioned by Congress in 1926.  The land previously was occupied by 600 farms, villages and independent cave operations.   Some people sold their properties willingly to the Park Service while others were acquired through eminent domain.

In 1933 four Civilian Conservation Corps camps were formed and park infrastructure was built.  The CCC also had the job of dismantling the former farm buildings.    They left three churches and 100 cemeteries.  (Verified descendants can still be buried in cemeteries within Mammoth Cave National Park).

The park was officially dedicated in 1941.

The 400 mile mark of explored and documented passageways in Mammoth Cave was achieved in 2012. Currently, there are 426 miles of passageways documented.  Many more hundreds of miles are presumed.  

The passageways are above and below each other turning and intertwining, like a plate of spaghetti.  It is the largest cave system known in the world.

As you can see, other known caves in the world aren’t even close to the size of Mammoth Cave.

Twelve miles of the cave are currently toured and six miles are paved.  Our tour was on a paved route.

Fat Man’s Misery is a section where the path is quite narrow. Tall Man’s Misery is a section where the “ceiling” is very low.  Even I had to duck a few times.

We saw writing on the walls and ceiling.  Writings or carvings that were done before 1941 are considered historical graffiti. After 1941 the same activity became a federal offense.

Someone put up a Christmas Tree in the cave while we were there in December 2022.

We had to go up ALL THESE STAIRS to exit the cave.  

To avoid the spread of of White Nose Syndrome, we had to walk through a solution to get infectious particles off our shoes as we left the cave. 

Those inclined to visit Mammoth Cave might visit other caves.  And we have! We visited both Wind Cave National Park and Jewell National Park (both in South Dakota) well before we started writing about our adventures.

Mammoth Cave is impressive in its size, and interesting in its history, but it is not the prettiest cave we’ve seen – at least not the part we saw on this tour.

If you are interested in a few of the other caves we visited, click on the links below. Our most recent visit to Carlsbad Caverns (and Roswell, NM) in 2021 is recorded in Below and Beyond.

To read about two southern Arizona caves, Colossal Cave and the pristine, highly protected Kartchner Caverns, read The Tale of Two Caves from 2018.

This is the last post from our Nashville trip. We planned to go to Tennessee twice in our RV days but never made it.  Years later we are finally able to add the Tennessee and Kentucky stickers!

About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
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9 Responses to Outside Nashville: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

  1. tinkersimmons says:

    Very interesting!  Thanks for sharing!

    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. Catie says:

    Once again we thank you for your pictures and commentary. Had we known when you visited us, we could have taken you back to our own Horne Lake Caves just a half hour from our home. Thank you again.
    Hugs Catie

  3. We went to Mammoth Cave last year but went on a different tour. If we go back, I think we’ll try this one.

    • Serene says:

      They have such a variety and something for everyone – just not in mid December! I’m very glad with the one I chose though. Randy may have liked one that emphasized geology more.

  4. Teri McClelland says:

    It looks like you have 10 states left? You’re getting close to finishing the map.

    • Serene says:

      We are taking a baseball trip to Detroit later this spring and not being able to fill in a sticker is an unfortunate thing. Mostly, baseball doesn’t have teams in the places left on the map! However, after loving the music scene stuff in Nashville when I knew almost nothing about country music, I think I’ll really like the Motown vibe and history.

  5. Mark McClelland says:

    We visited Mammoth Cave back in 2011 while on our first trip from Texas to Maine and also took the History Tour. So long ago! The next day we took a hike on the Cedar Sink Trail with a guide (Jerry) whose Great-great-great grandfather and several of his GGG uncles were slaves in the area.

    • Serene says:

      Having grown up, and lived primarily, in the west, and now traveling to places where enslaved people worked and lived has been “real.” A new, and somewhat humbling, experience for us.

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