Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky was recently declared the longest cave in the world with a network of over 400 miles of passages. And it’s still growing as explorers map new passageways! Since it was rediscovered by settlers in 1797 and has attracted hundreds of thousands of cavers, thrill-seekers, and tourists over the years. These days it is more accessible than ever for the average visitor with a half dozen tour options ranging from 1-6 hours within Mammoth Cave National Park alone. There is still plenty of adventure for those willing to seek it.
Unlike other, more diverse parks, Mammoth Cave National Park was all about one thing. I’ll give you three guesses what that thing is… Now if you visit during the summer I’ve heard floating down the Green River is beautiful and the backcountry camping is plentiful. And we got a taste of the dozens of trail miles when we hiked to the river, springs and bluffs around the Visitors Center (a very wet taste, since it started pouring halfway through our 4-mile loop). But, like everyone else, our visit was centered around the cave.
From the moment I read the list of cave tour options, the Wild Cave Tour description immediately reeled me in: “Face the darkness – and the challenge. Journey with experienced guides and a small adult group through some of the starkly beautiful yet physically demanding “wild” areas of the cave. Climb, crawl, squeeze, hike and canyon walk in the realms of Mammoth Cave. See places no other tour encounters and feel the thrill of exploration! Time: 6 hours, Distance: 5 miles, Difficulty: Extremely strenuous.” If I would’ve read a little farther – “Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches; if you are larger you may not physically pass through the crawlspaces” – I may have hesitated making the reservations. If I had fully communicated the description to Elizabeth and my family (who was joining us for their home park) they may have second guessed it. But you can’t have caution getting in the way of good old fashioned adventure!
We drove down to Mammoth Cave from my family’s place in Louisville (where we were staying for a week of the holidays). I had to plan our visit for the weekend because the Wild Cave tour is only offered at 9 AM on Saturday and Sunday. Plus, there are only 14 spots, so early reservations are imperative. It’s also important to remember that Mammoth Cave is in the Central Time Zone, even though it’s directly south of Louisville in Eastern. A fact learned well when we got to our tour an hour early.
Finally it was time to get suited up for the cave. The tour came with a helmet, headlamp and kneepads along with coveralls and gloves to guard from the spread of the bat-killing White Nose Fungus that recently invaded the cave. The only thing we were required to provide was ankle-high, thick-tread boots. They were so strict that when my sister forgot hers on the kitchen table instead of wearing Elizabeth’s slightly big, low-cut hiking shoes she had to wear my dad’s extremely big extra boots (no idea why he brought two pair)… plus 3 pairs of socks.
Our descent into the cave came with plenty of safety warnings that I figured were obligatory precautions. I was surprised to learn we were about to take on the longest crawling tour in the longest cave in the world. And it didn’t take long before our knees were put to the test. Then our first real challenge was to squeeze through the Bare Hole (so named because the hole is so tight that people have lost their clothes when wriggling through it). We quickly realized that my dad was the biggest person in the group when he worked for maybe 10 minutes to squish his chest through the disturbingly tiny hole. Apparently this is one of the reasons you literally can’t be over 42-inches wide at any part of your body. The effort took so much out of my dad that he wisely decided to pass on the rest of the tour.
We trekked deeper into the cave after lunch. The challenge of the afternoon was a 1/4-mile section of army crawling through a foot of water in a section called Sharon’s Lost River. Because the guides can switch the Wild Cave tour route according to interests and abilities, the guides told us this was the first time they were comfortable leading a group through the “river” section in about 6 months. After emerging from the tunnel we started a section of climbing over boulders and hiking through narrow passageways. There were a few challenging spots including one section past a slopey, slippery ledge that required you to lean across the chasm and put your hands on the far wall to sidestep across. Now I knew why the guides warned anyone with fears of either claustrophobia OR heights. Unfortunately one of the women in the group must’ve been really afraid and tentative crossing the ledge. As the guide tried to coax her across I heard a sudden crash followed by shouting come from around the corner. She had fallen about 10-feet. After some tense examination, she had a sore back but was deemed fit to walk.
We rerouted to get to a place in the cave where a paramedic could meet us for an official medical examination. As we stood around waiting in the 54-degree cave in our wet clothes, some of the group started to shiver. The guide was afraid of people getting hypothermic so he made everyone go on another army crawling section called “Hell Hole” because it gets so hot in the stuffy, confined passage. I was stoked to squeeze in a little more cave. When we finally climbed back to the surface, our guide mentioned this Wild Cave tour was less than typical: it lasted 40 minutes longer and we saw more cave normal, we did several sections they very rarely try, it was the first tour that exited where we entered, and it was the guide’s first injury on the tour.
Over the parks Elizabeth and I have gotten accustomed to NPS warnings and trail descriptions that seem a bit excessive. The Wild Cave Tour did not lie. It was “extremely strenuous” and we all agreed the enjoyment came less from the pleasure of crawling for miles and more from the significant sense of accomplishment. It will definitely go down in our own little National Parks adventure hall of fame. The next day we joined the Domes and Dripstones tour and walked with 70 other people along wide lighted pathways. I recommend that tour as well to see some marvelous cave formations, but I think the Wild Cave is required to truly experience the vast, challenging maze that is Mammoth Cave.