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Historic Tour highlights Mammoth Cave

By Johnny Molloy • Sep 30, 2018 at 5:00 AM

Visitors have been touring Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave for over 200 years. If coming to this national park -- home of the world’s largest cave system -- take the Historic Tour, and follow in the footsteps of those who came before you, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson wrote of his experience. “Some years ago, in company with an agreeable party, I spent a long summer day in exploring the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. . . . I lost the light of one day. I saw high domes, and bottomless pits; heard the voice of unseen waterfalls; paddled three quarters of a mile in the deep Echo River, whose waters are peopled with the blind fish; crossed the streams “Lethe” and “Styx”; plied with music and guns the echoes in these alarming galleries; saw every form of stalagmite and stalactite in the sculptured and fretted chambers,—icicle, orange-flower, acanthus, grapes, and snowball. . . .”

“The mysteries and scenery of the cave had the same dignity that belongs to all natural objects, and which shames the fine things to which we foppishly compare them.”

If you only have time for one cave tour make it the Historic Tour. It offers many cave highlights and travels through passages large and small, giving tourists a good taste of the overall Mammoth experience, and is offered year-round.

You’ll begin at the visitor center, heading down to the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. There your group will gather at the saltpeter mine to learn how these operations turned the cave into the destination it is today. The tour then heads down Broadway, also known as the Main Cave, to reach the Giant’s Coffin.

Ahead, you’ll span the Bottomless Pit, where cave explorer Stephen Bishop first crossed on a cedar log laid over the depths. The crowds enjoy Tall Man’s Misery and Fat Man’s Misery, where parades of tourists have rendered the limestone smooth in places from years of squeezing through this narrow yet fun area.

The group will gather again at River Hall, named for its site near the River Styx. Here the tour reaches its lowest point, nearly 300 feet below the surface. The grand finale is the impressive Mammoth Dome, formed by the draining of Mammoth Sink on the surface. This is one of the highest water-carved areas on the cave tours. The columns of the Ruins of Karnak can be seen here as well. Added features are flowstone formations.

Since you are well down in the cave, you must go up. The tour now climbs a long set of stairs up Mammoth Dome that are an engineering feat in their own right, and will leave some people huffing and well warmed up even in the fifty-four-degree underground. After the climb, the tour returns to the Rotunda then exits the Historic Entrance via Audubon Avenue.

The entire tour is lit. The footing varies from concrete trails, to wooden walkways, to dirt trails that travel narrow passages and may make claustrophobics feel uncomfortable. Some extended stooping is required in sections, and the stairs that climb Mammoth Dome will challenge those out of shape. Moreover, there is every bit of 2 miles of walking. However, all the above should not discourage average cave visitors from this tour. I encourage you to visit the American treasure that is Mammoth Cave.

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