Mammoth Cave National Park and its Must-See Cave System

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s most prolonged and extensive cave system. The park is named for its namesake cave, and the location of the park can be found in the state of Kentucky.

This remarkable cave network consists of at least 128 kilometers (80 miles) of underground tunnels located beyond the park’s boundaries and at least 456 kilometers (280 miles!!) of verified passageways in the park itself.

According to Wikipedia, Mammoth Cave extends even beyond that, to a length of over 680 km, over 50% more than the second largest cave system known. This location could serve as a “living laboratory” for scientists researching different periods of the earth’s evolutionary history.

Where is Mammoth Cave Located?

If you love caves and learning history directly from the Earth, you must make a trip to Kentucky, USA. If you are familiar with the area, Park City is the nearest location to the cave’s entrance.

History of Mammoth Cave

People have frequented Mammoth Cave for thousands of years, and it was first discovered by prehistoric American Indians some 5,000 years ago.

Stephen Bishop, a former slave who worked as a guide in Mammoth Cave, became the first person in modern history to expand the length of the Cave in the 1840s. He was also the person who drew one of the earliest maps of the Mammoth Cave system.

While he worked as a guide at Mammoth Cave, he and the other guides developed innovative strategies to assist tourists. After navigating the dimly lit passages and establishing new walkways, they ensured that visitors can enter the caves with much less difficulty today.

Fast forward to almost a century and a half later, in the 1930s. Two well-known families of Mammoth Cave guides by the names of Hanson and Hunt enter the picture. These groups explored “secret” passages in the Cave regularly during their free time, which increased the Cave’s known distance.

This discovery led to a rise in the number of visitors inside the Cave. In 1938, Pete Hanson, Carl Hanson, Leo Hunt, and Claude Hunt spent significant time searching the area. This new activity led to the unearthing of the area later known as the “New Discovery” zone.

It had massive trunk tunnels in addition to areas covered with gypsum deposits that were both very vast and quite unstable. The gypsum deposits were located in specific segments of the structure, and more were found in neighboring areas.

Floyd Collins

You might not have heard of Floyd Collins, who we briefly mentioned in this article of famous caving deaths. Floyd was an avid caver and explorer, who found Crystal Cave in 1917. But his significance is forever tied to Mammoth Cave.

Floyd passed away after becoming trapped in Sand Cave. He ultimately perished due to exposure to the elements, and the cave was sealed with Floyd’s body inside.

Only months later, his body removed for a formal burial closer to his family’s home near Crystal Cave. They transported his body to the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery.

However, his life and death drew the nation’s attention to the area.

Once Kentucky’s cave country became more appreciated, the establishment of Mammoth Cave National Park in 1941 followed soon after.

Mammoth Cave Alterations

Between the 1950s and 1960s, three significant cave connections paved the way for an even larger connection in 1972.

In 1955, Crystal Cave became connected with Unknown Cave. Five years later, in 1960, Salts Cave became connected to Colossal Cave. Finally, in 1961, Salts Cave became connected to Unknown Cave. This meant that all four caves (Crystal, Unknown, Colossal, and Salts) were connected. This connected network became known as the Flint Ridge Cave system.

Before 1972, the Flint Ridge Cave system was the longest known cave in the world with 86.5 miles (139.2 km) of mapped passageways. The Mammoth Cave System, located one ridge over, was mapped at 57.9 miles (93.2 km) long. The next task for explorers was to connect the two. Many trips came and went in the Flint Ridge system to no avail.

Remember Leo Hunt and and Pete Hanson from earlier? During a trip on September 2, 1972, a group in the Flint Ridge system found their signatures in a passage that is now known as Hanson’s Lost River. This gave the cavers some indication they were possibly connected to the Mammoth Cave system.

But the big moment came one week later, during a separate expedition.

A man stands on a bridge barely above the water inside Mammoth Cave.

The Greatest Discovery in Mammoth Cave History

The September 2nd trip was originally going to be the last trip for the calendar year. However, an all-time low water table on September 9th meant that an important location, called Hanson’s Lost River, would not be filled with water.

On the fateful morning of September 9, 1972, a team of six people gathered together. They maneuvered through the cave for 12 hours before reaching Hanson’s Lost River. They felt the big connection might lie here.

The group, feeling exhausted after the trek, paused here. But their leader, a man named John Wilcox, assumed it would waste everyone’s time if they continued and wound up having to turn back if the passage siphoned off. He moved forward alone, and shockingly, it did the opposite.

The passageway suddenly expanded. Wilcox’s caving helmet light exposed the discovery, and Wilcox yelled back to the group, “I see a tourist trail!”

At that moment, some might say the group had climbed the Mt. Everest of the caving world.

That night, the Flint and Mammoth Cave system were connected for a total of 144.4 miles (232.39 km) long, becoming the new longest known cave in the world. Today, Mammoth Cave National Park attracts over 500,000 visitors annually, and this is one of the main reasons why.

Mammoth Cave Campsite

A picture of the serene outdoors locations for picnics and camping at Mammoth Cave National Park

Interested in getting an authentic national park experience? With easy access to various park activities, such as cave tours and other recreational opportunities, staying at the Mammoth Cave Campground is a great option.

You must obtain prior authorization from the appropriate authorities to camp anywhere inside the park. But you can reserve the vast majority of the 111 available sites, and we recommend it. During holidays and weekends, reservations quickly become unavailable due to the popularity of Mammoth Cave.

Many campsites are appropriate for RVs, groups, or both. Others are dedicated purely to tents. To ensure that your time spent in the campground is one you will never forget, the park rangers stationed at the kiosk will gladly answer any questions you may have.

Mammoth Cave Cabins

One of the finest ways to feel like you’re part of the woods and wildlife in Kentucky is to rent a cabin. The Mammoth Cave cottages in Kentucky provide guests with a peaceful retreat that is well situated close to a diverse selection of opportunities for outdoor recreation and well-known tourist destinations.

Guests staying in the cabins have access to a private lake that is 25 acres in size, as well as private hiking paths, caverns, waterfalls, and three stocked ponds.

Mammoth Cave Lodge

Mammoth Cave opened to the general public for the first time in 1816. Since then, guests looking for lodging in Mammoth Cave National Park enjoy a unique brand of southern hospitality.

The Mammoth Cave Lodge is found directly over the pedestrian bridge from the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center.

Stay in one of the Heritage Trail Rooms, conveniently located only down the hall from the front desk, where you will check in for your stay at the lodge.

Access to these rooms should not provide any difficulties for those who have mobility issues.

You’ll find several restaurants at the lodge, such as the Green River Grille and the Spelunker’s Cafe. Enjoy a meal prepared in the style of Kentucky, but expect a minimum charge of $136 for the first night of your stay.

You can purchase souvenirs and presents to remind you of your time spent in the park at either of the two gift stores inside the lodge.

The Bottomless Pit

An image of the perspective when looking down into the Mammoth Cave's Bottomless Pit.
Bottomless Pit

Back in October 1838, Stephen Bishop made history, becoming the first to cross the Mammoth Cave Bottomless Pit. One of the early hurdles that prohibited further investigation was a gap in the path that measured six feet in width and was situated close to the Bottomless Pit.

Joined by a fellow traveler named Hiram C. Stevenson, he exploited the ladders stretched between the two sides of the chasm.

When Bishop had finished the passage, he would go on to make some of the most astounding findings that have ever been found in the Cave.

One of these discoveries is the blind cavefish, which Bishop allegedly found in River Styx. Bishop then ventured beyond the official tour itineraries and located uncharted areas of the cave system. Both of these accomplishments rocketed him to prominence, positioning him at the forefront of the exploration movement.

The Historic Tour will take you to the Bottomless Pit so you can appreciate its scale. Before continuing to Fat Man’s Misery and the Mammoth Dome, guests participating in the expedition must cross a bridge situated in the air.

A corridor leading to the Fat Man's Misery area of Mammoth Cave.
Fat Man’s Misery

Even though the bridge is safe and well-lit today, it’s easy to imagine the times when the Bottomless Pit prevented any safe passage.


People worldwide felt drawn to Mammoth Cave since the time of American Indian explorers 5,000 years ago. This pattern has remained consistent up until the present day.

For a very long time, people have used the name “Mammoth Cave” as a metaphor for the risks associated with venturing into the unknown.

Thus, it’s possible that the term “The Cave” was derived from the enormous size of the “mammoth” underground vaults and the unparalleled extent of the canals that run throughout this cave system. Quite a fascinating location! We hope you get to witness its immense size in person. Be sure to share your experiences with us.

Mammoth Cave National Park is the main draw in the state, but it’s not the only great cave worth visiting. If you’re looking for more caving sites in Kentucky, check this article for some ideas.

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