Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Photo: NPS Photo
Photo: NPS Photo

There’s a national park right under your nose. You may not be able to see it as you drive through the Green River Valley, but we promise it’s there. The park covers more than 50,000 acres in Central Kentucky. It was established in the 1940s, and it later became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve, as well. But these cathedrals, pits, and rock formations you’ve heard so much about are nowhere to be found. At least above ground. This national park is deep underground.

Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest known cave system in the world. The entire world. The limestone caves, along with Niagara Falls, are one of the oldest tourist attractions in the country. Nearly 400 miles of passageways wind between underground canyons, hills, and even rivers. Unlike many caves, which are full of stalactites and stalagmites formed by drip water, these caves are mostly dry and capped with sandstone. This makes them much easier to explore.

Photo: NPS Photo
Photo: NPS Photo

Walk down concrete steps to enter the caves. Lush hardwood trees and miles of hiking and biking trails are above you. The stairs lead to Grand Central Station, a huge space 250 feet underground. Indiana and tri-colored bats fly overhead. Pass Fairy Ceiling, Lover’s Leap, and a wet area—where Shower Bath Falls flow after hard rains—to find Frozen Niagara. The amazing formations do indeed look like ice.

Hike through narrow canyons and around steep underground hills to find Grand Avenue. It’s surrounded by huge rock piles and gypsum in the shape of flowers. You can eat lunch and even go to the bathroom—yes, there are underground bathrooms—in this area of the cave. Listen to echoes in the Rotunda, a huge circular chamber. Use lantern light to see Violet City, where a tuberculosis hut still stands. Find candle-written signatures from the 19th century along the walls of Gothic Avenue. Then stare into the Bottomless Pit and squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery.

After spending hours underground, it takes a few minutes for you to readjust when you finish touring the caves. The sunlight seems blindingly bright. Standing up straight feels a bit awkward. While a creature flying close to you, this time a bird instead of a bat, no longer freaks you out. Your underground adventure—once you found it—was a great success.

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