After writing a lengthy article on “How to Visit Mammoth Cave National Park,” I feel that I should make suggestions as to which cave tours to go on. We spent two weeks in the Mammoth Cave area and got to go on many of the major tours.
Historic Tour or River Styx Tour
I enjoyed the Historic Tour the most, out of all that we attended. We started at the Lodge Rotunda for a quick orientation before hiking down to the Historic Entrance. Our rangers guided us at an even pace, stopping every so often to tell a story or to point out a classic Mammoth Cave landmarks, which were visited by historical figures of the 1800s and early 1900s.
Highlights include crossing bridges over both Sidesaddle Pit and Bottomless Pit, squeezing through Fat Man’s Misery, crouching down into Tall Man’s Agony, and finally climbing up The Tower to view Ruins of Karnack and the great Mammoth Dome. Overall a fantastic tour featuring both history and cave decoration viewing.
At the time, I really wanted to take the River Styx Tour, which also includes the Historic Tour but then takes a side path down to an underground river. As much as I love history, I would have also enjoyed learning about the geology of Mammoth Cave. Sadly during our visit NPS closed the River Styx area due to a recent flood.
Violet City Lantern Tour
If you love history and wish to explore Mammoth Cave as they did in the past, then Violet City Lantern Tour is perfect.
A German mining engineer by the name of Max Kämper discovered a passage in 1918, along with his cave guide, Edwin Bishop. Together they crawled through a narrow passageway connecting Ultima Thule and Kämper’s Hall, which he named after himself. Today that passage area is known as Violet City, named after the cave owner’s wife, Violet Blair Janin.
From the shelters outside the visitor center, our ranger gave out lanterns before hiking down to the Historic Entrance. We passed landmarks we’ve seen on other shorter tours, such as the Rotunda, Broadway Avenue, and Giant’s Coffin.
Along the Main Cave just past Giant’s Coffin, we ventured into new territory. We saw the remains of old underground huts which housed Turburciolsis patients. Further down, we enter an underground canyon known as the Star Chamber, where the roof seems to rise about 20 or 30 feet above the ground and mimics a starry night. At a place called the Cataracts, we passed a subterranean waterfall pouring out of a hole in the ceiling.
At one point, after passing a 2000-year-old petroglyph, we end up at a spot where a 1935 work crew found the mummified remains of a Palio-Indian. Nicknamed “Lost John,” the National Park Service considered the 5-foot-3-inch man a major archaeological find and exhibited his body until 1976 when federal law prohibited the display of Indian human remains. The Rangers re-interred Lost John in a hidden location near where he was found.
Near Ultima Thule, we climbed up and through the Grand Portal, a 60-foot wide and 50-foot high passage leading to Kämper’s Hall and Violet City. Sadly our lamps lacked sufficiency to illuminate the huge hall, but we saw dripstone formations, stalactites hanging down from the dark, and curtains of calcite. If you ask nicely, maybe your ranger will let you shine a flashlight on the Marble Temple, which is a flowstone wall decorated by stalactites on either side. We also passed several domes and Bishop’s Pit before climbing up and out a man-made tunnel to Violet City’s Exit.
Important Cave Touring Tip: Do not tailgate the person before. Since the cave path is dark and only lit by lanterns, keep an eye out for when the person before you stops or slows down. If you are a fast walker, I suggest going to the back of the group. That way you can pause longer, and catch-up quickly. If you are slow, move up front with the ranger who sets the pace for the group.
Grand Avenue Tour
Grand Avenue demands endurance from any hiker, but you’ll be rewarded with fascinating cave decorations and a wealth of stories as told by your ranger. Thankfully, our rangers were kind enough to go at an even pace and provide frequent stops along the way. We enjoyed this tour for its exceptional overview of the size and intricacy of the Mammoth Cave System.
After our orientation at the visitor center shelters, we took a short bus trip to the Carmicheal Entrance. This man-made passageway goes downward and into an area known as Cleaveland Avenue. The low ceiling tunnel felt long and unending, especially in low light. Here the walls showed evidence of an underground river now long gone.
Snowballs & Grapes
After about a mile, we ended up in the Snowball Room. In this cavern, the ceiling is dotted with mineral lumps similar to snowballs in shape. These gypsum “blisters” formed as the mineral pushed outward into the cave by more gypsum forming in a layer just behind the surface. Beneath the faux snow roof, rows of tables stand ready to serve those who need a break. Our ranger tells us during certain times of the year, the Snowball room serves food. Just passed the Snowball Room, we entered an area called Mary’s Vineyard. Here the cave displays grapelike formations in the limestone deposits on the cave ceiling. As water carrying calcium carbonite drops downward, the water precipitates clusters of minerals, suspended in grape-like formations from the ceiling.
Gypsum Flowers & Flowstones
Our ranger then lead us to steep-walled Boone’s Avenue, a good example of one of the cave passages formed by water. Along the walls, there is past evidence of fast moving water, working its way down along a mild slope into deeper portions the cave. Through the winding channels, we arrived at Kentucky Avenue where the most fantastic gypsum crystals and needles can be found. Then at Grand Central Station, where at least five passages converge, we pause for our ranger to explain how this intersection of joints came to be. Our group then moved into the upper cave levels, where we finally got to see a fascinating variety of dripstone and flowstone formations such as the Frozen Niagara, Drapery Room, and Onyx Colonnade. All of it made a fine reward for the longest trip in Mammoth Cave.
Great Onyx Cave Lantern Tour
In 1915, Edmund Turner discovered Great Onyx Cave just after agreeing to be a shareowner with Flint Ridge landowner L. P. Edwards. As soon as Edwards agreed, Turner showed him where to dig, and resulted in the Great Onyx Cave, so named because of its cave onyx formations. Together, Turner continued to explore the cave while Edwards rushed to commercialize it.
At first, the owners of Great Onyx Cave refused to sell their land when the federal government in the 1930s, when it was making land purchases for the formation of Mammoth Cave National Park. When the National Park was established in 1941, Great Onyx Cave remained a privately held “island” within the Park’s borders. In January 1961, the owners finally sold Great Onyx Cave to the National Park Service. Today, you can take tours to the Great Onyx Cave depending on the season.
Despite search efforts, cave explorers have yet to find a connection between Great Onyx Cave to the rest of the Flint Ridge Cave System and Mammoth Cave. In fact, passages in the Flint Ridge Cave System pass beneath surveyed passages of Great Onyx Cave. During the cave’s commercialization, the owners most likely piled rocks and sand against the walls during their trail construction. During construction, it’s possible that they blocked off passages which might have connected to Mammoth Cave.
Although there are 8 mapped miles of Great Onyx Cave, you’ll only see a fraction of it. For those who love cave decorations, Great Onyx Cave is the tour you’ll want. Sadly, you’ll have to examine this geologic attraction by lantern light, putting a shadowy backdrop for an amazing yet abundant volume of dripstone gypsum, helictite formations, and travertine flowstones.
Mammoth Self-Guided Discovery Tour
If you have only time for a short visit to Mammoth Caves, I suggest the self-paced Discovery Tour. They usually offer this tour during the summer months and on weekends during spring and fall. You’ll visit the Rotunda, one of the largest rooms in the cave, and explore a Houchins Narrows and Audobon Avenue. Visitors will learn about 19th-century saltpeter mining operations and the geologic origins of Mammoth Cave from one of the many rangers stationed about the cave. Sadly you cannot reserve this tour online, the NPS only sells tickets daily and on a first-come-first-served base.
Wild Cave Tour
If you are up for an adventure, take the “extremely strenuous” Wild Cave Tour. They offer this tour daily in the summertime for adults only. After you pass the “42-inch-diameter-narrow-fit” test, they go through a detailed orientation on gear and safety. You’ll get overalls, gloves, and a hardhat with a headlamp. You’ll be crawling a majority of the 5-miles that this tour covers, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. At one section, you must traverse a slippery ledge while leaning across the chasm to put your hands on the far wall to balance yourself, then sidestep down the slope. Important: If you’re don’t like heights, super enclosed spaces or darkness, do not go on the Wild Cave Tour! Those who are relatively fit, and little to no fears of such things, will thoroughly enjoy this amazing experience.