Monday, November 30, 2009

Trip to Mammoth Cave National Park - November 28, 2009

On the eve of a long thanksgiving week-end holidays, Amit planned to take me for a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. I had visited the Luray Caverns in Shenandoah Valley (Virginia) in 2003 and it was a news to me that there was a far bigger cave system in Mammoth Cave National Park. The park’s website gave us a good information on the Mammoth Cave. Suffice to say that the Mammoth Cave is world’s longest cave system. So far the explorers have mapped more than 365 miles (580 kms) of cave passage and still there is no cave ending in sight.

Taking into account the weather forecasts, we decided to visit the cave on Saturday, November 29. Nishant and Phillip, Amit’s office colleagues joined us for the trip. Of the many cave tours conducted by the Park, we had preferred for the Grand Avenue Tours ( of 4 hours and 4.5 miles walk with a group of not more than 78 tourists). However, we found on the internet two days prior to our scheduled visit that tickets for this tour were sold out. So we booked for Historic Cave Tour ( 2 hours and 2 miles of walk with a group of not more than 120 tourists).

View Larger Map

We left Cincinnati around 9.15 a.m for 200 odd miles journey to Mammoth Cave. After crossing the bridge over Ohio river, we were now in Kentucky. Both sides of the highway have dense forest and I could imagine how pretty they would look during spring and autumn. There was not much of traffic on the highway but the sad part of the journey was that about a dozen of wild animals were lying dead on the shoulder lane - probably met with accidents in the night. I could recognise deers, bobcats and gray foxes thanks to my earlier visit to Cincinnati Zoo. We reached the Park in about 3 hours. After exchanging our reservation slips with formal tickets from the Visitor Centre and finishing a quick lunch at the only restaurant inside the Visitor Centre, we proceeded to one of the Tour Shelters where tourists assemble to get a briefing from the Tour Guide. After a pre-departure briefing by one of the two Tour Guides at the schedule tour time of 12.45 p.m. ( Mammoth Cave falls under Central Standard Time which is one hour behind Cincinnati’s Eastern Standard Time ), our group of 70-75 persons walked on a tarred road towards the Historic Cave Entrance accompanied by two Tour Guides – one in the front and the other on the rear.

Mammoth Cave Visitors Centre

Visitors Centre (back side) from where tourists proceeds to Tour Shelters

A map of Mammoth caves displayed in a Tour Shelter

The Tour Shelters from where various cave tours start

Tourists walking towards the Historic Cave Entrance

Tour Guide briefs the Group just before the Cave Entrance

The historic cave entrance is reached by climbing down about 20 stairs from the surface. As we proceeded inside the wide passage of cave, the the tour guide in the front switched on the pathway lights. The tour guide at the rear would switch off the light at the same time making sure that last of the person has made up to the group. Soon we reached a big hall with a near flat ceiling, enough to accommodate more than 200 persons. This place was at one time a quarry for mining saltpetre which was used for making gunpowder. This mine became one of the sources of gunpowder during the American War of independent (1812-1815).

Historic Cave Entrance

Inside the cave

A big hall inside the cave which used to a saltpeter mine used for manufacturing gun powder

On the ramp inside the cave

The next interesting place was a giant single rock in a shape of a coffin, named as ‘Giant Coffin’ located in another big cave hall. Just to know how dark this place was, the Tour Guide switched off the cave lights. It was so dark that I could not see Amit and his colleagues who were standing just side of me. Momentarily, I felt that I was alone in this big cave hall until some ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ from our group followed by switching on a small lantern held by the Tour Guide.

Going down inside the cave

A giant rock a hall inside the cave aptly named as ' Giant Coffin'

Tour Guide gives one more briefing after putting off the lights inside but holding a lamp

So far, we were walking through wild alleys with wooden ramps at some places to facilitate smooth walk. But after ‘Giant Coffin’, we were required to walk through narrow alleys. At some places, we were required to pass through tight squeezes. At some places, where walking down was not possible, there were narrow stair cases. The narrowest passage nick named as ‘ Fat Man’s Misery’ was really a difficult spot for a stout person to pass through this passage. Then there were many spots which were ‘Tall Man’s Misery’. The ordeal ended as we reached another big cave hall with a Rest Room. At this stage, we were about 280 feet below the surface. After this tight walk, we never felt cave passage cold even though the temperature inside the case was around 54F (11C).

Going down inside the cave continues up to about 320 feet below the serface

The board speaks itself. Generally a person having a shoulder of 42" or more will not be able to pass through this part of the narrow passage in the cave.

Walk with minding one's head, sides and legs

Look above before you proceed

The last phase of the cave tour involved the steep climbing of a series of stair cases inside 192 feet high Mammoth Dome. Many of our groups were just looking up to see as to when the climbing will stop. At the end of the climbs, we were again on the broad cave passage leading to the cave exit, the same place from where we commenced our cave tour.

A part of Mammoth Dome inside the cave

A part of Mammoth Dome seen from a higher level

'How much more to climb ?'

A part of Mammoth Dome with some stalactites formation on the right

Exit from the cave entrance

The path towards the Visitors Centre

At the end of the two hour cave tour, a weird idea came to my mind. With 365 miles of cave system already mapped and further cave explorations continuing, this could be a future site for world’s longest road/rail tunnel!

Photos by the author

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