Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Well, It Was Mammoth


Mammoth Cave was ... well, Mammoth. But it was probably our least favorite stop on our trip.  And that was a surprise.

Randy, especially, was excited to add a check mark to another National Park after our trip last fall that included six national parks in Colorado, Utah and Arizona. I think both of us were expecting beautiful formations like those found in Carlsbad Caverns, which we visited B.C. (Before Children). Randy also took Jill & Brent to the Caverns when they were on a trip to visit relatives in New Mexico.

But it wasn't like that at all. Honestly, I was more concerned about staying upright on the uneven walkways. Before we ever descended the 200 stairs to get to our tour of the cave's Cleaveland Avenue, the park ranger put the fear of God into us. He cautioned that it would take hours for any rescue crews to respond to a medical emergency or an injury from a fall. Yikes! Way to welcome your guests!

Mammoth Cave National Park includes more than 400 miles of surveyed passages. These days, you have to have reservations to tour the different portions of the cave. Randy chose Cleaveland Avenue, which was rated "moderate" in difficulty. 

I had trouble getting good photos since it was so dimly lit.  And, again, I was trying to stay upright, so I didn't add pulling the camera from my pocket too frequently. (That kind of sounds like my excuses when there were limited photos from gathering and working cattle, doesn't it?)

According to the park, "it shelters a long and complex underground labyrinth.  The mysteries of this amazing natural laboratory have inspired and sustained human discovery for thousands of years."

The caves are karst landscapes, in which water moves rapidly underground by dissolving rock. Mammoth Cave's karst landscape is part of the U.S.'s largest regions of cavernous rocks. Caves and springs commonly occur in karst regions like Kentucky, southern Missouri and Florida. The karst landscape is why the Sky Dome at the National Corvette Museum in nearby Bowling Green collapsed in 2014. (See my earlier blog HERE.)

Karst is key to Mammoth Cave's origin because rock must be readily dissolved by mildly acidic water for cave passageways to form. What Mammoth Cave has that some other karst caves lack is an insoluble sandstone "roof." Sandstone protects the rocks below it. 

Cleaveland Avenue, where we toured, is tube shaped. It was formed as water flowed softly at the water table. Often such tubes are filled with water as they are formed.

A slightly different angle.

Mammoth Cave was formed by water sinking into the ground and flowing through underground streams to the Green River. As the Green River eroded a deeper course, the underground streams abandoned old beds and dissolved new, lower cave passageways.

Mammoth Cave was discovered in 1802. In 1926, Congress passed an Act to accept lands donated to the government to form a brand new national park at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. At the time, the Mammoth Cave region was full of farmland and homesteads and needed to be prepared for its future park service status. Construction and improvements took place on both the surface and in the cave itself. This included destroying undesirable structures and reducing fire hazards, and building trails, a park amphitheater, as well as many other park structures to support the park’s mission.

The walkways we used were built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). President Franklin Roosevelt created the CCC to put young men, aged 19 to 25, to work during the Depression. During the nine years CCC was in service, more than three million enrollees signed up to live and work in 4,500 camps that stretched across the U.S., including at Mammoth Cave. 

National Park Service photo of CCC workers at Mammoth Cave

For each day that a young man would work, he received $1 dollar. Within a month’s time, he earned $30, five of which he could keep, and the rest was sent to his family to help put food on the table and a keep a roof over their heads. This program addressed two distinct problems facing America; it provided employment for needy young men while also working to solve ecological challenges of conservation. They also planted many of the trees in the Mammoth Cave National Park. 

Four CCC camps were established in Mammoth Cave Park, with each of the camps housing 200 to 250 young men. The CCC often sent workers far from home to work on projects, yet several men from the local communities were part of the Mammoth Cave camps. 

Since those walkways were established some time ago, they are deteriorating and uneven.

Our park ranger asked the question, "Did this rock fall that way or was it placed by human hands?" He didn't really ever answer the question, but rather, told a joke.  

Early visitors to the cave often couldn't resist leaving behind a sort of "I was here" mark by writing their names on the cave walls. That will get you arrested these days.

My favorite moment was when the park ranger turned off the lights and the lantern and sang. Obviously, you can't see a thing in this video, but just turn it up and listen:

Thankfully, he turned on the lantern again before we continued on our tour.

Gypsum may also grow outwards in shapes that resemble flowers, like this one:

Flowers, like crusts, form as the gypsum extrudes from the rock (like toothpaste from a tube). In a crust, all the crystal grow at about the same speed, but to form a flower, some of the crystals grow faster than others.

Our tour ended in the Snowball Room. At least, that's what they called it.

They are globular white gypsum balls that cover the ceiling. 

Thankfully, the elevator to the surface worked. All the way through the cave, I had prayed for that outcome. I was not relishing reversing our route and then walking up all 200 steps. 

More from our trip to come.


  1. From where I am sitting and your information on this cave, it looks pretty impressive but I understand its rating to other national parks.

    1. That's a valid point, Helen. Our evaluation was likely colored by our expectations and comparison, which is never the most fair way to judge things! (There's probably a lesson there!)