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Mammoth Cave National Park, KY

A cave tour at Mammoth. Photo by Daniel Schwen.

It’s not necessary to use hyperbole to make a case for Mammoth Cave, because the facts are more than enough. It’s an International Biosphere Reserve as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With over 350 miles of passages, Mammoth is the largest cave system in the world. Even more impressive, new passages are still being discovered. “(It’s) one of the last frontiers on Earth,” says Brian Dale of the non-profit Friends of Mammoth Cave National Park.

“This is massive stuff. It’s why it’s called Mammoth” adds Vickie Carson, the public information officer for the park. For proof, check out the Broadway passage, which is 40 feet high and 60 feet wide for 3 miles.

Expect to see the usual draws of this underground limestone world like stalactites, stalagmites, travertine dams and species adapted uniquely to this ecosystem, such as eyeless fish on the wide array of guided tours ranging from 40-minute quickies to multi-hour explorations, including specialty tours catering to kids and photographers. Then there’s the Wild Cave Tour. Limited to only 14 participants, the 5 ½-mile, 6-hour expedition will have you walking, crawling and squeezing your way to hard-core spelunking cred. And if you’re lucky, you might get a grizzled old timer as one of your guides who’ll “rinky dink” you – that is, return you unknowingly to the same spot in the underground labyrinth for a third time.

Round out your trip with a day of above-ground fun. Bring a boat for the seven-mile free-flowing stretch of the Green River from the Dennison Ferry Day Use Area to the Green River Ferry (a 3-4 hour paddle) and hit some of the 70 miles of hiking trails. Vickie’s favorite is the two-mile (out and back) Cedar Sink trail that takes you to its namesake sinkhole.

Where it’s at: About 1½ hours south of Louisville; from I-65, take exit 53 at Cave City/Glasgow. Turn right onto KY 70. Follow 70/255 as it becomes the Mammoth Cave Parkway in the park.

Contact: or (270) 758-2180

Digs: The park offers free backcountry camping and developed campground sites ($12-$30), Mammoth Cave Hotel rents cottages ($55-$99) and rooms ($84-$94) closest to the caving action; you can try the kitchy concrete “wigwams” ($35-$70) in Cave City at Wigwam Village, or (270) 773-3381

Grub: Mammoth Cave Hotel has three restaurants in season or try El Mazatlan ( or (270) 773-7448) or the Cream and Sugar Café ((270) 773-2822), both in Cave City

Gear and outfitting: Mammoth Cave Canoe and Kayak runs trips along the Green River ($35-$100), or 877-592-2663

Cost: Cave tours range from $2.50-$48