“You might not want to do this tour if you have a fear of heights. You might not want to do this tour if you have a fear of the dark. You might not want to do this tour if you have a fear of fear,” says our tour guide, Dave, dead-pan.
I’ve never been quite sure about the American sense of humour, but I think our guide understands the concept of wry humour.
“If you have trouble walking above ground, you may also find that you have trouble walking below ground.”
Yep, he gets it.
We’re at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, waiting for our shuttle bus to take us on the Domes and Dripstones Tour, formerly called the New Entrance Tour. Dave is giving a pre-tour talk, which I could recite off by heart. The do’s and don’ts in caves are universal: don’t stray from the tour guide, follow all instructions, don’t smoke or eat in the caves, don’t touch the formations as the oils in your skin will oxidise them.
There is one extra “don’t” that reminds me we’re in Kentucky: don’t bring any weapons such as guns or knives in the caves. Who on earth would bring a gun on the tour, is my first thought. But then Dave mentions that weapons are allowed in the national park, just not in the caves. I don’t doubt my “what the hell” face I shoot at North Nomad exposes the fact that we’re not native Kentuckians.
We’re also reminded not to touch any bats we see. White Nose Syndrome has infiltrated the bat community in Northern America. Whilst WNS cannot be caught by humans, rabies can. And the symptoms in bats for both WNS and rabies are identical, so you may be touching a bat with WNS, or you may be touching a bat with rabies!
Sufficiently warned about the dangers, we get on the bus, winding our way through the humidity of the Kentucky forest to the caves.
This tour actually takes us to the New Entrance Cave, which is a sinkhole cave discovered in 1921 by George Morrison. It’s not actually the Mammoth Cave itself, but we’re promised that it has 80% of the cave network’s stalacitites, stalacmites, and other crystal formations, so it’s the prettiest cave tour.
George Morrison noticed some cool air coming out of a sinkhole one day and sent his fearless 18yro nephew Earl down to check it out. Two weeks later, Earl had wound his way down to the cave.
Dave explains that Morrison named all of the chambers and long stretches after places in New York for two reasons. Firstly, so they were easily recognisable. Secondly, because much of the tourism to the caves was from the New York area.
Inside the cave, it’s 54 degrees farenheit (about 12 degrees Celsius) and quite damp down the sinkhole entrance. North Nomad and I are the only people out of the 80 or so on the tour who aren’t wearing jackets. It seems Ontario winter has acclimatized us to cooler weather!
We walk through the Roosevelt Room, down 14 flights of stairs into the long stretch called the New York Subway, which takes us to Grand Central, an enormous chamber which seats all of the members of our tour. Here, our guide tells us to be absolutely silent and close our eyes so we can experience the pitch black.
We don’t experience absolute silence – it seems to be beyond many of the adults to refrain from chatting. But we do experience pitch black. We wave our hands in front of our eyes and still see nothing. Human eyes can’t ever adjust to the darkness of the caves, Dave tells us, and this can only be experienced on Earth in caves or at the bottom of the ocean.
There is no evidence of early Native American use in this cave, due to the early 20th century discovery. The other parts of Mammoth Caves were discovered 40,000 years ago and are scattered with Native American relics. This cave only has evidence of the early white American explorers. Historical writing they call it, but any new writing is considered vandalism and will increase the price of your ticket considerably.
We leave the Grand Central chamber and move on to the last leg of our tour: the crystal formations. There are some intricate stalactites (crystal formations that hang from the ceilings) and stalacmites (crystals growing from the floor). Both are formed by drips coming down from cracks in the cave ceiling. Where the stalactites and stalacmites meet to make one formation, they are called columns.
We also see large flowstones, which remind me of thick waves of foamy water. Dave tells us that the the smaller wave like formations with rusty ribbons running through them are called “bacon”, for obvious reasons. I’ve been told at Jenolan Caves in Australia that we call these shawls – an interesting difference! There are also formations called popcorn, but we don’t see any of these.
Talking to North Nomad about the tour on our way out, we agree that the sheer enormity of the caves was impressive. The formations aren’t as plentiful as the Jenolan Caves in Australia, but the size and comparative dryness was interesting.
If we had more time, the Gothic Tour or one of the adventure tours looked like fun. Next time, Kentucky, next time.
Location: Mammoth Cave National Park, 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
From the North: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 53 (Cave City Exit). Turn right onto KY-70. Follow 70/255 as it becomes the Mammoth Cave Parkway in the park. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
From the South: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 48 (Park City Exit). Turn left onto KY-255 and follow 255 as it becomes the Park City Road into the park. Follow Park City Road until it joins the Mammoth Cave Parkway; turn left. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
Tour Costs: $12 per adult.
Tour Length: 2 hours.
You can connect with South Nomad, Jessica, over at Google+.