We started out the day with more hiking -
yep that’s right more hiking. But at least it was outdoors! The rest of our hiking that day would take place underground. We hiked more than 6.5 miles underground and didn’t even scratch the surface of the vastness of this cave system. The cave system is over 392 miles and they are discovering more of it every year. It is the longest cave system in the world – by a lot – the second longest is only about 150 miles long.
Upon entering the tunnel to start our first tour,
we were greeted by this little guy. Isn’t he cute?
Unlike many other caverns, Mammoth cave does not have a lot of the normal formations that you associate with caverns – you know stalactites and stalagmites. Most of the formations are underground river beds. Some of them are enormous.
While some areas are tight slot canyons.
There is one are that we passed through that was so narrow that it was dubbed:
There are also lots of tight little wholes that they actually do a “wild” cave tour where you can do some true spelunking. Not me though. Some of those places looked like they would bring on a major case of claustrophobia.
One of the highlights of the tour to me was eating our lunch underground. They have an area called the Snowball Café. Equipped with picnic tables and a lunch counter. Fun, right?
They even have fully equipped restrooms down there. And their restrooms often get little cave visitors like this guy:
There is pretty much only a couple of areas of the cave system that have traditional formations. At the “vineyard” they have a whole wall of these little grape formations:
And then they have a formation know as Frozen Niagara Falls.
The most impressive thing about the caves is just how incredibly large they were. None of the pictures I took were really able to capture the vastness of these caves.
But the most interesting thing about these caves to me is their history. I told you I love history. Mammoth caves were of course first discovered by Indians. They braved the caves that they believed were haunted by evil spirits to mine the gypsum from the walls of the caves.
It is unclear exactly what the Indian used it for, all they know is there is evidence of them scraping it from the walls. During the war of 1812, the caves became an instrumental part of providing gun powder to our armies. Slaves were required to mine salt petre from the caves. Salt petre in combination with charcoal and sulfur forms gun powder.
Salt petre was mined by digging up the cave soil (rich in nitrate from bat droppings, gross, no?) and then put in these log vats. Water was poor over the top of it and then the nitre was leached out and collected and then boiled to make the salt petre. The water needed for this process was piped into the caves using a series of hollowed out poplar trees. Ingenious, I think.
The first true explorer into this vast cave system was a slave named Stephen Bishop. His maps of the caves were so extraordinarily accurate that they were used to base much of the modern day cave exploration on. Stephen Bishop began leading tours in the caverns sometime in the 1830s. He would lead them in and for a tip, he would burn their names into the walls and ceilings of the caverns using a candle. 19th century graffiti. Gotta love it!
During his time he was considered the foremost expert of the cave system. Pretty impressive for someone that was considered someone else’s property. He love it there. Even after the end of the civil war when he was free, he stayed on at the caves to continue his work as a guide.
It was so interesting. One day I would love to go back and do some of the other tours. They even do a tour by lantern light to give you a feel for what it must have been like during the 1800s. We had a great time. I swear it on the River Styx.