Long shadows flickered before me as I walked through the dank, subterranean passages of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. During my recent two-hour Historic Tour, I crouched and twisted my way through the cramped alleys of Fat Man’s Misery, checked out a massive block of rock aptly dubbed Giant’s Coffin, and faced the gaping maw known as the Bottomless Pit.
With more than 365 miles of discovered passageways, Mammoth Cave is the world’s largest cave system, and geologists believe there could be hundreds of miles yet to discover. Compared with caves I’d visited previously, Mammoth felt a little different — and not just because of its size. “It feels like walking through a big salt mine,” said my travel companion after we’d hiked more than an hour without seeing a single stalactite or hearing the trickle of water seeping down the limestone walls.
But this is a good thing, our National Park Service guide told us, at least for the future longevity of the cave. Mammoth does have some water-carved formations such as stalagmites and stalactites, but much of the cave system is actually sheltered from water by a “roof” of sandstone, which keeps it dry and protected.
Mammoth may not have the exquisitely colored formations that draw visitors to other caves, but it does have a fascinating history. Back in the 1800’s, African-American slaves were among Mammoth’s first tour guides and explorers. (Visit the cave’s Web site, NPS.gov/maca, to learn more.) I was particularly drawn to the story of Stephen Bishop, who began guiding visitors at age 17 and later was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit and chart the previously undiscovered passageways beyond. After nearly two decades in the caves, Bishop was given his freedom — but he died the following year.
After you emerge, squinting, from the cool darkness underground, don’t forget to enjoy the other half of Mammoth’s ecosystem. Visitors can soak up some sun and fresh air on a network of wooded hiking trails.