Ever since a hunter named John Houchins chased a bear into a large opening in the ground in Edmonson County back in 1798, people have been coming to Mammoth Cave National Park.
Boasting the largest cave infrastructure in the world, with more than 360 miles of charted passageways, the park attracts almost two million visitors annually with 400,000 of them making a cave visitation.
Not all, however, are there to trek through year-round 55 degree caves. Some are there to camp and hike, others are there to enjoy the scenic beauty of the 53,000-acre park, and others just to say they’ve been there.
Often visitors are surprised to learn that Mammoth Cave is the second oldest tourist attraction in North America, after Niagara Falls, with tour guides leading the way since 1816.
Congress, in 1926, authorized the creation of Mammoth Cave as a national park, and in 1981 the United Nations designated it a World Heritage site, along with the Grand Canyon and Egyptian Pyramids.
Although not considered to be a beautiful cave by “show cave” standards because of a lack of colorful stalagmites and stalactites, Mammoth Cave is nevertheless recognized as the grandest of all caves.
With all the different passageways, it is impossible for visitors to see everything in a single day. However, Mammoth Cave can be experienced on a variety of different tours. There are a total of 13 tours through different parts of the caverns. Some are short and provide a glimpse into cave environment at two separate entrances. They vary in cost depending on the sections of the cave to be traveled, the duration in time, and the comfort level of the passageways.
The two-hour tours show different sections of the cave and explore a variety of such subjects as cave archeology, prehistoric and historic exploration, geology, and cave biology. The longest regularly scheduled tour requires four hours of walking to explore 4-1/2 miles.
Another tour, this one for the more adventuresome, is appropriately named the Wild Cave tour, uses headlamps, and requires participants to crawl and climb through and over some of the less developed trails.
In an effort to create caving interest among children, a variety of cave tours and explorations, including a Trog Tour, for ages 8-12 have been created. These are 2-1/2-hour-long hikes with some crawling. Helmets and lights are provided and kneepads are recommended.
Also offered is an Introduction to Caving for kids 10 and older, with their parents. It’s a 3-hour-plus trip and involves some climbing and descending cave walls, as well as bending and twisting through openings.
Cave tours are open year-round except Christmas, while the camping area is closed December to March. Reservations are recommended and can be made one month in advance, while campsites can be reserved five months ahead.
The Mammoth Cave Hotel, (270) 758-2225, sits adjacent to the Visitor Center where all the tours begin. Other lodging, entertainment, and restaurants are available in nearby Cave City, Horse Cave, Glasgow, and Bowling Green.
Off I-65 South from Louisville, take Exit 53 at Cave City, traveling 15 minutes to the park. From I-65 North from Nashville, take Exit 48 at Park City, traveling 10 minutes to the park. Mammoth Cave is on Central Time.
Mammoth Cave in the classroom
For several years, Mammoth Cave National Park has been working with an extended classroom experience for schools both locally and across the state, as well as a few from Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio.
Mammoth Cave’s Environmental Education program offers classes for kindergarten through high school, providing students the opportunity for a hands-on experience through a combination of demonstration, activities, experiments, hikes, and eventually an allotted time underground, furthering the learning experience on the specific topic selected by the class teacher.
“Our staff works closely with the teachers to develop a set of learning experiences that will help those students who are having difficulty visualizing a specific area of their studies,” says Cheryl Messenger, Environmental Education coordinator. “And all of our presentations are correlated to the Kentucky KERA educational requirements.”
Mammoth Cave’s program also allows it to go directly into the classroom. It is, however, limited to an 11-county area close to the park. They also have materials available on a lending basis that teachers can use to enhance their classroom presentations.
Programs often extend beyond the cave walls to include karsts concepts; area geology; the Green River; pond study; the forest, including tree identification; and plant and animal studies. Another curriculum deals with cultural history focusing on prehistoric people, pioneers, and myths and legends.
All curriculum materials can be found online at www.nps.gov/maca.
You can contact the park’s Environmental Education Office at (270) 758-2421 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
While driving in more rural areas of Kentucky, you may encounter a slow-moving, black, horse-drawn buggy bearing bonneted women and girls and brimmed straw hat-wearing men and boys. Before you make your way around them, you might wonder what their lives are like and how it compares to your own.
It’s like taking a step back in time, as the Amish have no telephones or electricity and use horses and buggies for transportation. They meticulously care for the land and are skilled craftsmen and artisans in baking and other crafts.
The town of Marion in Crittenden County helps promote its Amish neighbors by linking them with visitors eager to encounter members of this highly conservative religious group and buy their handmade quilts, mums, gourds, produce, flowers, and furniture.
With between 400 and 600 Amish living nearby, the mystique of the Amish is alive and well here, says Michele Edwards of the Marion Tourism Commission, who estimates that 75 percent of local tourism is Amish-related.
“I think it’s a different lifestyle and a different culture and it’s something that people can see and experience,” she says. “Here they really contribute to the community.”
The Amish established their first Marion-area settlement in 1977, Edwards says, and have built their livelihoods around plant nurseries and greenhouses, a quilt shop, bakery and country store, a leather shop, cabinet shops (they don’t advertise, yet have a long waiting list), and a variety store.
The commission distributes a map showing a 30-mile Amish loop of these destinations, primarily along Kentucky 654 North and 91 North. It’s best to visit during daylight hours, any day except Sundays, which is their day of worship, and some Thursdays when Amish weddings are typically celebrated, Edwards explains.
The Amish don’t like their faces to be photographed, but are very friendly and welcoming, she says, and don’t scowl in judgment at visitors’ jewelry, makeup, or modern attire as some might fear.
Amish ties are evident in Marion—near the commission’s new, modern welcome center is a hitching rail for Amish horses, and Edwards says some locals make extra money driving Amish to visit their friends and relatives in Ohio, New York, even Canada. The Amish don’t believe in owning or driving vehicles, but don’t mind to pay for rides with individuals, who are known as Amish Haulers, she explains.
One particular kind of summer produce is highly sought by Marion residents and visitors alike, says Edwards: “There’s a perception that the Amish tomatoes are better than anybody else’s.”
Edwards says locals familiar with the Amish can serve as guides for visitors with advance notice.
The Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau also points visitors to Amish and Mennonite communities with a map of destinations in the nearby Phil community. The map features a leather shop, organic produce, blacksmith and buggy shop, bulk food store, greenhouses, feed store, and quilt shop.
In Danville, there are nearly a dozen bed and breakfasts and chain hotels as lodging options, all featured on the tourism map, also available online by clicking Accommodations. For more information, drop by the bureau at 304 South Fourth Street, call (800) 755-0076, or go on the Web to www.danvillekentucky.com.
When in Marion (Central Time), visit the Marion Tourism & Welcome Center at 213 South Main Street for a map of Amish-related destinations.
Heritage Days in Marion is October 21, when visitors flock to town to snap up colorful fall mums and gourds from local Amish families.
Each spring, the Backroads Festival, April 28–29, 2007, offers arts and crafts, and guided tours to Amish destinations.
Any time of year you can experience old country store browsing at Yoder’s Variety, 7-1/2 miles north of Marion on Kentucky 91. Its shelves are stocked with fabrics, dried herbs and spices, candy, Amish-made jelly, glassware and kitchenware, toys, wood furniture, clothing, and more.
For country cooking, visit Marion Café at the corner of Main and Belleville, (270) 965-2211. Open 6 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday; 6 a.m.–8 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday; Friday–Saturday 6 a.m.–9 p.m. Or try The Coffee Shop at 108 Main Street, (270) 965-5185, open 6 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday–Saturday; 6 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday.
For information about Marion-area Amish, call (270) 965-5015 or go online to www.marionkentucky.us/Marion-Kentucky-amish.htm.
Amish in Hardin County are located primarily in the Sonora and Glendale areas, and can often be found selling their wares in Sonora near the Pilot Travel Center and the Five-Star gas station, both on E. Western Avenue; in Glendale near the Whistle Stop and near the Pilot Travel Center on Glendale-Hodgenville Road; and in Elizabethtown just north of Towne Mall on Dixie Highway.
Amish are relatively new to the Mayfield area, locals say, but they sometimes sell handwoven baskets on Kentucky 45 toward Paducah. The Mennonites, an order from which the Amish descended, operate a bulk food store in Mayfield off Kentucky 121.
Shannon Leonard-Boone is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.