A Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar Place


Called a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place” by early explorer and guide Stephen Bishop, Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system (currently mapped at 396 miles). Interestingly the name comes from the large passages connecting to the Rotunda just inside the natural entrance, not from the size of the cave system itself.

Though formed from limestone, there is not, for the most part, the features people normally associate with caves. The cave system is overlaid with a capstone layer of sandstone. Except for where cracks form, water is unable to penetrate the sandstone. While this keeps stalactites and stalagmites from forming, it also keeps water from further eroding the cave’s limestone, thus keeping it intact.

One exception to this is the Frozen Niagara room.

Frozen Niagara

In this room are the majority of the formations seen on guided tours.


The rest of the cave is indeed grand, occasionally gloomy and sometimes rather peculiar.


In the early days of tours, it was quite popular to leave your name in the cave, provided you tipped the tour guide of course. The tour guide would then write your name in soot from the lantern or candle.

Cave grafitti

One lasting example, and example of how one’s actions can outlive oneself is that of Wad Wallace.

Wad Wallace. Drunk.

Wad Wallace was a civil war soldier who visited the cave in 1863. While there, he stayed at the Mammoth Cave hotel. The hotel staff would often write notes regarding guest’s preferences in order to better serve them. Wad Wallace’s note consisted of a single word….. “Drunk”. It’s rather sobering to think of your legacy throughout time being summed up in that manner.

Now that the cave is part of the national parks system, no more grafitti is allowed. The park, officially dedicated on July 1, 1941, covers 52,830 acres. In addition to the cave, there are miles of trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. There’s also miles of navigable waterways. There are also 131 campsites (7 group and 4 Equestrian) available, though only the Equestrian have hookps. So we stayed instead at Nolin Lake State Park.

Entering Mammoth Cave National Park from the north, we crossed the Green River via a ferry.

Green River Ferry

The river is down, and our truck is heavy. So to cross, we had to be on the southernmost edge of the ferry. Otherwise the north facing part would bottom out. Later in the week, the ferry closed due to the lack of sufficient water.

Early visitors enjoyed train service into the park.

Mammoth Cave Railway

They would also come dressed for the excursion.

Early cave touring attire

Mammoth Cave offers many tours. We all took the Mammoth Passage Tour. Mary and Kathryn went on the Frozen Niagara Tour. If your interest solely lies in cave formations, this is the tour you want. Kyle went on the Grand Avenue Tour which is the longest tour. Many of the tours can be reserved ahead of time, which is highly recommended. Otherwise you may find yourself out of luck, as they sell out very early in the day.

As our time in this area ends, so does our time in Kentucky. Our next stop is back in Tennessee.

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