7 Dos and Don'ts for Planning A Mammoth Cave Trip
There is no question that Mammoth Cave is one of the most unique and incredible places in the US - a definite must-see, bucketlist place at some point in your life.
On our recent trip to this national park, we made some major planning mistakes that we regret because we didn't do the proper research ahead of time and honestly just thought we could wing it.
So we want to share the things we learned with you so you can have the best experience of this amazing natural wonder in Kentucky! Here are our dos and don'ts for Mammoth Cave National Park.
1. Don't Show Up Without A Tour Reservation
This was our first big mistake! We didn't know that the only good way to see Mammoth cave is through the ranger guided tours. Unfortunately, when we arrived, all these tours were completely booked for four days straight, so the only option we had was a self-guided tour. We figured that would be just fine since we did the self-guided one at Carlsbad Caverns and loved it! Boy were we wrong!
The self-guided tour is only about .25 miles in a part of the cave that is quite large, but incredibly short, and there are maybe 4 informational signs at best to guide you through. The whole tour took us a total of 20 minutes and that was with much lingering and asking rangers various questions. We couldn't believe that we just drove 5 hours for 20 minutes of a National Park!
Luckily we were given a good tip to get up early and hope that another tour had some cancellations. We did just that and were fortunate enough to book the Frozen Niagra Tour in the afternoon! We were 15th in line and by the time we got to the teller, all the morning tours had already been booked up.
So make sure you book your tours online BEFORE you arrive! We sure wish we did!
2. Do Book As Many Tours as Possible
This is a must because even the ranger-lead tours are very very short. The Frozen Niagra tour was incredible and very impressive, but were only in the cave for about 30 minutes. We couldn't believe it was over when the ranger told us it was time to go back to the bus. Our tours in Carlsbad were at least an hour in the cave, so we were a bit disappointed.
This wouldn't have been an issue if we had multiple tours booked. But unfortunately we did not, so we felt like we missed out on much of the cave and we wanted to stay longer. Avoid this by booking in advance as many if not all the tours so you can get the full experience we wish we had!
3. Don't Think You'll See More than 1% of the 400 miles of Cave
Even with booking every tour available, don't count on seeing much of the 400 miles of cave system that makes up the longest cave in the world. Even if you do the 6 hour Wild Cave tour, you are still only getting a small sampling of the 'Mammothness' (that's a word, right?) of the park.
This was a bit disappointing for us as we were anticipating some intense hiking for hours through the cave. However, the park tours are set up much more as a 'taste' of the wonder rather than an experience of it. So make sure your expectations are set right before you go and you will have a great time.
4. Do Dress For 58 Degree Temperature
Yes that is right! Its cold in the cave! We did not expect this and did not dress appropriately the first day on the self-guided tour. Other caves like Kartchner are very warm and humid inside, so we had wrongly assumed Mammoth would be the same. But Mammoth is very cold, wet, and chilling. After being inside for more than 15 minutes I started to feel it and wished I had brought a jacket.
I wonder if this is one reason why the tours are so short? To protect people from the cold? Idk... In any case, make sure you bring a jacket to keep you warm!
5. Do Camp at the Campgrounds
We absolutely loved the campgrounds here! Each site is very far from the next one and it was very easy to maneuver our big rig in and out of our spot. They even have a large number of pull through sites and it's always a welcomed luxury when you don't have take off the tow car!
Our site backed up into the forest and we didn't have a neighbor the whole time on either side. It was strange that the campground was so vacant when the park itself was so busy. I guess this park has many more day visitors than other destinations.
The campgrounds don't have hookups, but there is a dumpstation with potable water. The bathrooms were heated and very clean. We really enjoyed our stay.
6. Don't Think You Will Be Attacked By Bats
This is a silly one for us, since we are seasoned tourist cavers, but we overheard many of the visitors worry about bats attacking them. We didn't see many bats on our tours and the ones we did see were as big as your two first fingers pressed together (very tiny). Not the bloodsucking predators you would imagine. A ranger pointed two out to us way up on the ceiling (about 50 feet up) and they looked like little specs from our perspective.
So don't worry about these harmless animals and just enjoy the cave!
7. Don't Expect To Get Great DSLR Photos
This was a super bummer for us because we love taking photos with our Nikon D300 and sharing them with the world. Unfortunately there are no tripods allowed in the cave, and since the cave is so dimly lit it makes it almost impossible to get good shots by hand holding. A few times we were lucky enough to place the camera on a railing or such, but for the most part we had to rely on our Samsung Galaxy S7 camera phone to get clear pictures.
Also, since the tours are very crowded and fast moving, its hard to take a breath, let alone a moment to take a shot. Our advice, leave the DSLR at home and take camera photos or better yet, just enjoy the experience without the impetus to record it! We know...we know... almost impossible to do but sometimes you just gotta!
All in all, we really really loved Mammoth Cave- We just wished we knew these things before planning our trip so our expectations were more in alignment with what we would experience. Let us know what you think and if you have any to add!