Exploring Mammoth Cave National Park - The Complete Guide
Deep in the lush, green woods between Kentucky’s seemingly infinite rolling hills lies Mammoth Cave National Park. This cave is the largest known cave system in the world. It's more than double the size of the second largest cave in the world. This gem is tucked away in the rural south, almost like a best kept secret.
But it’s not exactly a secret. This cave has evidence left behind by ancient inhabitants dating back 5,000 years. The first official discovery (or rediscovery if you will) by Europeans was in the late 18th century and since then has had a complicated history. While not all of the attention drawn to Mammoth Cave was in good taste through the years, ultimately the cave became a national park in 1941 and has since been researched, excavated, and maintained in a way that better preserves the history and significance of the cave.
Spanning 400+ miles of known pathways (and more discovered every year!), Mammoth Cave is truly a sight to behold. Even scratching the surface with one of the park’s smaller, introductory tours is enough to amaze and astound anyone. The sheer magnitude of these incredible caves continue to attract hundreds of thousands visitors every year. Tourists want to experience a glimpse of the mysteries that await in these endless caves carved through ancient limestone.
If you’ve never considered visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, today we’re going to help you plan your own trip there because trust us, it’s worth the drive!
This blog has all the info you need to plan your own trip to Mammoth Cave National Park including what to do, where to stay, how to get there and more.
Looking for something specific? Jump to a section using the links below.
Numbers of visitors annually: ~530,000 visitors annually
Nearest town: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Peak season: Busiest during the summer but open all year
What is Mammoth Cave?
Mammoth Cave is an extraordinary world-renowned cave system located in central Kentucky, sheltered within the woods of Mammoth Cave National Park. As the world's longest known cave, it's continuously evolving as new routes are discovered. Inside, you'll find an awe-inspiring network of vast chambers, complex labyrinths, and narrow passages, all adorned with fascinating geological features such as stalactites, stalagmites, and other remarkable speleothems.
How big is Mammoth Cave?
Mammoth Cave is an enormous subterranean labyrinth stretching over 400 miles long, making it the largest known cave system in the world. For perspective, the second-largest cave, the Sac Actun underwater cave in Mexico, measures less than half the size of Mammoth Cave at 163 miles long. This expansive network of tunnels and caverns is still being explored and mapped, so the full extent of Mammoth Cave is yet to be known. It's truly a vast underground world waiting to be discovered.
When to visit Mammoth Cave National Park
Due to Kentucky’s relatively moderate climate, Mammoth Cave remains open for tours all year around. That being said, like most places in the country their peak season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. No matter the season, the cave stays ~54 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to pack a jacket if you plan on taking a tour inside the cave.
Like with anywhere you travel, be sure to go prepared (more packing information further into this blogpost so keep reading) andcheck the weather forecast before traveling. Summer in the south brings hot temperatures and crazy humidity since it’s a “humid subtropical climate.” That’s science talk for “don’t plan to have a good hair day in the summer and be sure to pack lots of sunscreen.”
The winter in Kentucky is relatively moderate. It’s no Florida winter, but it’s not Minnesota either. Traditionally Kentucky has a few snowfalls throughout the year but typically you’ll experience more cool temperatures and [mostly] overcast days than snow or ice.
Fall and spring are absolutely gorgeous in the south with mild temperatures and either wildflowers aplenty or vibrant fall leaves (depending on which season you visit). If possible, we’d recommend visiting in April/May or September/October.
What to pack for Mammoth Cave National Park
Like any national park, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience if you visit prepared. That doesn’t mean you need hundreds of dollars of top notch equipment to have fun though! It means being prepared with basic necessities that are required for keeping you safe.
Flashlight - While there are lights inside the caves, you are allowed (and encouraged) to bring a flashlight into the cave with you to help you see the uneven ground/pathways and some of the historical and geological features in the cave.
NOTE: headlamps are not recommended because shining a light at eye level or anywhere other than directly at the ground is not allowed.
Water Bottle - I always bring my Hydro Flask on day hikes because of the way it keeps my water cold (or coffee hot) for hours. Nalgene is also a great option, and so are hydration packs if you’re planning on trail running or hiking and want to pack lights. Note: Water is the only food or drink allowed in Mammoth Cave.
America the Beautiful Pass (National parks pass) - Every year we purchase the America the Beautiful Pass because it ends up saving us so much money. The pass is $79.99 for unlimited access to any public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. While Mammoth Cave does not charge an entrance fee, if you plan on visiting other national parks in the country in a single year, it might be worth the investment.
Bug spray - While the bugs aren't a problem inside the caves, the parts of the park above ground are a mosquito haven in the summertime. This includes the walk down into the cave and the waiting around outside for your timed entrance into the cave.
Sunscreen - I never leave home without my favorite sunscreen. There might not be light down inside the cave, but waiting for the tour to begin, hiking, etc. will be met with plenty of sun.
Lots of layers - The best way to travel is by packing versatile layers. This way you can easily add or subtract clothing as the temperature rises or falls. You’ll definitely want a comfy jacket for inside Mammoth Cave since it’s consistently ~54 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Here are a few of our favorite clothings items we always bring with us on adventures:
Depending on where you’re coming from you may fly or drive. Due to the park’s relatively accessible location within a day’s drive of so many major cities, getting there really isn’t difficult. But, if you’re planning to fly to the area, there are two major airports not too far away.
Pro trip: Combine Mammoth Cave with Great Smoky Mountain National Park to fully experience the beauty weof the deep south.
Louisville International Airport is located about 1 hour and 20 minutes (89 miles) from Mammoth Cave National Park and Nashville International Airport is located 1 hour and 30 minutes (99 miles) from the park. Both airports welcome most major US based airlines including Delta, American Airlines, United, and Southwest. No matter which airport you decide to fly into, once you land you’ll want to rent a car to get around due to the proximity of the airport to the park.
Mammoth Cave National Park is located just west of I-65. Take exit 48 in Park City. This road will take you straight to the park’s entrance.
Bowling Green, KY to Mammoth Cave= ~36 min | 23 mi | Google Maps
Louisville, KY to Mammoth Cave = ~1 hr 30 min | 90 mi | Google Maps
Nashville, TNto Mammoth Cave= ~1 hr 22 min | 89 mi | Google Maps
Cincinnati, OH to Mammoth Cave = ~2 hr 59 min | 187 mi | Google Maps
Memphis, TN to Mammoth Cave = ~4 hr 27 min | 297 mi | Google Maps
Chattanooga, TN to Mammoth Cave = ~3 hr 20 min | 222 mi | Google Maps
Cost of admission to Mammoth Cave
We always recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful annual pass since it’ll end up saving you money if you visit at least 3 three national parks in a single year. However, Mammoth Cave National Park doesn’t charge general admission like most national parks. There are fees for activities such as cave tours, kayak rentals, and lodging reservations, so don’t expect your trip to be entirely free.
For more information regarding tour costs, lodging, and kayak rentals keep reading.
Where to stay near Mammoth Cave
In my opinion, when visiting a national park the best place to stay is in the park if possible. Camping is always our first choice because it gets you up close and personal with the great outdoors. But, we know that camping isn’t everyone’s cup of tea so we’re giving a few different options so you can choose what best suits your needs!
Whatever your preferred overnight lodging option, be sure to book early. National parks are always a popular destination so be sure to grab a room or a campsite early.
Mammoth Cave National Park has three official campgrounds: Mammoth Cave, Maple Springs, and Houchin Ferry. RV camping is only available at Mammoth Cave Campground and Maple Springs Campground, but tent camping is available at all three campgrounds.
Backcountry camping permits are available in Mammoth Cave National Park. Permits are $10 USD and can be reserved ahead of time or picked up same-day.
Riverside Camping is also available in the park thanks to the Green River running 30+ miles through the park. Ever wanted to camp alone on an island? This is your chance! Riverside camping is free but there are certain rules you must follow so be sure to read up on the regulations and/or speak with a park ranger before heading out. Be sure to obtain a permit at the Mammoth Cave Campground kiosk. River levels can change rapidly (especially in winter). Always check weather forecasts and river levels before heading out to camp on an island.
Hotel and cabins
On property you’ll find Mammoth Cave Lodge which features both modern hotel room options and rustic historic cabins. Staying on property is the most convenient option for maximum exploration of the park.
Due to Mammoth Cave’s close proximity to both Louisville and Nashville, there are plenty of options within an hour to hour and a half drive from the park’s front gates. If you’re looking for more budget friendly, low-key options, Bowling Green has plenty to offer! If you’re hoping for a bit more pampering and luxury, a little longer of a drive to one of the larger cities might be the best option. We’re biased and love visiting Nashville because of its southern feel and over abundance of food and music, but Louisville has a lot of options, too (Bourbon Trail, anyone?).
To help you choose, we’re going to give a few options for each city and each price range.
A cave tour is essential when visiting Mammoth Cave National Park! While the cave is by no means the only thing to see and do in the park, it is the crown jewel. Cave tours do come at a cost, but an official tour is the only way to get inside the cave. Tour prices are affordable and vary in accessibility, skill level, length of time, and cost.
When we visited in September of 2020 the park was only offering the Extended Historic Tour but in a way that modified it to be self-guided and also at a much smaller group in the cave at a time. This tour was a great option as an intro into caves for those in your party who might be a little more hesitant to head underground. (full disclosure: I (Sara) was terrified of caves leading up to this trip but really enjoyed this tour!) We’ve since heard that the Extended Historic Tour is usually a 100 person group tour which would definitely make it a different experience than what we had.
Because we’ve only experienced one tour, I don’t feel like I can really speak to which tour is best. Instead I’m going to leave you with this article by Earth Trekkers that better breaks down which tours are best and for what skill levels.
I will say this though: our tour group was full of people of all age levels and physical abilities. If you are unable to climb stairs, stand for extended periods of time, or are claustrophobic, do pay extra attention to the tour details when booking.
Due to Mammoth Cave’s popularity and the limited number of tour spots available, we highly recommend reserving your tour in advance. If you plan to visit during peak season you should make your reservation far in advance to be sure you snag a spot!
Hiking is a great way to experience the above ground beauty of Mammoth Cave National Park. While there aren’t as many trail options as there are at larger national parks such as Great Smoky Mountains or Glacier, however whatever trail you choose is likely to be relatively quiet due to most people focusing their time and attention on the cave tours. While our cave tour was awesome we had an equal amount of fun hiking to a nearby sinkhole while we were there.
Bonus: we only passed one other person the entire time we were hiking!
Visit historic churches and cemeteries
Long before Mammoth Cave was a national park it was home to 600+ families spread across 30+ communities. Evidence of these communities still exist in the park today through their churches and cemeteries. If you enjoy history, we encourage you to take a walk through one of the three churches at the park. Be sure to look at the cemeteries to learn more about the folks who loved this land long before we were purchasing tickets to explore the cave below.
Mammoth Cave is the perfect place to log miles on a road bike as well as off-road on a mountain bike. The park roads are smooth as butter, largely shaded, and roll like the rest of Kentucky’s beautiful landscape, while the mountain bike trails offer a more rugged approach as they wind through the park’s dense woods.
There are two mountain biking trails available in the park: the 9 mile Mammoth Cave Railroad Hike and Bike Trail and the 9.1 mile Big Hollow Trail. The Big Hollow Trail is divided into two separate loops: the 5.3 mile North Loop and the 3.7 mile South Loop. Combine the two to bike all 9.1 miles.
If you plan to ride on the road, riders should mind the rules of the road.No matter where you ride though, a helmet is always recommended. For more information about trail specifics, visit the park’s official bicycling page.
Canoeing and kayaking
We really wanted to canoe down the Green River or the Nolin River when we visited Mammoth Cave. But, unfortunately, we were crunched for time and weren't able to canoe this visit. If you have the time to rent a canoe or kayak we’d highly recommend floating down the river. It's a unique Mammoth Cave National Park experience. While researching our trip I saw that there’s a portion on the Green River where you can even kayak (or canoe) through a cave!! How cool is that?!
There are three different boat launch points in the park: Dennison Ferry, Green River Ferry, and Houchin Ferry.
If you plan to rent a kayak and/or canoe from one of the three official commercial outfitter partners in the park, be sure to reserve your rental ahead of time to ensure a boat when you visit. Do know that life jackets are required when renting watercraft, but life jackets are highly encouraged for anyone on the river due to the strength of the river.
NOTE: Swimming is not allowed in Mammoth Cave National Park because of the rivers’ strong currents.
Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park feels like you’re stumbling upon one of America’s greatest secrets (and you are!). Who knew what was hidden beneath Kentucky?! We didn’t and we so enjoyed our time there! I’m already counting the days until we get to return to the park again.
If you’ve been to Mammoth Cave before, what was your favorite part? We’d love to hear suggestions in the comments below! If you have any questions while planning your own trip, be sure to drop that in the comments as well and we’ll get that answered ASAP. Happy trails, y’all!
Like this post? You might also like these other national park travel guides we've put together.
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!