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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our Trip to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

After Matt completed his first ever full marathon in October, we had plans to go on a road trip together, for 5 or 6 days. 

Initially, we planned to go to Michigan to spend some time in the UP.

Then, as it got closer to the trip, I began watching the weather. It progressively got colder and colder, with more rain and more snow in the forecast. 

I know that right now, in January, 40 degrees sounds like a HEAT WAVEEEE, but at the time, 40 degrees was winter jacket weather.

So a few days before we were supposed to leave for Michigan, Matt and I decided we didn't want to spend our vacation trying to sight see and explore the outdoors in 40 degree weather. So, we looked at an atlas and tried to decide where to go instead.

We considered going south, to maybe Branson, MO. I've heard good things, but we weren't really in the mood for restaurants and shows. We already went west last year, and explored the Black Hills. And we only had 5-6 days, so we couldn't go too far south or west.

The day before we began the trip, we made the decision to go explore Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Neither of us had been there before, and it's one of the only national parks within moderate driving distance from Minnesota [14 hours or so]. 

So we packed up the car with a sore post-marathon Matt and we headed out on the open road.
Not long down the road, it began to rain. And it rained almost the entire 1.5 day drive to Kentucky.

Once we got there though, the sun was shining, it was in the upper 60's and we were happy! 

We immediately went to the visitor center at the Cave once we arrived, and looked into the cave tours. Mammoth Cave has tons of tours, maybe a dozen or more. They go out at different times during the day, and they all explore different parts of the mega-cave system in different ways.

The first tour we did was less than an hour after arriving at the Cave. It was an evening lantern tour, which means that the only light we had to light the way was a small lantern that each couple carried.
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The cave was DARK. Our guide led us down narrow walkways through the cave, telling us about the history of the cave and about the geography of it. 

Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world with over 390 miles of documented/explored cave. It's still being explored, with new passageways being found every year.

There were many saltpeter mines in the cave, which were used to make gun powder during past wars.2LR_6800
At one point, they built brick huts for people with tuberculosis to live in, underground in the cave. A doctor back then thought maybe the cool, steady climate of the cave would help the tuberculosis sufferers with their ailment.

However, as we know now, the best climate for someone with tuberculosis is a warm, dry climate. The cave is cool and damp so it didn't work out too well. There are remains from the patients who died buried in the cave. 

That's why there's a walkway and you have to stay on that path. Going off the path could mean disturbing the resting place of a tuberculosis patient, an explorer or other long ago cave dweller. 
The cave walls and ceiling are filled with old graffiti. As dated as the 1800's, people marked the walls with their names and dates.
This stick is some type of device to help climb the walls of the cave. The guide said it was left there by a prehistoric native american, as long as maybe 1000+ years ago.
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This next type of grafitti isn't etched into the wall. Instead, it's called 'Smoke Writing', made by holding a candle up to the rock and letting the smoke make markings on the ceiling or walls. 

See the Keney signature scratched in over the smoke writing? That date says 1919, and it was done long after the Smoke Writings were done.
In the early days of Mammoth Cave, they hired slaves to help clear a path so they could take visitors through on tours. These rock piles are the result of that clearing process.

Those slaves were the earliest tour guides as well. The most famous of those early tour guides was Stephen Bishop, who was instrumental in the early exploration of the cave. He gave tours and also discovered many of the main attraction points of the cave tours given today.
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The next day, we signed up for a tour on the opposite end of Mammoth Cave - one that was a short walk but would go through the most decorative and visual part of the cave system. The one with all the stalactites and stalagmites.

Unlike most caves, only a tiny portion of Mammoth Cave has these rock formations in it. The rest of the cave is smooth and dry. There must be flowing water to create the stalactites and stalagmites, and that is missing in the majority of the cave system. Instead of having these formations, it's smooth, huge, and impressive in a very different way.

The following images are from the short portion of the tour through the area with the rock formations.2LR_6923 2LR_6924 2LR_6928 2LR_6932 2LR_6949 2LR_6954 2LR_6966 2LR_6968 2LR_6981
The above right photo is of a formation known as Frozen Niagara. It is HUGE, and super tall. The photo just can't do it justice.

After the tour, we had lunch in the park's cafe, and decided to take a walk before our next tour started.
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We walked over to the cemetery on the park grounds, which has the graves of some of the slave tour guides there. 

The infamous Stephen Bishop is buried here as well.
The person below was born in 1814 and died in 1845.
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Our last tour went through much of the same area of the cave as our first lantern tour did. Except this time, the track lights were on so we could see more of the formations.

These were part of the saltpeter mines again, used to mine saltpeter which was used to make black gun powder.
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This is the type of lantern that the first tour groups used when going on cave tours.
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The section of the tour called "Fat Man's Misery" was a skinny passage where you had to squeeze your legs and knees together in order to fit through it. We all made it!
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Our time at Mammoth Cave was short. We stayed in the hotel right in the park the two nights we were there, which was amazing and full of history. The restaurant where we ate the last night has been there for decades and has seen all kinds of patrons come through it. 

Our trip was 3 days of driving and 3 days of exploring. We were happy to get home, but loved being able to spend some time in a new state and in a new National Park. We'd like to go back someday and take some of the other tours through parts of the cave we didn't see!

Have you been to Mammoth Cave? Or any other caves?

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