If you’ve wandered past a magazine rack recently, you already know that this is a big year for America’s National Park Service. Nearly everymajortravelpublication is dedicating an issue to the NPS centennial. This being Memorial Day—a holiday where Americans not only remember our veterans but also the fact that the outdoors exists and is fun to experience with loved ones—I thought it would be nice to talk about it on our blog as well. This isn't the centennial of the parks themselves. They’ve been around for nearly 150 years, since the foundation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. By 1916, we had 35 national parks and monuments, and it suddenly occurred to us to have someone look after the darn things. So President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence. They now maintain 411 federal properties, including 58 parks. And I recently realized that I’ve seen almost none of them.
This surprised me, since I remember spending large swaths of my childhood sitting in the backseat on long car trips to one site or another. I know we made it to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, because there was a nearby restaurant shaped like a giant purple cow. And I recall being disappointed that the viewing platform at Mount Rushmore was so far back that I could barely see Washington, much less climb up his nose like they did in movies. But aside from that, I can’t remember ever being under the National Park Service’s jurisdiction.
Mammoth is the longest cave system on earth—over 400 miles long, in fact, far more than we could cover on a day trip. (Which is just as well, since about 390 of them are off-limits to tourists.)
Mammoth Cave is celebrating a birthday of its own: 75 years as a national park. But it’s been open for tours since the 1816. The original guides and explorers were slaves, the most famous of whom, Stephen Bishop, discovered many of the passages used for Park Service tours today. Ranger Ethan Mefford led our tour group down a broad, straight tunnel called Cleaveland Avenue to Bishop’s “Snowball Room,” an area studded with round, white gypsum formations. He pointed out rock formations and “historic” graffiti (pre-1941 scribbled are considered historic treasures; anything more recent is a federal offense).
At one point, Mefford turned off all light but an oil lamp, to show us what it was like to visit the cave in Stephen Bishop’s day. The yellow light revealed fragmented glimpses of his hands, his face, the brim of his hat. But the cave only existed as a gulf of unknowable blackness.
Today’s explorers have headlamps and safety equipment—but not much else has changed since the Civil War era. They face the same challenges of darkness, dead ends, gaping pits, and horizontal squeezes. Most exploration at Mammoth is done by the Cave Research Foundation, which runs several expeditions a year. It was the CRF that first established Mammoth as the longest cave in the world by connecting it with Crystal Cave in 1972. Ranger Mefford described them as a speleological Starfleet, “boldly going where no man has gone before.” CRF doesn’t just map the cave, they also handle any scientific studies the Park Service wants done.
Our second tour was guided by Ranger Colleen Olson, whose husband caves with the CRF. This time we spiraled down into the earth with a troop of second graders, whose insanity was mitigated by their curiosity. After the descent came question time.
“Are there bats here?”
“How did you get all the rocks on the walls?”
“Are there snakes here?”
“How did you get electricity in the cave?”
“Are there bats?”
Ranger Olson handled them like a pro, though I personally would have started charging $2 an answer after the forty-third “Are there bats?”
The tour promised “Domes and Dripstones,” and right at the end we were surrounded by the coolest dripstone formations I had ever seen. The second graders had done their homework before the field trip, and knew all about stalactites and stalagmites and even bacon. We walked past red stone ribbons and spirals that looked elegant in person. But every one of my three hundred photos turned out blurry, so you get the carnival horror show version:
Whether these photos make you want to see more or merely make you motion sick, I wholeheartedly recommend you swing by Mammoth Cave next time you’re in Kentucky. And if, while standing over the grill today, you find yourself thinking, “Hey, it’s gorgeous out here. I really gotta get outside more this summer,” then may I suggest a road trip to your nearest national park? Take your mother. You’ll have a great time.
As of June 11th, Mammoth Cave National Park begins its summer cave tour schedule, including lantern-light walks and a six-hour “Wild Cave” adventure. The park is also open for camping, cycling, and horseback riding (it’s B.Y.O. horse, though).