Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1941 to protect the unparalleled underground maze of caves, the rolling hilly country above, and the Green River valley. Since then, ongoing study and exploration have shown the park to be far more complex than ever imagined, hosting a broad diversity of species living in specialized and interconnected ecosystems. The park's challenge is to balance these remarkable and sometimes fragile living networks with the public's enjoyment of them. The key to that balance is knowledge, and the park's new environmental monitoring programs will provide that understanding. Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world's longest known cave system, with more than 390 miles explored. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place," but its vast chambers and complex labyrinths have earned its name Mammoth. The human experience of Mammoth Cave reflects one of humanity's most potent emotions: wonder. The dark depths of a pit or passage trigger questions -- Where does that go? How far? Is anything in there? The first human to enter Mammoth Cave passed under its imposing arch about 4,000 years ago. His reason for probing the shadows? The same as ours today. Curiosity led the way to discoveries of minerals, and primitive miners plumbed the rocky halls for nearly 2,000 years before the cave again fell quiet. It would not again echo the sound of human feet clattering the floor stones until the very end of the 18th century. Mammoth Cave is the world's longest known cave, with more than 392 miles of interconnected passages, so long that if the second and third longest caves in the world were joined together, Mammoth Cave would still be the planet's longest cave and have more than 100 miles left over! In 1981, the park was designated a World Heritage Site, and became the core area of an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990. The park merits this extra protection and special status for its spectacular features on the surface and in the cave, and the way they illustrate the connection between humans and their environment.
Source: National Park Service
We entered Mammoth Cave through the Carmichael Entrance (lower left center) about five miles from my point of entry through the Historic (or Houchins) Entrance on the far left off the photo in 2003. We walked down 183 steps to enter the cave. We exited four and a half hours and four miles later through the Frozen Niagara Entrance on the far right.
Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center
My second first look at Mammoth's interior
A deep pit at the start
At times the passage was wide and high like the photo on the left. While other times it was shoulder width and "Watch your head!" Park Ranger Michael Carter is standing on a rock used for a lunch table by wealthy visitors in the 1800s.
Gypsum is a very soft mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate. Crude gypsum is used as a fluxing agent, soil conditioner, filler in paper and textiles, and retarder in portland cement. About three-fourths of the total production is calcined for use as plaster of paris and as building materials in plaster, wall board and tiles and blocks. While commercially mined in many places, the gypsum at Mammoth Cave is protected as is the gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico. The gypsum in Mammoth Cave is literally squeezed from the rocks giving the flower appearance.
A domed room
A gypsum flower
Snowball gypsum in the cafeteria
Gypsum flower bed
A couple of of gypsum flower deposits with detail photos on the right
Ranger Michael leads us into the Mammoth Cave Cafeteria about 267 feet below the surface. Great care is taken to insure that all trash is removed from the cave. The cafeteria is serviced by an elevator to the surface. Th elevator also provides an emergency exit in case of illness or injury. Box lunches were either ham or turkey and cheese subs, chips, an apple and a drink. $7.50
Early visitors used their oil lanterns to "smoke" their names on the ceiling. Such activities are not permitted these days. The names are left there, because more damage to the ecosystem would occur by removal.
More smoke names
After lunch we followed this passage
Thorpe's Pit named for Jim Thorpe
The scalloping on the walls was caused by slow moving water, when these passages were flooded with water. Park Ranger Alan Sizemore prepares to place us in totally silent darkness. Of courst, the tinnitus sounds in my head would not stop. It is thought that the silence is more disturbing to those lost in Mammoth than the dark.
Flowstones are composed of sheetlike deposits of calcite formed where water flows down the walls or along the floors of a cave. Flowstone is perhaps the most common of all cave deposits, and is almost always composed of calcite or other carbonate minerals. It forms in thin layers which initially take on the shape of the underlying floor or wall bedrock beneath, but tends to become smooth and rounded as it gets thicker. Flowstone masses are often fluted with draperies at their lower end. Impurities in the calcite may give a variety of colors to flowstone. Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral deposit, usually calcite or aragonite, hanging from the roof of a cavern, formed from the dripping of mineral-rich water.
Another deep pit
Looking down one of our three 90 foot climbs
Lagging behind the group taking photos
Frozen Niagara is Mammoth's most famous rock formation. Limestone walls set in layers, then swathed in motionless curtains of orange and tan beg for your lens underground, while stalactites and flowstone pose for photos. These formations are magnificent. If you visit Mammoth Cave take a tour that includes Frozen Niagara.
Crystal Lake in a deep pit near the Frozen Niagara
The Frozen Niagara Entrance and our tour guides, Alan Sizemore and Michael Carter