A Visit to the Underworld
There are cave tours where hundreds of people are herded along walkways that any old granny can navigate, and then there is the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Cave. This ain’t your granny’s tour, but a physically demanding, rough-and-tumble day of knee-scraping, bone-jarring, clothes-ripping spelunking that will reward you with some awe-inspiring caves views that will take your breath away—if you have any breath left.
Mammoth Cave is located in the verdant hills of central Kentucky about 90 minutes’ drive from both Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re planning to take this particular tour, make reservations ahead of time, because the tour is limited to just 14 spelunkers max. They’re also strict about preparations for the tour: Visitors must be over the age of 16, wear high-top, lace-up hiking boots with a serious tread (no low-cut or athletic shoes), and have hip or chest measurements of 42 inches max due to some very claustrophobic 9-inch squeezes on this journey. Getting stuck or injured can be a serious problem, and emergency rescue teams can take several hours to help those who get stranded. And don’t wear your designer duds; you’ll end this tour covered head-to-toe in mud and grit.
Even seasoned athletes have reported scheduling a recovery day after this exhausting cave tour, but they also tell of seeing some amazing sights that nobody can even get close to on Mammoth Cave’s regular tours. Cathedral Dome towers hundreds of feet above an enormous canyon formed by an underground stream. Frozen Niagara is an immense, colorful curtain of flowstone that plunges downward for 75 feet (23m). Towering stalagmites and sparkling white gypsum crystals decorate this home to eyeless fish, blind beetles, and white spiders.
While most visitors to Mammoth Cave focus on the spectacle underground, the national park is also a great site for aboveground activities: The birding is unrivaled, old-growth forests dot the hillsides, and the Green River is ideal for canoeing and fishing. —ML
Mammoth Cave National Park ( 270/758-2180; www.nps.gov/maca).
When to Go: Year-round.