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The Ultimate Guide to Mammoth Cave National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Mammoth Cave National Park stretches over more than 52,000 acres of rolling hills, open fields, deciduous trees, rushing rivers, and, as you guessed, a massive cave system extending below the ground. This national park is filled with cultural, natural, and geologic history that amazes and astonishes you.

Each year, over 550,000 tourists stand in awe of this phenomenal park and explore the longest-known cave system on planet Earth. Come and see all there is to discover at Mammoth Cave National Park.

How To Get to Mammoth Cave National Park

Where Is Mammoth Cave National Park?

Mammoth Cave National Park is located in the countryside of south-central Kentucky in the Green River Valley. Several small cities surround this national park, such as Park City, Horse Cave, and Cave City. It is within a short driving distance of many larger cities such as Bowling Green and Louisville.

Nearest Airports to Mammoth Cave National Park

There are 2 airports that are used for visitors flying to the area for a Mammoth Cave National Park vacation. Both options require about an hour and a half drive to the park. Take a look at the closest airport options if you are traveling by air for your national park vacation.

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF)

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport is 85 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park.

This airport offers countless nonstop and 1-connection flights to many major cities across the U.S., including Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and New Orleans. Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport services many well-known airlines, including Allegiant, American, Delta, Southwest, and United.

This airport is an excellent choice for visitors who want to land in the Bluegrass State and see some of the major attractions in Kentucky along the drive to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Nashville International Airport (BNA)

Nashville International Airport is 99 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park.

Nashville International Airport offers nonstop flights to an endless list of major U.S. and international cities. Many airlines are serviced by Nashville International Airport, including Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, and Southwest.

This is the airport for those who want to get a glimpse of Music City on their way to Mammoth Cave National Park. You may even catch a glimpse of a famous musician while there.

Driving to Mammoth Cave National Park

A personal vehicle is the most common way to arrive at Mammoth Cave National Park. Visitors arriving from the west will take KY-70E into the park. Those coming from the north or south will use I-65 and then enter the park via KY-70/255 as it becomes Mammoth Cave Parkway. Each of these routes will bring guests to the visitor center.

Cycling to Mammoth Cave National Park

A lot of visitors will cycle to Mammoth Cave National Park as a way to stay active and keep the environment clean. There are numerous roads that visitors can bike on while in the park, and several are included in the U.S. Bicycle Route System.

Hot Tip: The Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail is a 9-mile scenic thoroughfare for entering the park from Park City, which cyclists immensely enjoy.

Getting Around Mammoth Cave National Park

Most visitors explore Mammoth Cave National Park by hiking or cycling. While it is acceptable to drive into the park, most visitors will park at the visitor center and take off from there.

There are over 18 miles of hiking trails on the park’s south side and more than 60 miles on the north side. Let’s not forget about the exploration available under your feet in the cave system. Walking and hiking are your best bet for exploring the park.

Several visitors also enjoy riding their bikes through the park trails. There are many miles of cycle-friendly roads for those who prefer cycling.

The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your visit.

What To See and Do in Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park is a park bursting with adventure and excitement that is just waiting to be explored. There’s never a dull moment at this magnificent park. Check out some of the top activities at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Boating

Boating Mammoth Cave National Park
Image Credit: Tracie Irvin Young via NPS

Boating is a popular activity at Mammoth Cave National Park, with its easy access to the Green and Nolin Rivers.

Many guests enjoy canoeing, kayaking, and boating while visiting this park. There are 36 miles of waterways waiting to be navigated in the Mammoth Cave National Park area. There are several points where guests can access the river, including Dennison Ferry, Houchin Ferry, and Green River Ferry.

Cave Tours

A cave tour while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park is a must. This national park has various tour options, including walking tours of different lengths and difficulties, lantern tours, and even crawling tours. 

Popular tours include the Historic Tour, the Extended Historic Tour, River Styx Tour, Gothic Avenue, and the Frozen Niagra Tour. Each of these tours wonderfully showcases the mesmerizing features of the caves and shares a wealth of information about the natural and cultural history of the park.

Hot Tip: Reservations for these tours must be obtained before visiting. Be sure to check out the National Park Service’s cave tour website to learn what to bring along with you and how to best prepare for these incredible tours.

Fishing

Fishing is a popular activity in Mammoth Cave National Park. There are several incredible fishing opportunities in the park boundaries.

This park is home to over 80 species of fish, making this park a paradise for anglers. Some fish in the park include the channel catfish, the flathead catfish, the banded sculpin, and carp. Fishermen are welcome to cast out and fish in park waters. Still, they must adhere to the regulations on fishing in the park that are outlined on the National Park Service website.

Historic Churches and Cemeteries

Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery
Image Credit: Deb Spillman

Before Mammoth Cave became a national park, the area was home to nearly 600 families divided into 30 communities. Visitors can see historic churches and the cemeteries that remain near these communities. 

The churches are filled with history and stories of the culture of Mammoth Cave. These 4 areas include:

These churches offer park guests a glimpse into the lives of the early settlers of the Mammoth Cave National Park area.

Horseback Riding

Horse enthusiasts love visiting Mammoth Cave National Park. This park is perfect for horseback riding on the wooded backcountry trails.

Mammoth Cave National Park is extremely accommodating to horse owners and has 60 miles of trails open for horseback riding, campgrounds where horses are welcome, and several parking areas for trailers.

Commercially guided horseback riding is offered at Mammoth Cave National Park for those who want to experience the park on horseback but want to avoid bringing their own horse. This activity is perfect for beginners and those new to riding.

Overlooks

Doyel Valley Overlook
Image Credit: Kait Evensen via NPS

Several overlooks in Mammoth Cave National Park will simply take your breath away. Some of the most popular areas the stop and admire the views include:

Most of the overlook areas have incredible hiking trails and picnic tables nearby. Spending a day hiking, picnicking, and enjoying the views is an excellent way to spend a day at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ranger-led Programs

Mammoth Cave National Park offers multiple ranger-led programs. Participating in these ranger-led programs is an excellent way to learn about the park and its history. Some of the programs offered at the park include cave tours, talks, walks, and junior ranger activities. Any program offered above the cave is free, but any tour inside the cave has a fee.

River Adventures

Green River Ferry
Image Credit: Deb Spillman via NPS

The Green River is one of the most prominent features of Mammoth Cave National Park. There are 3 river access areas in the park, each with trailheads, camping areas, and picnic areas nearby. 

Green River Ferry

The Green River Ferry is an incredible experience at Mammoth Cave National Park. Guests can use the ferry to shuttle cars, bikes, and individuals from one side of the river to the other. This area is also an excellent place for fishing.

Houchin Ferry

The Houchin Ferry is a gorgeous area of Mammoth Cave National Park. This area also has an incredible campground with 12 campsites showcasing beautiful views of the Green River. Houchin Ferry is perfect for fishing and picnicking on the Green River. During the summer, Houchin Ferry is used for canoe launching and removing. While the ferry is no longer active, this still makes a beautiful area for exploration at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Dennison Ferry Day Use

Dennison Ferry Day Use area is about 20 minutes northeast of the visitor center. This is an incredible place for fishing and boating. This area is another wonderful place to set up a picnic lunch at one of the nearby picnic tables. The ferry is no longer active in this location.

Stargazing

Stargazing is a popular activity for visitors to enjoy at Mammoth Cave National Park. There are many areas around the park where a spectacular sky view is accessible, including grassy fields and parking lots near the visitor center.

Many planets and constellations can be seen, as well as hundreds of twinkling stars. One impressive site that is often seen is the International Space Station. There’s no need to bring a telescope, but a pair of binoculars may add to your stargazing experience.

Ranger-led stargazing programs are offered many times during the year. Kids can become Junior Ranger Night Explorers through one of the offered programs at the park.

Visitor Center

The visitor center is a main attraction at Mammoth Cave National Park. This center helps visitors learn about the cave system and the land above the cave. The center is located a short distance from the cave’s Historic Entrance.

This visitor center is where all cave tours begin. There are lots of exhibits for learning and preparing to discover the park. Rangers are stationed at the visitor center and are happy to answer any questions or lead a group on a hike or in a talk. Restrooms, souvenirs, and park information are also available at this visitor center.

Best Times To Visit Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park is a wonderful experience no matter which time of year you come to visit. If you are hoping to enjoy a particular event or activity, there are better times than others to plan a trip. Explore some of the best times to visit Mammoth Cave National Park.

Best Time To Visit Mammoth Cave National Park in Winter

Winter in Mammoth Cave is an excellent time for guests to plan a trip. Winter is the least visited time at Mammoth Cave National Park.

The temperature of the cave is constant year-round measuring 54 degrees. The warmest winter month is February. If you are hoping to explore the park above the cave, the best winter month is February. Winter is a magical time at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Hot Tip: Typically snow falls mainly in January and February, which means there’s the possibility of seeing this gorgeous park blanketed in snow during your winter vacation.

Best Time To Visit Mammoth Cave National Park To Avoid the Crowds

Mammoth Cave National Park is bustling with visitors most months of the year. If you want to visit this park and avoid crowds, the best month is December. December is the least visited month of the entire year.

Best Time To Visit Mammoth Cave National Park for Camping

The spring months make excellent months for camping in Mammoth Cave National Park. The best month to camp at this park is in April. April has pleasant temperatures and is the least visited month during spring.

Cheapest Time To Visit Mammoth Cave National Park

December is the least visited month at Mammoth Cave National Park. Many nearby accommodations have lower rates in the winter, making December a perfect time to plan a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park. This would be a great time to visit not only to avoid crowds but also to save money.

Annual Events in Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park Events
Image Credit: NPS

Mammoth Cave National Park hosts a variety of events each year. Whether you are interested in learning about wildlife, cultural history, or musical events, you can find something to enjoy at Mammoth Cave National Park. Let’s take a look at some of the popular events that take place in this park.

Bat Night

Bat Night is a free event in Mammoth Cave National Park each August. This event comprises of numerous activities, including junior ranger activities, bat time stories at the park amphitheater, and learning about the different ways bats are researched, including using night vision goggles, bat detectors, and thermal infrared cameras.

Bats are one of the fascinating flying mammals in Mammoth Cave National Park. If you want to learn more about these mesmerizing creatures, plan your Mammoth Cave vacation in August.

Cave Sing

Mammoth Cave National Park has been hosting Cave Sing for 43 years. This contemporary music event celebrates a historic holiday tradition that began long ago in the 1800s.

This free event features live music performances by many local singing groups. Some choirs perform a repertoire from many different eras in history. Cave Sing is held inside the cave and is an unforgettable experience.

Wildflower Day

Wildflower Day happens twice a month on Saturdays in April. The event celebrates the changing seasons and the beauty of the wildflowers that grow in the park. This free event begins at sunrise and is led by Mammoth Cave rangers and volunteers. If you love nature and wildflowers, you should ensure your visit coincides with this beautiful event.

Where To Stay in Mammoth Cave National Park

When planning a vacation, most people first want to sort out where to stay during their trip. Thankfully, at Mammoth Cave National Park, an assortment of lodging is available inside the park and in the towns surrounding the park.

Inside the Park

There is a wide variety of places for lodging at Mammoth Cave National Park. Whether you prefer to spend your nights in the great outdoors or a rustic lodge or quaint hotel, you can find exactly what you are looking for at this national park.

Backcountry and Riverside Camping

Backcountry and Riverside Camping
Image Credit: Mary Schubert

There are 13 designated backcountry campsites in Mammoth Cave National Park. These campsites are primitive but offer a fire ring and horse-hitching posts. Backcountry camping also includes setting up camp for the night along floodplains and on islands along the Nolin River and Green River.

A permit is required if guests camp in the backcountry or near the river. Backcountry maps are available at the visitor center or the Mammoth Cave Campground information kiosk to help you plan where to set up for the night.

Houchin Ferry Campground

Houchin Ferry Campground is the furthest developed campground from the visitor center. This campground is 15 miles from the visitor center and is perfect for guests seeking a quiet stay on the park property.

This campground has 12 sites exclusively for tent camping. These primitive sites feature picnic tables and fire rings. Houchins Ferry Campground is ideal for a simple stay in the great outdoors.

The Lodge at Mammoth Cave

The Lodge at Mammoth Cave makes an excellent option for guests who want to stay on the park property. This lodge is comprised of historic cottages and modern hotel-style rooms. This facility is tucked away in a wooded area next to the visitor center.

With gorgeous views of the park, lovely accommodations, and convenience to the adventure, this makes an excellent choice for families, couples, or individuals looking to set up a base camp in the park.

Mammoth Cave Campground

Mammoth Cave Campground offers visitors an option for lodging under the stars. There are 111 campsites for both RVs and tent campers.

This campground is just a quarter mile from the visitor center and within a short walk to plenty of amenities and activities throughout the park. Rangers stationed at this campground are there to help visitors with any questions they may have about the park or help them plan their itinerary.

This campground is the perfect place to experience the beauty of this national park and keep the adventure going, even after the sun goes down.

Maple Springs Campground

Maple Springs Group Campground
Image Credit: NPS

Maple Springs Campground is 6 miles from the visitor center on the park’s north side. This campground is ideal for visitors wanting to enjoy a secluded stay while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park. This campground has 7 sites with water and electric hookups and accommodations for tents, RVs, large groups, and even visitors with horses.

Towns Near Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park is located in the heart of South Central Kentucky. Several towns surround this park, which is excellent for those who prefer staying outside the park’s boundaries. The towns surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park have an abundance of lodging, dining, and recreational activities available to make your national park vacation one that won’t easily be forgotten.

Bowing Green, Kentucky

From fast cars to historic trains, cave systems to military aircraft, there’s something for everyone in Bowling Green. Bowling Green is a happening city just 40 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. This city has been voted one of “The South’s Best Cities on the Rise 2022” by Southern Living.

Bowling Green has over 3,300 hotel rooms and 150 vacation rentals for visitors to choose from. Accommodations include historic hotels, luxury high-rises, charming bed and breakfasts, and themed private rentals.

Food enthusiasts find themselves in paradise when staying in Bowling Green. This town has dozens of locally-owned restaurants and countless chain restaurants just waiting for you. From authentic Greek cuisine to hand-tossed gourmet pizzas and classic down-home diners to elegant restaurants, there’s something for everyone’s palate in Bowling Green.

This city has an endless list of activities for guests to enjoy. Lost River Cave is a popular attraction where visitors can explore and take a boat tour of the cave. This city is home to the Corvette, so visiting the GM Corvette Assembly Plant and National Corvette Museum are big draws for visitors.

Bottom Line: Setting up a base camp in Bowling Green is an excellent idea for those who don’t want the adventure to end during their Mammoth Cave National Park experience.

Cave City, Kentucky

Cave City is only 5 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. Many people choose to stay in this town during their national park trip since it is so close to the park. This city has several lodging options, many restaurants, and many outdoor adventures.

There are over 20 different places to stay, including budget-friendly hotels and motels, RV parks, and campgrounds. One of the unique options for lodging is a village of wigwams, where guests can have an authentic Native American experience of a lifetime.

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Cave City. Most of the dining options in Cave City are small, locally-owned restaurants that have menus that feature incredible home-cooked favorites. There are authentic Mexican restaurants, mom-and-pop diners, barbecue joints, and even gourmet hot dog restaurants.

True to its name, Cave City has some remarkable caves to explore, but other kinds of adventure exist. Dinosaur World and many different museums and parks are a big draw to this town. With its proximity to Mammoth Cave National Park and its numerous activities, Cave City would make an excellent choice for those wanting to stay close to the park.

Horse Cave, Kentucky

Horse Cave is located about 15 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. This small town has something for everyone as it is nicknamed “a little bit of Smithsonian in rural Kentucky.” There is much to be discovered in Horse Cave with options for lodging and dining.

Whether you prefer staying in a budget-friendly motel, a well-known chain hotel, a private vacation rental, or a campground, a lodging solution will match your needs. Even covered wagons and treehouses can be booked for an unforgettable stay.

The dining scene in Horse Cave is filled with locally-owned diners serving home-cooked favorites, barbecue restaurants, and pizza parlors. Feel a part of the South with a delicious dish of soul food from the South.

Horse Cave is a family-friendly city with adventure and excitement around every corner. If you are looking for a place to make a home away from home, settling in Horse Cave would be an excellent choice.

Where To Eat in Mammoth Cave National Park

There are dozens of restaurants in the towns and cities nearby. You can rest assured that you will find something for everyone’s palate in or near Mammoth Cave National Park.

Hot Tip: There are 2 great options for dining inside the park at The Lodge. However, these are currently closed for renovations. 

Bucky Bee’s BBQ

Bucky Bees BBQ
Image Credit: Bucky Bee’s BBQ

Bucky Bee’s BBQ is located just 8 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. This barbecue joint is a favorite of locals and visitors alike.

This restaurant serves an excellent menu of platters, house specials, and appetizers. Customer favorites include the fried green tomatoes, the loaded baked potato, the chopped beef brisket, and made-from-scratch chocolate pie.

Bottom Line: This family-owned restaurant happily serves lunch and dinner 6 days a week. You won’t regret stopping by for a smoked barbecue before or after park outings.

El Mazatlan

El Mazatlan is an authentic Mexican restaurant located 8 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. This locally-owned restaurant brings visitors and locals in time and time again.

The lengthy menu features favorite dishes like sizzling fajitas, massive burritos, and other unique dishes. The house-made guacamole, chips and salsa, margaritas, and creative cocktails add a fun flair to every meal.

Porky Pig Diner

Porky Pig Diner is a favorite of Mammoth Cave National Park visitors and locals who live nearby. This restaurant is located 5 miles from the park in Smiths Grove, Kentucky.

This ’60s-style diner has excellent food, great prices, and outstanding service. Favorite meals include the fried catfish, the cheeseburger, the pulled pork barbecue, and the fresh, thick-cut french fries.

Porky Pig Diner is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is an excellent choice if you are looking for a hearty meal at a great cost while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave National Park Facts

1. A New Park Established

Mammoth Cave National Park was established on July 1, 1941. Before the establishment of the park in 1925, there was a group of private citizens who formed the Mammoth Cave National Park Association in hopes of protecting the park and having it established as a U.S. National Park. This association is still active today.

2. World Heritage Site

Mammoth Cave National Park was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Mammoth Cave was recognized as the most extensive cave system in the world by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

3. International Dark Sky Park

The International Dark Sky Association deemed Mammoth Cave National Park an International Dark Sky Park in 2021. This special honor means that Mammoth Cave National Park is committed to preserving the dark skies, protecting nocturnal habitats, and demonstrating environmental leadership to the public.

4. A Massive Cave System

Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. There have been over 400 miles of the cave that have been explored, and park experts predict there are another 600 miles continuing in the system.

5. An Ancient Cave

Research by geologists shows that the main cave parts were formed 10 to 15 million years ago. This historic cave was formed by rivers and streams carving out the limestone and creating a labyrinth of underground passages.

6. A Surprise Discovery

Mammoth Cave was discovered in 1798 by John Houchins. Houchins was a homesteader in Kentucky. He shot and wounded a bear and followed it to the cave. The entrance Houchins used when following the bear is used today as the cave entrance.

7. Signs of Life

There are many signs of human life in Mammoth Cave National Park, especially in the cave. Mummies and petroglyphs have been found in the cave. The petroglyphs are expected to be thousands of years old and can still be viewed today. The Violet City Lantern Tour gives visitors an up-close view of the petroglyphs in the cave. These drawings resemble a snake or possibly a lightning bolt, human figures, and a map of passages in the cave.

8. Cave Animals

A wide variety of animals have unique adaptations to survive the conditions of living in a cave. These incredible animals include cave salamanders, eyeless fish, and albino cave shrimp. These animals are called troglobites, and many make their home in the park.

9. Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins was a local caver as well as a cave business operator. In January 1925, Collins was trapped under a fallen rock in Sand Cave near Cave City. He was searching for a new entrance to Mammoth Cave but became trapped by a 27-pound rock and couldn’t get out.

Rescuers tried to save him, but after 18 days, Collins was pronounced dead from exposure. Sand Cave was sealed at that point, and his body was removed later. He was buried at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery.

10. Tuberculosis Clinic

In 1842 a doctor named John Croghan purchased the cave to use it as a colony for tubercular patients. He believed the cave air had healing qualities, but it made his patients even sicker from the smoke of the torches and cookfires. His patients died within a year of seeking his treatment, and Dr. Croghan also died of the disease. These huts can be seen today on the Violet City Lantern Tour.

11. Endangered Animals

Three species of endangered animals make their home in Mammoth Cave National Park. These animals include the Kentucky cave shrimp, the Indiana bat, and the gray bat.

The National Park Service works with federal and state agencies to protect and preserve these species and improve their habitats. Ongoing research and conservation efforts are in place to help these endangered animals survive.

12. What’s in a Name?

Mammoth Cave National Park got its name in the early 1800s. The word “mammoth” was initially used to describe the cave long ago and refers to the size of the chambers in the cave and the avenues. Some people think it was named after the prehistoric mammal, but this is not true.

13. Boat Tours

Boat tours used to be offered in Mammoth Cave National Park, but this was discontinued in the early 1990s due to human traffic causing harm to the water animals. The boat tour was also costly for the park, and river flooding made it difficult to keep the passages open to the public.

The Echo Tour was the tour’s name with a boat ride, but this is no longer an option when touring Mammoth Cave National Park. The River Styx Tour offers a glimpse of this impressive feature for visitors who want to see the underground rivers inside the cave today.

Final Thoughts

Mammoth Cave National Park is a remarkable place to visit when planning a national park vacation. From excellent hiking trails, historic buildings, and of course, the longest cave system on the planet, there is plenty to explore at this incredible park. Plan a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park and discover what draws many tourists to this natural wonder.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should I plan a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park?

A full day to 2 days is recommended when visiting Mammoth Cave National Park. This allows for touring, hikes, taking in the exhibits, and other activities.

What does it cost to enter Mammoth Cave National Park?

It is free to enter Mammoth Cave National Park. Cave tours, camping, and lodging require fees.

How much do cave tours cost at Mammoth Cave National Park?

Cave tours range in price from $6 to $60, depending on which tour you want to experience.

Can I tour the cave in Mammoth Cave National Park on my own?

There is no way to explore the cave alone. You must explore the cave on a cave tour, whether it is ranger-led or self-guided.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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