KENTUCKY - PART II
Kentucky is home to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave. This cave system is so long that if you put the second longest and third longest back to back, Mammoth Cave would still be 33% (over 100 miles) longer. Megan and I set out to hike the longest portion open to the public, the Grand Avenue Passage.
It was about a 2 hour drive from my grandma's house to Mammoth Cave. We left early in the morning, and the weather seemed to eerily foreshadow what laid ahead for the next 6 hours. A fog blanketed the highway, limiting visibility to the immediate area around us. We should probably get used to the claustrophobic feeling, hiking through a cave wasn't likely to feel any more open.
The fog eventually let up as the sun rose higher, exposing the rolling hills and green grass of the Kentucky countryside. We turned off the highway and followed the signs through a forest to get to the visitor center. Mammoth Cave is designated a National Park, World Heritage Site, and an International Biosphere, so we didn't pass by any other buildings. The visitor center was a madhouse, full of families and prospective spelunkers on a holiday weekend. Most of the Mammoth Cave can only be explorer with a guide, presumably so people don't get lost or injured in the miles of darkness. We had arrived with about 45 minutes to spare before our tour, so we sat on a park bench to escape the bustle and noise of the visitor center.
The 45 minutes turned out to be 1 hour and 45 minutes since Mammoth Cave was located in the central time zone, so Megan and I left the visitor center to explore the trails in the woods surrounding the visitor center. The first path we went down took us to the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. It is a natural entrance to the cave (some of the entrances to the cave were created by using explosives to blast through the rock). A strong breeze blew constantly out of the cave, and the air was very chilly. We walked down the steps to get our first glimpse at Mammoth Cave.
A small waterfall fell over the cave entrance, and low powered lights lit the entrance to the cave. After 50 yards or so, a large gate blocked access to the rest of the cave. We had no choice but to turn around and continue heading down the trail. The trail we were on was supposed to take us to an area called the River Styx, a place where an underground river rises to the surface. The trail was only a little longer than a mile, so it didn't take long to get there. The River Styx looked like creek that had flooded its banks to engulf the surrounding trees.
Waterfalls came out of the side of the rock face (may be hard to see in the picture) creating the tranquil sound of falling water. It was hard to tell that this was an underground river. The water level was much higher than normal due to the heavy rainfall in the surrounding area (the tornadoes running rampant from Georgia to Missouri seemed to fill the news every other day). I found a picture of the same area that shows where the river emerges from underground.
We started the mile hike back (which was all uphill) to the visitor center. We met up with the rest of our tour group, loaded the buses, and headed off to the New Entrance of Mammoth Cave.
A quick back-story on the history of Mammoth Cave. People have known about the cave since the explorers first came to Kentucky. In the war of 1812, saltpeter was mined from the cave to use to fire rifles. Later, nitrates were mined from the cave. Eventually, people began exploring the cave for recreation. In the mid 1800s, people began to pay guides to take them through the caves. After the civil war, Mammoth Cave became a big tourist attraction, people would travel from all over to see the cave. Most of the formations are named after things that people in the north could relate to, like the large room called Grand Central Station or the Frozen Niagara. The tour industry was so lucrative, that other people in the area began offering their own cave tours to caves on their property. The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave was located 5 miles from the highway, so competitors would dress up as cops to direct traffic away from the Historic Entrance to their entrances, or dress up as construction crews and tell people that Mammoth Cave had collapsed and they would have to go to alternative sites. The New Entrance was one such competitor. The owner of the site even sued to use the name Mammoth Cave because he said he could prove it was the same cave system. Eventually an organization setup to preserve the caves bought all the land around the caves, and Mammoth Cave was later made a National Park.
The New Entrance to Mammoth Cave was marked by a large wooden awning, but otherwise would be all too easy to miss. We received some quick instructions from our guide, and the kids in the front of the group asked questions like "How often does the cave collapse?" and "When did the last person die in the cave?". With a morbid thought now implanted in my brain, I was ready to spend the rest of the day underground. As we passed through the gate into the cave, cold air blasted upwards, and we descended 300 feet underground.
We passed a couple small bats clinging to the ceiling of the tunnel and emerged in a large cavern at the base of the stairs. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Once the group all made it safely down the steps, we started the hike through the limestone tunnel.
The cave was not brightly lit. In fact, it was lit just barely enough so that you could see where the trail was. This portion of the cave was about 20 feet tall, and ranged from 10 to 30 feet across. Large blocks of limestone littered the sides of the cave, often looking like they fell off in giant slabs. There was no sound except the light slapping of shoes hitting stone. The guide would stop every 20 minutes or so in the larger rooms of the cave to talk about the experiences of people who toured the cave 100 years ago. Chicken bones and bullets could occasionally be found in the cave, and these artifacts (not trash) had to remain untouched since the cave is now a World Heritage Site.
The cave twisted back and forth, never traveling in a straight line or letting you see too far ahead. The guide turned the lights off behind us as we traveled from section to section. The lights in the cave were usually placed to accent unique rock formations and create eery shadows on the wall. No harsh, white lights were used, but instead softer reds and greens lit the way in front of us.
The first third of the hike did not have any stalactites or stalagmites, which only form in areas where water is moving through the cave. Instead, gypsum formations lined the ceiling and walls. Water percolating through the limestone extracted gypsum and deposited it in formations looking like spaghetti or flowers.
After about an hour of hiking, we reached the Snowball Dining Room. Much to my surprise, it was an actual dining room that served food. Although it was pretty dark, picnic tables lined the large room and a serving line allowed you to buy hot soup and sandwiches. They even had flushing toilets and running water! The guide explained that an elevator had been installed to descend the 300 feet underground and carry the supplies. Megan and I sat down at a table by ourselves and ate the sandwiches we had made before we left. The first picture is Megan sitting at the table, and the second is of the serving line in the Dining Room.
I had on long pants, but the short sleeve shirt did little to keep me warm in the cave. Sitting still for the 30 minutes we were given to eat let a chill creep into my bones. Megan and I got up and explored the areas surrounding the Snowball Dining Room to get the blood circulating again. It was hard to take any pictures, as only the pictures taken in the most lit up areas of the cave turned out. And even when there was a light, you often had to choose whether to show the rock formation with a black silhouette, or turn the flash on to show the person and wash away the background. You can barely see the people just behind Megan in this picture, that is how dark it was in the cave.
The first section of cave that we had traveled through had been carved out by an underground river. The second part was carved by the same river, only it was faster moving. The faster current cut more vertically through the rock, so instead of 20 ft wide passages, we only had enough room to move single file through the passages. Rock ridges sometimes forced you to duck through tight openings, and we often had to use ladders to climb up and down the steep passageway. Visibility was limited to only a couple of feet due to the tight turns and lack of light. It was awesome! Unfortunately, it was too dark to see anything in the pictures.
Our guide stopped us as we finished passing through the tight pass and collected us in a big room. He said he wanted to show us what it was like to be in complete darkness, and then he turned off the lights. He asked us to wave our hands in front of our faces and try to see anything. Just as I was thinking that I could see the shadow of my hand, the guide said the brain will project an image of the hand where it thought it should be to keep our sanity. The guide flipped the lights back on and we continued on our way.
Sometimes the cave would branch off and someone would shine a flashlight down the alternative passageway. We could never see very far, but the kid in me imagined bottomless pits and trolls living just out of sight (or maybe a Fraggle). We passed pits that dropped 50 and 100 feet below, carved out by water falling from the ceiling of the cave.
The final couple miles of the trail were "wetter" than the rest of the cave. Water was running along the walls of the cave, and waterfalls leaked from the ceiling. This falling water formed crazy rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites and walls of shimmering rock. The largest formation was called Frozen Niagara, because it looked a Niagara Falls had been frozen in place.
We walked down a set of stairs to see some of the best formations, and I was glad we saved this section of the cave for last. The rest of the cave seemed more bland after seeing this artful display of rock.
In this section of cave, there was a little more wildlife than we had seen earlier in the day. If a light was shone on the wall, you could see dozens of cave crickets moving around.
We started to make our way out of the cave, often crouching to move past the low ceilings. We crawled through more narrow openings and ascended steep ladders. You had to keep your eye out for stalactites hanging from the ceiling to prevent from being stabbed in the head.
We finally emerged from the cave, and turning around, it was hard to imagine the miles and miles of caves hidden just below the surface. Here is the view of where we left the cave (see the stone wall on the right side of the picture).
I was glad that we got to see Mammoth Cave and all its natural wonders. The cave had more of a touristy feel than a natural feel, and I think the main reason was because we had to stay with a guide and a larger group. The boy scout troop in my group had become bored after the first couple hours and had resulted to running through the corridors to entertain themselves. The cave would have been perfect if I had been able to move at my own pace, faster through the large walkways and taking more time to explore the more interesting sections.