Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky conserves the world’s longest known cave system with 405 mapped cave miles. If outstretched, the caves could reach Chicago, IL or Charlotte, NC from their starting point in Kentucky, but in reality, they weave in and among one another like spaghetti.
Mammoth Cave maintains a constant 54°F temperature year round. New air cycles into the cave every day, seeping in through minute fractures in the rock and pouring out again through openings to the surface. Likewise, water reaches parts of the cave by dripping in through cracks in the sand- and limestone ceiling. When water reaches the cave at an exceptionally slow rate, it helps form wonderful cave structures like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and popcorn.
The cave continues to grow today as underground river ways deep in the earth eat away at the limestone walls. The cave’s sandstone roof protects its oldest tunnels close to the surface from rapidly collapsing due to surface waters, making it safe for people and wildlife to enter. Once inside, it is possible to experience complete darkness and complete silence. But, wildlife wouldn’t want to live in such a gloomy place, right? Actually, caves support an array of awesome animals.
When I took the Domes and Dripstones Tour at the Park, the first animal I saw was a cave cricket. The most abundant species in the cave, cave crickets have stocky bodies and spindly legs and only visit the surface about two weeks out of the year. The cave offers protection from insect-loving predators that could be skulking above. But, the blind cave beetle that specializes in finding and devouring cave cricket eggs and the cricket-hungry cave salamander are inescapable.
Lurking in the subterraneous streams are another specialized group of animals. Eyeless cave fish adapted to life in total darkness by losing their pigmented skin and useless eye structures. The endangered Kentucky cave shrimp can also be found deep underground in cave waters.
A fan of fuzzier critters, I enjoyed hearing about the bats that call Mammoth Cave home. Eastern pipestrelle, little brown bats, and big brown bats all use the cave as a refuge while hibernating in winter or during the daytime when they are not outside foraging for food. Indiana bats and gray bats were once common in the cave, but are now listed as endangered species. All species of cave bat that inhabit Mammoth Cave are present in fewer numbers than they were historically, mainly due to an epidemic called white-nose syndrome.
On the surface, the Park proudly protects 37 square miles of backcountry and several miles of frontcountry trails. I observed deer, songbirds, vultures, hawks, and a black racer while hiking on over 17 miles of maintained backcountry trails.
Nestled into the hills of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is worth a visit. With front- and backcountry camping, a hotel, miles of trails suitable for boots, hooves, and bike wheels, and adventurous day-long or shorter, less strenuous cave tours, Mammoth Cave has a little something for everyone.
I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list. Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark