|Mammoth Cave National Park|
|IUCN Category II (National Park)|
|Nearest city:||Cave City, KY|
|Area:||52,835 acres (214 km²)|
|Established:||July 1, 1941|
|Visitation:||1,888,126 (in 2004)|
|Governing body:||National Park Service|
Mammoth Cave National Park is a U.S. National Park in central Kentucky. It encompasses portions of Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest recorded cave system, with more than 365 explored miles and with giant vertical shafts, from the 192-foot-high Mammoth Dome to the 105-foot-deep Bottomless Pit. Named for its size, if the second and third longest caves in the world were joined together, they would still fall short of Mammoth Cave by over 100 miles. The caves were described by early guide Stephen Bishop a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place."
The official name of the system is the Mammoth Cave System, though it could be argued that it should be called the Flint-Mammoth-Toohey-Eudora-Joppa-Jim Lee Ridge Cave System—to account for the ridges under which the cave has formed. The park was established as a national park on July 1, 1941. It became a World Heritage Site on October 27, 1981, and an international Biosphere Reserve on September 26, 1990. It is the second-oldest tourist attraction in the U.S., following Niagara Falls, with guided tours offered since 1816. Nearly two million people visit the park annually.
The park's 52,830 acres (214 km²) are located in Edmonson County, Kentucky, with small areas extending eastward into Hart County and Barren County. It is centered around the Green River, with a tributary, the Nolin River, feeding into the Green just inside the park. The Green River is dammed near the western boundary of the park, so that the river only flows freely for a small section in the eastern part of the park.
There is a wide array of wildlife throughout the park including over 70 threatened, endangered, or state listed species as well as an extraordinary density and diversity of plant life.
|Mammoth Cave National Park*|
|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Criteria||vii, viii, x|
|Region**||Europe and North America|
|Inscription||1981 (5th Session)|
|* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Mammoth Cave National Park is nestled into the gently rolling hills and deep valleys of central Kentucky. Outstanding features include sandstone capped plateaus; bluffs that overlook scenic rivers and streams, such as the Green and Nolin rivers; and a variety of karst basins, which are the most completely understood conduit flow aquifer in the world. This karst aquifer responds almost instantly to rainfall and records show stage rises of over 100 feet throughout the course of a single day.
The Green River flows through the Park. The river drains the cave and controls the master base level of the Mammoth Cave System: the construction of a dam at Brownsville, Kentucky in 1906 has raised the water level in some parts of the cave system by as much as six feet (1.8 m) above its natural value.
Underground rivers such as the River Styx and Echo River flow throughout the deepest chambers of the cave. Colorful stalactite and stalagmites and sparkling white gypsum crystals decorate the rooms and passage.
Mammoth Cave National Park is home to over 70 threatened, endangered, or state listed species including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, gastropods, mussels, and plants. More than 130 species are regular inhabitants within the cave system. These species are divided almost equally among three classes of cave life: troglobites (meaning “cave dwellers”), that can only complete their life histories in caves, such as the eyeless cave shrimp; troglophiles (meaning “cave lovers”) that can complete their life cycle in or out of caves such as snails; and those that use caves for refuge, trogloxenes (literally “cave guests”), cannot complete their life history in the cave. The cave species and biotic cave communities in the park are among the most diverse in the world.
Because of a diverse range of landscapes and habitats, the park has an extraordinary 1,300 species of plants. In early spring more than 60 species of wildflowers burst forth in color such as Fire Pink, Blue Phlox, Trillium, Bluebells, Columbine, Wild Hyacinth, Coral Root Orchid, Yellow Lady Slipper, Wood Poppy, Crested Dwarf Iris, and more. The park is also home to numerous prairie grasses such as Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, and Switchgrass as well as flowering plants such as Purple Coneflower, Sunflower, Goldenrod, Aster, and Prairie Dock.
Animals that live within the park are typical of an eastern hardwood forest such as white tailed deer, fox, raccoon, beaver, rabbit, and squirrel. There are more than 200 bird species including the horned owl, red-tailed hawk, pileated woodpecker, belted kingfisher, whippoorwill, wild turkey, and 37 species of the warbler are found flying throughout the park. Rare visitors include the snow goose, snowy owl, and osprey.
The Green River, which meanders through the park, is home to an unusual array of fish, which includes five species found nowhere else on earth. These most unusual fish are the species known as eyeless cavefish or blindfish, which have adapted to the darkness of the cave by ceasing to grow eye structures. Common fish found here include bluegill, yellow perch, pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie, and catfish. Also, 70 species of mussels can be found in the Green River, three of which are endangered.
Kentucky has a moderate climate, characterized by warm, yet moist conditions. Summers are usually warm ranging from lows in the 60s to highs in the upper 80s, and winters are generally quite cool with lows in the mid 20s and highs in the upper 40s. An average 46 inches of precipitation a year falls in spring, the rainiest season. The temperature in the cave stays at 54 degrees year-round with very little fluctuation.
Mammoth Cave developed in thick Mississippian-aged limestone strata capped by a layer of sandstone, making the system remarkably stable. It is known to include more than 367 miles (591 kilometers) of passageway; new discoveries and connections add several miles to this figure each year.
The upper sandstone member is known as the Big Clifty Sandstone: thin, sparse layers of limestone interspersed within the sandstones give rise to an epikarstic zone, in which tiny conduits (cave passages too small to enter) are dissolved. The epikarstic zone concentrates local flows of runoff into high-elevation springs, which emerge at the edges of ridges. The resurgent water from these springs typically flows briefly on the surface before sinking underground again at the elevation of the contact between the sandstone cap rock and the underlying massive limestones. It is in these underlying massive limestone layers that the human-explorable caves of the region are developed.
The limestone layers of the stratigraphic column beneath the Big Clifty, in increasing order of depth below the ridge tops, are the Girkin Formation, the Ste. Genevieve Limestone, and the St. Louis Limestone. For example, the large Main Cave passage seen on the Historic Tour is located at the bottom of the Girkin and the top of the St. Genevieve.
Each of the primary layers of limestone is divided further into named units and subunits. One area of cave research involves correlating the stratigraphy with the cave survey produced by explorers. This makes it possible to produce three-dimensional approximate maps of the contours of the various layer boundaries without the necessity for boring test wells and extracting core samples.
The upper sandstone cap rock is relatively hard for water to penetrate: the exceptions are where vertical cracks occur. This protective role means that many of the older, upper passages of the cave system are very dry, with no stalactites, stalagmites, or other formations which require flowing or dripping water to develop.
However, the sandstone cap rock layer has been dissolved and eroded at many locations within the park, such as the Frozen Niagara room. The "contact" between limestone and sandstone can be found by hiking from the valley bottoms to the ridge tops: typically, as one approaches the top of a ridge, the outcrops of exposed rock seen change in composition from limestone to sandstone at a well-defined elevation, neglecting slump blocks of sandstone which have broken off the ridge tops and tumbled down the limestone slopes below.
At one valley bottom in the southern region of the park, a massive sinkhole has developed, called Cedar Sink, which features a small river entering one side and disappearing back underground at the other side.
The human story in relation to Mammoth Cave spans thousands of years and is complex.
Several sets of Native American remains have been recovered from Mammoth Cave, or other nearby caves in the region, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most mummies found present examples of intentional burial, with ample evidence of pre-Columbian funerary practice.
An exception to purposeful burial was discovered when in 1935 the remains of an adult male were discovered by Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff under a huge boulder. The boulder had shifted and settled onto the victim, a pre-Columbian miner, who had disturbed the rubble supporting it. The remains of the ancient victim were named "Lost John" and exhibited to the public into the 1970s, when they were interred in a secret location in Mammoth Cave for reasons of preservation as well as emerging political sensitivities with respect to the public display of Native American remains.
Research beginning in the late 1950s led by Dr. Patty Jo Watson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri has done much to illuminate the lives of the late Archaic and early Woodland peoples who explored and exploited caves in the region. Preserved by the constant cave environment, dietary evidence yielded carbon dates enabling Dr. Watson and others to determine the age of the specimens, and an analysis of their content, also pioneered by Dr. Watson, allows determination of the relative content of plant and meat in the diet of either culture over a period spanning several thousand years. This analysis indicates a timed transition from a hunter-gatherer culture to plant domestication and agriculture.
Ancient human remains and artifacts found within the caves are protected by various federal and state laws. One of the most basic facts to be determined about a newly discovered artifact is its precise location and situation. Even slightly moving a prehistoric artifact contaminates it from a research perspective. Explorers are properly trained not to disturb archaeological evidence, and some areas of the cave remain out-of-bounds for even seasoned explorers, unless the subject of the trip is archaeological research on that area.
Legend has it that the first European to discover Mammoth Cave was John Houchins, in 1797. While hunting, Houchins pursued a wounded bear to the cave's large entrance opening near the Green River. Countervailing against this story is Brucker and Watson's The Longest Cave, which asserts that the cave was "certainly known before that time."
The land containing this Historic Entrance was first surveyed and registered in 1798 under the name of Valentine Simons. Simons began exploiting Mammoth Cave for its saltpeter reserves. Calcium nitrate (Ca(NO3)2) deposited as bat guano was leached from cave soils and converted via double replacement reaction with potash (potassium carbonate, empirical formula K2CO3) to produce Potassium nitrate (KNO3) or saltpeter, an ingredient of gunpowder.
In partnership with Valentine Simon, various other individuals would own the land through the War of 1812, when Mammoth Cave's saltpeter reserves became significant due to the British blockade of United States ports. The blockade starved the American military of saltpeter and therefore gunpowder. As a result, the domestic price of saltpeter rose and production based on nitrates extracted from caves such as Mammoth Cave became more lucrative.
In July 1812, Charles Wilkins and an investor from Philadelphia by the name of Hyman Gratz purchased the cave from Simon and other owners. Soon the cave was being mined for calcium nitrate on an industrial scale.
A half-interest in the cave changed hands for ten thousand dollars (a huge sum at the time). After the war when prices fell, the workings were abandoned and it became a small tourist attraction centering on a Native American mummy discovered nearby.
When Wilkins died, his estate's executors sold his interest in the cave to Gratz. In the spring of 1838, the cave was sold by the Gratz brothers to Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave purely as a tourist attraction, the bottom long having since fallen out of the saltpeter market. Gorin was a slave owner, and used his slaves as tour guides. One of these slaves would make a number of important contributions to human knowledge of the cave, and become one of Mammoth Cave's most celebrated historical figures.
Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave and a guide to the cave during the 1840s and 1850s, was one of the first persons to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave's features. Gorin wrote, after Bishop's death:
"I placed a guide in the cave—the celebrated and great Stephen, and he aided in making the discoveries. He was the first person who ever crossed the Bottomless Pit, and he, myself and another person whose name I have forgotten were the only persons ever at the bottom of Gorin's Dome to my knowledge. "After Stephen crossed the Bottomless Pit, we discovered all that part of the cave now known beyond that point. Previous to those discoveries, all interest centered in what is known as the "Old Cave" … but now many of the points are but little known, although as Stephen was wont to say, they were 'grand, gloomy and peculiar.'
In 1839, Dr. John Croghan of Louisville bought the Mammoth Cave Estate, including Bishop and its other slaves from their previous owner, Franklin Gorin. Croghan briefly ran an ill-fated tuberculosis hospital in the cave, believing the vapors would cure his patients. A widespread epidemic of the period, tuberculosis would ultimately claim the lives of both Bishop and Croghan.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the fame of Mammoth Cave grew such that the cave became an international sensation.
At the same time, the cave attracted the attention of nineteenth century writers such as Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird, the Rev. Robert Davidson, the Rev. Horace Martin, Alexander Clark Bullitt, Nathaniel Parker Willis (who visited in June 1852), Bayard Taylor (in May, 1855), Dr. William Stump Forwood (in Spring 1867), the naturalist John Muir (early September 1867), the Rev. Horace Carter Hovey, and others. 
The difficulties of farming life in the poor soil of the cave country influenced local owners of smaller nearby caves to see opportunities for commercial exploitation, particularly given the success of Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. The "Kentucky Cave Wars" were a period of bitter competition between local cave owners for tourist money. Broad tactics of deception were used to lure visitors away from their intended destination to these private show caves. Misleading signs were placed along the roads leading to the Mammoth Cave. A typical strategy during the early days of automobile travel involved a representative of a private show cave hopping aboard a tourist's car's running board, to "explain" to the passengers that Mammoth Cave was closed, quarantined, caved in, or otherwise inaccessible.
In 1906, Mammoth Cave became accessible by steamboat with the construction of a lock and dam at Brownsville, Kentucky. The construction of this dam has had a long-term impact on the biota of the cave. The dam's construction would also prove to have implications for the story of the cave's exploration.
In 1908, Max Kaemper, a young German mining engineer arrived at the cave by way of New York. Kaemper had just graduated from technical college and his family had sent him on a trip abroad as a graduation present. Originally intending to spend two weeks at Mammoth Cave, Kaemper spent several months. With the assistant of African-American slave descendant Ed Bishop, Kaemper produced a remarkably accurate instrumental survey of many kilometers of Mammoth Cave, including many new discoveries. Reportedly, Kaemper also produced a corresponding survey of the land surface overlying the cave: this information would have been useful in the opening of other entrances to the cave, as soon happened with the Violet City entrance.
The Crogan family suppressed the topographic element of Kaemper’s map, and it is not known to survive today, although the cave map portion of Kaemper's work stands as a triumph of accurate cave cartography: not until the early 1960s and the advent of the modern exploration period would these passages be surveyed and mapped with greater accuracy. Kaemper returned to Berlin, and from the point of view of the Mammoth Cave country, disappeared entirely. It was not until the turn of the twenty-first century that a group of German tourists, after visiting the cave, researched Kaemper's family and determined his sad fate: the young Kaemper was killed in trench warfare in World War I at the Battle of the Somme (1916) just eight years after his Mammoth Cave work.
Famed French cave explorer Édouard-Alfred Martel visited the cave for three days in October 1912. Without access to the closely held survey data, Martel was permitted to make barometric observations in the cave for the purpose of determining the relative elevation of different locations in the cave. He identified different levels of the cave, and correctly noted that the level of Echo River within the cave was controlled by that of the Green River on the surface. Martel lamented the 1906 construction of the dam at Brownsville, pointing out that this made a full hydrologic study of the cave impossible. Among his precise descriptions of the hydrogeologic setting of Mammoth Cave, Martel offered the speculative conclusion that Mammoth Cave was connected to Salts and Colossal Caves: this would not be proven correct until 60 years following Martel's visit.
In the early twentieth century, Floyd Collins spent ten years exploring the Flint Ridge Cave System before dying at Sand Cave, Kentucky, in 1925. While exploring Sand Cave, he dislodged a rock onto his leg while in a tight crawlway and was unable to free himself. Attempts to rescue Collins created a media sensation.
As the last of the Croghan heirs died, advocacy momentum grew among wealthy citizens of Kentucky for the establishment of Mammoth Cave National Park. Private citizens formed the Mammoth Cave National Park Association in 1926. The Park was authorized May 25, 1926.
Donated funds were used to purchase some farmsteads in the region, while other tracts within the proposed National Park boundary were acquired by right of eminent domain. In contrast to the formation of other National Parks in the sparsely populated American West, thousands of people would be forcibly relocated in the process of forming Mammoth Cave National Park. Often eminent domain proceedings were bitter, with landowners paid what was considered to be inadequate sums. The resulting acrimony still resonates within the region.
For legal reasons, the federal government was prohibited from restoring or developing the cleared farmsteads while the private Association held the land: this regulation was evaded by the operation of "a maximum of four" CCC camps from May 22, 1933, to July 1942. 
According to the National Park Service,  "On May 14, 1934, the minimum park area was provided. On May 22, 1936, the minimum area was accepted for administration and protection." Mammoth Cave National Park was officially dedicated on July 1, 1941.
On September 9, 1972, a Cave Research Foundation mapping team led by Dr. John P. Wilcox, Patricia Crowther, Richard B. Zopf, Dr. P. Gary Eller, Stephen G. Wells, and Cleveland F. Pinnix (a National Park Service Ranger) managed to pursue a low, wet passage that linked two of the area's long cave systems—Flint Ridge Cave System to Mammoth Cave. This connection made the combined Flint–Mammoth Cave System the world's longest. (Flint Ridge had itself recently surpassed Hölloch Cave, in Switzerland, as the world's longest cave.)
On a previous trip deep in the Flint Ridge Cave System, Patricia Crowther, with her slight frame of 115 pounds, crawled through a narrow canyon later dubbed the "Tight Spot," which acted as a filter for larger cavers.
A subsequent trip fielded past the Tight Spot by Crowther, Wilcox, Zopf, and Tom Brucker found the name "Pete H" inscribed on the wall with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mammoth Cave.  The name is believed to have been carved by Pete Hanson, who was active in exploring the cave in the 1930s. Hanson was killed in World War II. The passage was named Hanson's Lost River.
On the September 9th trip, by following Hanson's Lost River, the six-person mapping team was led to Cascade Hall in Mammoth Cave, final proof that the caves were connected. John Wilcox emerged in waist-deep water to see a horizontal line across his field of vision, which proved to be a tourist handrail: the "One small step for man" quote for "conquering the Everest of speleology" was his exclamation to the others "I see a tourist trail!" Of all the many miles in Mammoth Cave, only a small fraction is developed with trails and lighting, so it was remarkable that the moment of connection took place in such a familiar setting.
Further connections between Mammoth Cave and smaller caves or cave systems have followed, notably to Proctor/Morrison Cave beneath nearby Joppa Ridge in 1979. This connection pushed the frontier of Mammoth exploration southeastward.
At the same time, discoveries made outside the park by an independent group, the Central Kentucky Karst Coalition or CKKC, resulted in the survey of tens of miles in Roppel Cave east of the park. On September 10, 1983, a connection was made between the Proctor/Morrison's section of the Mammoth Cave system and Roppel Cave. The connection was made by two mixed parties of CRF and CKKC explorers. Each party entered through a separate entrance and met in the middle before continuing in the same direction to exit at the opposite entrance. The resulting total surveyed length was near 300 miles. Incremental discoveries since then have pushed the total to more than 367 miles.
In early 2005 a connection into the Roppel Cave portion of the system was surveyed from a small cave under Eudora Ridge which had been originally discovered and entered in 2003 by CRF/CKKC personnel.
It is accepted with certainty that many more miles of cave passages await discovery in the region. Scientists believe that there are thousands of species of animals yet undiscovered in the cave system.
The superlatives that are justly applied to Mammoth Cave often lead to exaggeration of the cave's extent and reach. One such misconception is that the cave extends far beyond its geographical boundaries, even to other states in the United States. This misconception is easily debunked. Caves of Mammoth's type form as water from the surface seeks the level of the surface streams which drain them: in Mammoth Cave's case, the Green River to the north. It is a virtual certainty that no cave passages connecting to Mammoth will ever be found north of the Green River, or substantially east of the Sinkhole Plain which is the primary recharge area (the place though which water enters) for the cave. More tantalizing is the prospect of ancient passages to the south, which might bridge the current drainage divide between the Green River basin and the Barren River basin south of it, but in that case, the maximum expected southerly extent of Mammoth Cave would be the Barren River.
It is true, however, that the layers of sedimentary rock in which Mammoth Cave has formed do extend many miles in almost any direction from Mammoth Cave. These rocks were all laid down over the same period. The similarity of the rocks of the broader region to those in the immediate vicinity of Mammoth Cave means that conditions are right for cave formation; however, the absolute boundaries of the Mammoth Cave system are known, so it is expected that no nearby caves will be found to connect to Mammoth Cave.
The National Park Service offers several cave tours to visitors. Many of the most famous features of the cave, such as Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man's Misery, can be seen on lighted tours ranging from one to six hours in length. Two tours, lit only by visitor-carried paraffin lamps, are popular alternatives to the electric-lit routes. Several "wild" tours venture away from the developed parts of the cave into muddy crawls and dusty tunnels.
The park's tours are notable for the quality of the interpretive program, with occasional graphics accompanying artifacts on display at certain points in the cave. The lectures delivered by the National Park Service cave guides are varied by tour, so that in taking several tours the visitor learns about different facets of the cave's formation, or of the cave's human history and prehistory. Most guides are quite knowledgeable and open to visitor's questions. Many guides include a "theatrical" component, making their presentations entertaining with gentle humor. The guide traditions at Mammoth Cave date back to the period just after the War of 1812, and to guides such as Stephen Bishop. The style of this humor itself is part of the living tradition of the cave guides, and is duly a part of the interpretive program.
Near the visitor center, there are six miles of enchanting woodland trails to hike that lead to various springs and sink holes; visitors can also take a ranger-led walk to learn about the region’s plants and animals. On the north side of the park there are over 70 miles of scenic trails with rivers and waterfalls to be enjoyed. The south side has some of the park’s most beautiful scenery, which can be experienced by walking Sloan’s Crossing, Pond Nature Trail and Turnhole Bend Nature Trail.
Fishing is available year-round in the Green and Nolin rivers, with spring and summer being the best time of year to catch any of the more than 100 species including bluegill, bass, perch, catfish, and muskellunge. No license is needed within the boundaries of the park.
With 30 miles to explore on the Green and Nolin rivers, paddlers will take pleasure in viewing the wildlife and dramatic bluffs. When the water level is normal the river flows at about five miles per hour. During the winter months the level and current can fluctuate dramatically. There are canoe rentals available near the park.
Mammoth Cave National Park has several camping options.
The Mammoth Cave System is one of the most heavily studied cave regions in the world, and its literature is similarly robust.
Roger W. Brucker  has co-authored four books on the history and exploration of the Mammoth Cave System. They are presented here not in the order of publication, but in the order in which the events of the books' major narratives took place:
|National parks of the United States|
|Acadia • American Samoa • Arches • Badlands • Big Bend • Biscayne • Black Canyon of the Gunnison • Bryce Canyon • Canyonlands • Capitol Reef • Carlsbad Caverns • Channel Islands • Congaree • Crater Lake • Cuyahoga Valley • Death Valley • Denali • Dry Tortugas • Everglades • Gates of the Arctic • Glacier • Glacier Bay • Grand Canyon • Grand Teton • Great Basin • Great Sand Dunes • Great Smoky Mountains • Guadalupe Mountains • Haleakala • Hawaii Volcanoes • Hot Springs • Isle Royale • Joshua Tree • Katmai • Kenai Fjords • Kings Canyon • Kobuk Valley • Lake Clark • Lassen Volcanic • Mammoth Cave • Mesa Verde • Mount Rainier • North Cascades • Olympic • Petrified Forest • Redwood • Rocky Mountain • Saguaro • Sequoia • Shenandoah • Theodore Roosevelt • Virgin Islands • Voyageurs • Wind Cave • Wrangell-St. Elias • Yellowstone • Yosemite • Zion
List by: date established, state
Cahokia | Carlsbad Caverns | Chaco Culture | Everglades | Grand Canyon | Great Smoky Mountains | Hawaii Volcanoes | Independence Hall | Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek (w/ Canada) | La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico | Mammoth Cave | Mesa Verde | Monticello and University of Virginia | Olympic | Pueblo de Taos | Redwood | Statue of Liberty | Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (w/ Canada) | Yellowstone | Yosemite
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