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Mammoth Cave National Park

The Mammoth Cave National Park is an extensive system of limestone caverns on five levels located in west-central Kentucky, USA. To date, the combined mappedlength of the passages of the multilevel system total more than 400 miles (640km), making Mammoth Caves by far the longest known cave system in the world.To add to this, geologists estimate that there are still hundreds of more miles of yet to be discovered passageways awaiting exploration and mapping.

The National Park was authorized in 1926 but only fully established in 1941. It covers a surface area of 83 square miles (215km²). In 1972, a passage wasdiscovered linking Mammoth Cave and the Flint Ridge Cave System also in the park. In 1983, another connection was found in the subterranean system, linking Mammoth Cave with Roppel Cave, which lies to the east of the park.

Limestone in the area was deposited over a period in the region of 70 million years on an ancient seabed that previously existed some 350 million years ago. Billions of animal shells were deposited over time and were later naturally compressed into limestone bedrock.The result was a thick layerof sedimentary rock, approximately 700 feet (213m) deep. The caves were formed by the dissolution of this rock by percolating groundwater; a continuing process, which has been and still is creating an irregular limestone or karst system of passageways and caverns. Inside the caves, dark channels lay underground. These were once the pathways for underground waterways which fed into the nearby Green River. As the river eroded through the bedrock, so did the underground waterways, forming the complicated system of caves which can be seen here today. The gigantic cave system here is home to over 200 animal species which have evolved to be able to live in this dark environment, including fungi, cave crickets, mudpuppy salamanders, catbirds, stinkpot turtles, eyeless fish and eyeless crayfish. Some 42 of the species have their habitats entirely within the caves and are endemic to the system. In terms of human activity, inside the system has been found the bodies of some American Indians, possibly dating to before the time of Columbus. The cave has also been used in later times for nitrate mining, for use in making gunpowder, during the war of 1812 which took place between the United States, the United Kingdom and their respective allies. Mammoth Caves were also later used as a tuberculosis hospital.

The natural temperature of the caves is 12°C (54°F) and inside are several underground lakes and rivers. As one might expect from such a system of limestone caverns, stalactites (“Tights Come Down”) and stalagmites are in abundance, as well as numerous other geologic formations, and many of these have been given descriptive names, such as Frozen Niagara or Pillars of Hercules.

Above: Frozen Niagara, Mammoth Caves

The photographs on this webpage were taken during a visit in August, 2017. A guided tour was taken from the visitors centre to view some highlights which included various caverns and the stalactite formation known as Frozen Niagara. This flowstone feature is a large mass 75 feet high and 45 feet wide and was formed through hundreds of years of slow deposition of limestone from water flowing and dripping down into part of a cave over blocks of fallen wall and ceiling rock. The tour began and finished with a short ride aboard a bus, which being the same kind of vehicle as an iconic American school bus, was somewhat a novelty for the author of this webpage, whom hails from the UK. After the tour, a walk was taken via the historic entrance to a cave system located nearer the visitors centre and more suited to those whom do not have a tour booked and wish to get a taster of the park’s underground wonders.The area aboveground in the park is mainly hardwood forest with the Green and Nolin rivers making their way across the undulating terrain. Fauna in the surface environment of the park includes deer, foxes, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, bats, reptiles, and a variety of bird species. As well as cave-related activities, within the park, hiking, fishing, canoeing and camping are popular with visitors. It is pointed out by the National Parks Service not to think as the National Park as one of two parts and that the below-ground world and the above-ground realm of forest and light are two parts of a greater whole, unified by forces of nature that continue to form the cave, shape the landscape, and nurture their biological communities. Mammoth Cave National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

In addition to the cave tour taken, as featured in the photographs on this page, there are a wide range of further cave tours which can be taken from the visitor’s centre and these are offered daily, except on December 25th. Tour schedules and visitor centre hours vary from season to season. Some of the tours for the more adventurous may require special clothing or equipment. It is possible to pre-book tours for the busier periods (see for further details). Certain items are prohibited, such as weapons and camera tripods. Photography inside the caverns is permitted, but only without a flash. No food or drink is allowed, except water and anything necessary for medical purposes. It is recommended to take sensible clothing appropriate to the tour, including sturdy shoes or hiking boots with good soles - again, check the park’s website for further details, as well as questions regarding accessibility and park rules on the expected behaviour of visitors, designed not only to protect the park but ensure the best safety of the 2 million plus people who visit Mammoth Cave National Park annually (nearly 600,000 taking tours of the caves), to enjoy its splendour. Further photos from the visit may be seen in the thumbnail gallery below [Click on an image to enlarge]:

[Photographs: August 2017, Text: 2018]

References and Further Information

1. In Situ information boards and information leaflet from the National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior
2. “Geology of the Mammoth Cave National Park Area” - A fascinating 41 page booklet full of descriptive text about many of the cave system’s features and downloadable Here (PDF File)
3. US National Parks Service Here, including the latest tour schedules around the cave system available Here
4. On the National Parks Conservation Association website Here.
5. Information from National Geographic Here
6. UNESCO Webpage Here
7. Wikipedia main article Here
8. On Trip Advisor Here

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