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Winding hundreds of miles beneath the bluegrass of Kentucky, a subterranean underworld thrives among delicate blossoms of alienlike formations that fill the massive cave system. The hypnotizing songs of unseen dripping water greet you as you enter secret corridors.

Inside the longest cave system in the world, passages reaching deep into the earth fan out from vast chambers that drip with stalactites and cradle stalagmites, cave bacon, and coral formations. This giant underground sensation became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1941.

Lying above vertical ridges of rock is an umbrella of shale and sandstone, protecting airy pockets of empty space beneath it. Surface water finds its way through the soft ceiling, eroding limestone and carving an intricate interior.

American Indians first discovered the entrance to Mammoth Cave more than 4,000 years ago and mined for minerals within its walls. Their presence is still visible as cave art on the chamber ceilings—abstract impressions etched (or burnt) in charcoal overhead. In the early 19th century, enslaved people guiding wealthy tourists kept the tradition alive, immortalizing their work by signing their names to the walls.

Enslaved guides were vital in opening up the system for exploration, and their legacy continues to be celebrated. Today, rangers recount stories and legends of an era when the most notable explorers were enslaved people, sent underground to make many discoveries at the behest of their “owners.”


A ranger shines a light to illuminate the chasm below

Overground adventures

New finds and mapping still occur in the caves, where life-forms such as insects and bats enchant guests. Above ground, those who crave exploration in the sunshine hit cycling paths, hiking trails, and backcountry horse trails through the lush Kentucky setting. Running through the area are the Green and Nolan rivers, where paddlers of all experience levels kayak and canoe down more than 25 miles (40 km) of water. The park’s astonishing terrain is a unique opportunity for adventurers to discover both subterranean wonders and wide open prairie—all in one day.

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Stephen Bishop

The most legendary explorer of the cave, Bishop (see African American contributions) started life in slavery. Prolific in his findings and a skilled guide, he is buried at the park’s Old Guide’s Cemetery.

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The classic Historic Tour, one of the most famous, has been trodden by humans for thousands of years

Did You Know?

Bats, an endangered species in the eastern US, eat their weight daily in mosquitoes—up to 3,000 a night.

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