Growing up in Kentucky, one of the first trips I remember taking as a child was to Mammoth Cave National Park. Located in western Kentucky just outside Bowling Green (also the birthplace of Corvettes), Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world, with over 400 miles of passages mapped to date. Discovered in 1797 by white settlers, the cave soon found use as saltpeter mine and proved critical to gunpowder production during the War of 1812. Mammoth Cave began operating as a tourist attraction in the 1840s. Since becoming a national park in 1942, millions of visitors have experienced the cave, selecting tours ranging from a leisurely one hour walk on wide paved trails to the subject of this blog entry, the 6 ½ hour “extremely strenuous” wild cave tour.
On what was perhaps my second visit to Mammoth Cave in the early ‘90s, my parents took me on a 4 hour ranger-led walking tour which included a lunch stop in a wide expanse known as the Snowball Room. The space was outfitted with picnic tables and there were small concession stands where those who didn’t pack a lunch could purchase sandwiches, snacks, and drinks. While eating with my parents, I remember a group of about 10 mud-drenched people in helmets, coveralls, and kneepads strolled through. These poor souls were part of the “Wild Cave” tour. At the point we encountered them in the Snowball room, the troupe had already completed two hours of belly crawls and rock climbing in the regions of the cave not accessible to walking tours (and had 4+ hours of adventure remaining). “Those people are crazy”, my dad said.
The Snowball dining room in Mammoth Cave
Despite spending 22 years in Kentucky and going to graduate school not far from Mammoth Cave, I never managed to work up the courage for Wild Cave, but the idea of it remained enticing. The description on the National Parks website advertises Wild Cave as the only tour that lets visitors:
“face the darkness – and the challenge. Journey with experienced guides and a small adult group through some of the starkly beautiful yet physically demanding ‘wild’ areas of the cave. Climb, crawl, squeeze, hike and canyon walk in the realms of Mammoth Cave. See places no other tour encounters and feel the thrill of exploration!”
It sounded so exciting! I wanted to go, but there was a reasonable voice keeping me from it. “You’ve never been caving”, voice of reason said (I’m not sure why, but voice of reason always has a British accent). “Remember that time you crawled under your bed as a teenager because your favorite scrunchie fell behind the bed and the wall? Wasn’t that terrifying? The ceiling was so low and dark! Imagine how miserable you would be crawling under your bed for hours.” And the showstopper: “Remember what happened in 127 Hours?”
James Franco: Instilling fear in national park goers since 2010
Last summer, I decided to pull the trigger. I was reasonably fit at the time – working out every day and running about 10 miles a week. My waist and hip measurements were well below those recommended for the tour. “Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches; if you are larger you may not physically pass through the crawlspaces,” the website warns. I had a new pair of hiking boots that had seen little use. 4th of July was a 3 day weekend. My boyfriend wanted to go caving. The stars aligned.
I booked my tickets two months before July 4th. Because Wild Cave can only accommodate a maximum of 12 people (some of the larger walking tours offered can accommodate hundreds), you’ll need to book your tickets well in advance, particularly if you’re going on a holiday weekend in summer. We arrived at the visitor’s center about one hour before our tour, signed waivers (which I didn’t even read because I suspected it might scare me away form the tour), and had a briefing from our two friendly park ranger guides on what exactly lay in store for us (Climbing! Crawling! Heights! Incredibly small spaces! Darkness! Bats!). The rangers checked the treads on our boots and we boarded a bus for the cave entrance. En route, there was a brief stop off at a locker room where we suited up (coveralls, knee pads, helmet, and headlamp) and left our other belongings. There’s no food on the tour (alas, the snowball room food service is no more), but you can (and should) bring a fanny pack with snacks and water.
We entered the cave through a large main entrance, walked along a main tour path, and then veered sharply off the path into mostly darkness. Headlamps now on, we made our way to a group of large rocks and sat down. The rangers had us introduce ourselves, say where we were from, our jobs, and our favorite holiday. I was delighted to learn that there was a real (medical) doctor on our tour. Maybe that whole 127 Hours scenario could be avoided after all!
It’s a very large cave!
Our first challenge involved a long crawl through a passage where the ceiling eventually narrowed to about 2′ and shimmying out the other end through a very small hole (the smallest opening on the route) called the Bare Hole. I’m a reasonably small person, but I struggled to pass through and did so only with some direction on head and hip placement. The waist/hip requirements for this tour are very real. At any rate, I now had one segment down! No panic attack (yet)! For the next 1 ½ hours, we mostly army crawled through narrow passageways. One older gentleman opted out after the second crawl. A ranger took him out to join a main tour and then rejoined our group.
A stranger on the internet crawls through a tiny hole!
I was feeling pretty good about my prospects for completing wild cave as we rolled into lunch. I had some Kashi bars and water in the Snowball Room, went to the bathroom (the only bathroom break on the tour, so use it wisely) and tried to clean some dirt off my face. Like Icarus naively flying toward the sun, I smugly strutted past the walking tours as we headed into the afternoon portion of wild cave. Sure, the rangers said it would be much more challenging than our morning session. DIdn’t phase me. I was also promised there would be canyonwalking. What was this canyonwalking? Icarus flew on.
I was confronted with canyonwalking about 10 minutes later when a ranger instructed me to put each foot on either side of a rock ledge, brace my hands against opposite walls and duck walk forward. I was reasonably calm and making good progress until THE FLOOR DROPPED OUT FROM UNDER ME. Suddenly, I was suspended over (I later learned) a 12 foot canyon. I started to hyperventilate and at this point was keenly aware I was becoming “that person” on the tour. Fortunately, I think there’s at least one panicky person with no caving experience on every tour, those wonderful individuals whose ability to click and enter credit card information on the internet exceeds their capability for application of rational thought and appropriate self-assessment. It’s probably the reason our rangers seemed quite adept at dealing with a caver in the midst of a mild panic attack. Embarrassed (but not crying, yay!), I labored onward until (not joking) the ledge I had my right foot on disappeared. I was told to move my right foot to the opposite ledge, take my left hand off the wall it was braced against, and brace both my hands on the opposite side. With my entire body leaning over a pit, I was now sidestepping, wishing very fervently that I could just be another casual tourist on a walking tour. After the completion of the first canyon walking section, I asked a ranger if anyone had ever been injured on the wild cave tour. He said the most serious incident occurred in the section we just completed, where an individual had fallen down into the cavern below (about and 8 to 12 foot fall onto a rockbed, depending on where he fell). That person broke a limb and had to be carried out of the cave by emergency medics. Somehow it seemed miraculous that I had escaped this fate.
A stranger on the internet who appears much calmer than me about canyonwalking.
We moved on to more canyon walking (this time with level changes, so you had to move up and down along ledges as you traversed an open pit). There was some panic here, but one ranger went in front of me and instructed me on exactly where I needed to put my feet and hands to ensure maximum stability. The afternoon section was also filled with rock climbing (mostly just scrambling over rocks, but there were some places you have to make short ascents vertically using foot and handholds). This tour is not really made for very short people, so there were points where I had to stick my foot in a small opening in the rock and a ranger (or my boyfriend) had to physically push me up over the top. One of my favorite sections of the tour was climbing up to a natural “attic” in the cave, where we all sat and took a brief break before descending down a natural slide formation made of rocks. The tour can end with either a water crawl (our ranger guides opted not to do this one after they saw our groups reaction to crawling through water) or a much longer dry crawl with a ceiling that narrows to about 12” at its lowest point. This long crawl was, surprisingly, the most fun I had on the tour. At one point, the ceiling is so low that you can’t crawl anymore, but instead have to roll yourself like a log for (what seems like) about 100 feet. It’s probably not as fun if you’re claustrophobic.
The most difficult obstacle overall for me was the one that ultimately concludes the tour. It’s a vertical ascent through a hole. This hole is probably only about 10 feet up, but the opening is wide and you have to begin by straddling between two rock faces (again, really think about this tour if you’re very short because the width was basically equivalent to a full split for me), then pivot so your butt is braced against one wall and your feet are on the other, then somehow (I still have no idea how I did this, but it probably involved a ranger pushing me from below in what, under any other circumstances, would constitute inappropriate touching) hoist yourself up the wall by inching up with your butt, feet, and elbows until you get to the top. It was by far the most terrifying thing on the tour and I was convinced I was just going to fall straight back down onto rock at any moment (I wouldn’t have fallen more than 10 feet, but I don’t think it would have been a pleasant landing).
After 6.5 hours of caving, we emerged into the Frozen Niagara section of Mammoth Cave and ran into a couple hundred people on a walking tour. I realized from the stares people were giving me that I may have looked like Muddy Mudskipper. I was very proud of completing Wild Cave though, so I just owned my dirtiness.
On the bus ride back, one of the guys on our tour asked if my boyfriend made me come along with him on the tour. I told him the tour was my idea. He seemed surprised, probably because he had watched me have a full-fledged panic episode at the first canyonwalking section. We arrived at the changing station where we cleaned our boots and took off our caving gear. Unfortunately, guides aren’t allowed to accept tips (you know they deserved it after dealing with me in a cave for 6.5 hours).
We survived Wild Cave!
Wild Cave is a lot of fun and a tour I’d certainly recommend if you’re going to Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s probably as close to a real caving experience as you can get on a guided tour and likely qualifies as the most extreme ranger-led activity you can undertake in a national park. To get through it, you’ll need to be reasonably fit and unafraid of small spaces. Fear of heights is also considered a contraindicator for the excursion, but believe me, if I can get through canyonwalking so can you. Bring snacks and water. Look out for albino shrimp, eyeless fish (isn’t evolution amazing?!) and bats (sadly, Mammoth Caves bat population has declined significantly in recent years due to White nose syndrome, but you’ll probably still see a few). Take some extra time during your Mammoth Cave visit to go on the general walking tours (the historic tour and frozen Niagara are excellent) and enjoy the nature areas around the cave. It’s a beautiful, rare place and another illustration of why the national parks system is among America’s best ideas.
And if you’re staying in the area longer, there’s a very strange place called Kentucky Down Under nearby. It’s essentially a zoo where you can pet kangaroos.
I hope these kangaroos have good lives. They’re super friendly.
There’s also the Corvette museum (next to the plant where all Corvettes are born), which was the site of the real Bowling Green massacre in 2014.
A tragedy of epic proportions. #neverforget