No visit to Mammoth Cave National Park would be complete without a tour of the cave. There are many wonderful things to do at the park, like kayaking or hiking, but the cave is what makes the area so unique and interesting. Of course, when you visit the world’s longest cave system you can expect numerous tours that cover a wide variety of abilities, lengths, and sights. The Extended Historic Tour at Mammoth Cave is a great way to explore the cave while walking where people have explored and worked for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, when I visited Mammoth Cave National Park in south-central Kentucky, we were in the middle of a global pandemic. So my choices were limited. In fact, we had one choice of cave tour, and it wasn’t as long as it normally is. But I was extremely thankful to still be able to explore this amazing ecosystem below the surface of the earth.
Our tour was called the Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided). This self-guided tour includes the upper portion of the Extended Historic Tour, but because of COVID, the lower potions where spaces can get tight were restricted. The tour begins and ends at the Historic Entrance and takes you to the Tuberculosis Hospital Ruins deep inside the cave. It has a side trip down Audubon Avenue. In total, it’s about 2 miles and takes about an hour and a half. It’s rated easy and has 160 total stairs.
The Extended Historic Tour—Normally at Mammoth Cave
The Extended Historic Tour, one of the most popular tours of the park, takes you along this path but loops deeper underground through the features like the Wooden Bowl Room, Fat Man’s Misery, and the Ruins of Karnak. But because of COVID, this portion was closed.
Mammoth Cave National Park, has two different tours with the name Extended Historic Tour—one called the Extended Historic Tour and the Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided). The Self Guided tour only takes you to the tuberculosis camp and back the way you came, unlike the guided tour which loops via a lower portion.
Historic Entrance, Rotunda, and Audubon Avenue
The Historic Entrance is Mammoth Cave’s largest natural entrance. It’s easy to see how the cave system was not kept secret throughout history. Once you enter the cave, you pass through the Houchins Narrows, which opens up to a large space called the Rotunda.
This room is massive. And you can really get a feel for why the early visitors called the cave, Mammoth Cave. It has a circular breakdown-dome ceiling giving the large room an even larger feel. Here in the Rotunda, you can see one of two niter works where people long ago mined in the area. Niter or saltpeter is potassium nitrate.
During the early 1800s, people mined saltpeter. There are numerous wooden artifacts that are pointed out by placards as well as along the walk. It’s really interesting to view these well-preserved artifacts.
From the Rotunda, swing a right toward Audubon Avenue, named for the famed John James Audubon. On your walk to the end of Audubon Avenue, keep your eyes on the sides of the path for more artifacts.
At the end of Audubon Avenue, you can view ancient artifacts left by those who used Mammoth Cave during prehistoric times. From there, you retrace your steps back to the Rotunda and saltpeter vats.
Broadway to Tuberculosis Huts
From the Rotunda, you make your way further into what is known as the main cave. You pass through an area named Broadway, It was named so because it resembles the urban canyon of Broadway. The cave makes a slight curve to the left as you pass by a nook. The nook is known as The Church, a beautiful cave feature.
After you pass The Church, be on the lookout to your right for more wooden artifacts from the 1800s. Seven saltpeter vats and a pump tower once operated along this stretch of cave.
Just before you get to the end, the cave makes a sharp turn. Acute angles are not often seen in this main trunk of Mammoth Cave, but it’s a great reminder of the river that once carved the world’s longest cave system.
When you reach the end of the tour, you are treated to two stone structures that were built for those suffering from consumption or, tuberculosis. The clinic was a medical experiment in 1842. The cave air was thought to have curative properties for those battling the disease.
To finish this tour, you simply turn around and retrace your steps back out of the cave.
Above the water table
One thing I found interesting about the Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided) at Mammoth Cave was that it does not take you below the water table. It may take you underground quite a ways, but not below the water table.
This is called a dry cave. When I planned my trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, I expected to see stalactites and stalagmites, like in Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas. However, because we did not drop below the water table, these distinct cave features have not formed at this location. However, other tours at Mammoth Cave do go lower underground where you can see those features.
412 miles surveyed so far
The Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided) is only a fraction of Mammoth Cave. To date, there have been 412 miles of cave surveyed, but there is a potential for 1,000 miles within this cave system. Mammoth Cave isn’t called the longest cave system in the world for no reason.
This tour only covers about 1 mile of the cave. In addition to the Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided), Mammoth Cave National Park offers around 20 different cave tours. And believe me, when COVID is over, I will be going back.
Mammoth Cave National Park is dog friendly! Dogs, of course, are not allowed in the cave, but the park offers dog kennels at a low cost so you can feel comfortable leaving your four-legged friend behind.
The Extended Historic Tour (Self Guided) at Mammoth Cave
Even though I only got to visit a small fraction of Mammoth Cave, I was so glad I got to explore the world’s longest cave system. The historical aspect of the Extended Historic Tour is well worth a trip to the national park.