Mammoth Cave National Park

What’s over four hundred miles long? Well, if you guessed our van ride from Tennessee to West Virginia you'd be right, but that's barely scratching the surface, the surface of Kentucky that is. Another great answer would be the caverns of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Nestled somewhere in the often vaguely-conceived northwestern limits of the South, large parts of Kentucky’s upper geology consist of sandstone-capped limestone that happens to be particularly susceptible to erosion by subterranean water. Geologists refer to this as a “karst” landscape. Over the course of thousands of years minutely-acidic rainwater, pulled by gravity down passed the nonporous sandstone to become groundwater, has chemically reacted with the limestone rock to dissolved it away as it descends upwards of 450 feet into the earth. Pooling into underground streams and even large rivers the water flow ultimately travels north and drains into the Green River. Over time the lowering water table has emptied these cavers dry to expose large enough caverns for humans to enter, explore, learn, and impact. Truly an experience of the planet’s interconnected natural systems our visit to this national park offers access to the world's longest cave system among other environmental, recreational, and educational activities.

History on the Move arrives at Mammoth Cave NP.

Between our inquiries of music and society in Nashville, Tennessee and our whitewater rafting adventure in Minden, West Virginia, when the History on the Movers entered the shallow, yet remarkably extensive and complex, cave chambers. We spent half a day at this impressively large and extensive (“mammoth,” if you will) cave system getting a guided tour of some of its famous initial offerings. We began out Park Ranger-led excursion at the “historic entrance,” so named because that large entrance was the site of the first recorded exploration of the caves by European-descended Americans in the late 1790s. Archaeological evidence reveals that Native Americans explored and even mined the mineral resources of these caves as early as 4,000 years ago. Our tour traversed some of most explored sections of the cave.

On our tour we were guided through a maze of distinct rock features that decorated some of the cave’s most explored sections. We were delighted by the flavorful names that attached to the cave's features given adventurers, explorers, and guides over the centuries. Locales like the Rotunda, Giant’s Coffin, the Bottomless Pit, and Fat Man’s Misery stirred the imagination. We even passed by the River Styx, still today channeling out evermore miles of unseen labyrinth beneath the water. We were also alerted to sites of human impact within the caves: historic and prehistoric mining operations.

Traditions of exploration have been kept well alive and continue today. In the antebellum years of the nineteenth century, black slaves conducted substantial amounts of exploration and tourism. Leased out as guides by the cave's owners, these slaves explored, mapped, and named miles of Mammoth Cave while creating the basis of the modern tour routes still in operation today. Allowed to save tips for their services and collecting rewards for specimens of unique subterranean creatures, some slaves purchased land or even their freedom.

We enjoyed the chillingly-cool air that characterized the caves and many of us were happy to cool off. I stole some intermittent moments preceding our tour to fulfill the requirements to become a Junior Ranger at the park. I received my badge and certificate. Quite fun!

-Mike Uhl

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