I’m straddled across a 3- or 4-foot wide canyon, 8 feet or so above the cave floor, and I’m stuck. My Siberian guardian angel, the exchange student who’s supposed to keep an eye out for the person behind her (me), is long gone, out of sight around a bend. The guides had told us to follow the footing of the person in front of us to navigate the canyon walk, so now I’m on my own for the next 20 feet or so, with a few others in the tour waiting patiently behind me while I hesitate. I have no choice but to plunge ahead and trust my experience and my footing.
This was just one example of the physical and mental challenges we faced during the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Caves National Park.
Mammoth Caves is in northwestern Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Louisville. It’s the longest-known continuous cave system in the world, with 400 miles of connected passageways. Researchers believe there could be as many as 1,000 miles.
At most national parks, visitors are free to explore on their own. This is impossible at Mammoth Caves. To see them, you must take one of many guided tours. They range in length and difficulty, from easy strolls along wide paths, to the long and strenuous Wild Cave Tour, which is how I chose to spend a recent Sunday.
If you read the description of the Wild Cave Tour on the NPS website, you will likely react one of two ways—“I’ve GOT to do this!” or “I’d rather die.”
If small enclosed spaces, teetering on high ledges, or pushing your physical limits doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take a pass on this one.
Here’s how the tour goes: It’s 6 hours long and covers 5 miles about 300 feet underground. You are provided with helmets, headlamps, jumpsuits, gloves, and kneepads. You will wish you had elbow pads too.
To get through passages that are smaller than you are around, your guide will explain and then demonstrate moves you can’t believe you’ll have to emulate. And then, somehow, you do.
You crawl on hands and knees or army-style through long, narrow tunnels.
You wiggle and contort through tiny holes to emerge into enormous underground caverns that your headlamp can barely illuminate.
You wall-walk across a canyon and hoist yourself through holes in the ceiling well above your head. (If you’re short-legged, like I am, you’ll pretty much have to do the splits to manage this move. Not that I cannot do the splits. But I did them on Sunday.)
You pull yourself up by the arms onto ledges you can barely reach.
You hit your head. A lot.
You experience complete, utter darkness and the oppressive silence that can only be found deep within the Earth. No wind, no leaves rustling, no insects chirping. The silence is so thick it will feel heavy, like a weight on your chest.
You emerge dirty, sweaty, scratched, bruised, tired, and euphoric, in front of more than 100 visitors on one of the popular short tours, who stare in admiration at your group. They’re a little jealous, and you like it that way.
Near the tour’s end, the group inched, on our bellies, through one last 45-foot passage that was quite wide, but very, very low. “Decide now whether you want to look left, or look right, because you won’t be able to turn your head once you’re in there,” our guide advised.
The passage narrowed even more the further in we got, until a pinch point wedged my helmet between the rock above and the ground below. For the second time on the tour, I hesitated, wondering how I’d get out of this one.
Inching backwards, I freed my helmet and tried again. Defeating the pinch point, I swung my legs up and log-rolled the last 15 feet, emerging dizzy, proud, and happy.
If you go:
The tour isn’t for everyone, but spots are in high demand. It runs only on the weekends and the group size is limited to 14, so book ahead if you want to go, especially in the summer months. The cave itself is between 55 and 60 degrees year round, though, so visit any time of year.