Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay


General location of Mammoth Cave. The park boundary is accented in green, the visitor center in yellow.

Main cave area. Closed depressions are dark green. The hilltops are capped with a sandstone unit (yellow). Although this is a classic karst area depicted in many texts and lab manuals, very little karst morphology is visible in the park because it is almost entirely forested. The best views of karst features are actually outside the park in cleared farmland.

The most widespread myth about Mammoth Cave is that it is 360 miles long. True, the total length of all mapped passages is 360 miles. I'm a mile tall if you count the total length of all my blood vessels. The actual length of Mammoth Cave is about seven miles.

Most of the cave lies under the sandstone cap, which prevents water from penetrating and weakening the roof or sealing openings. It also prevents solution and redeposition of the limestone. As a result, large parts of the cave are actually rather boring passages without much ornamentation. True, they're impressively large and long boring passages, but they still are bland.

My recommendation, for anyone who wants to see complex cave formations, is to go to Carlsbad. If you do pass through Kentucky, take a Mammoth Cave tour that emphasizes cave formations, or visit caves nearby that are outside the sandstone cap. In general, this is the most disappointing National Park I've ever visited. Roads are extremely poorly marked, the karst landscape is invisible (the forests have all regrown) and the cave itself is badly overrated. If you want to see karst landscape, it's better displayed (if on a smaller scale) in the open farmland along the Interstate.

Incidentally, not a single National Park page I've visited has a direct link to a park map. In every single case I've had to use the search box to locate one. And when they do have a map, it is rarely directly readable on a Web page but usually in .pdf format.

One of the cave entrances, located in a sinkhole.

The glowing people are standing in a patch of sunlight in an otherwise dark scene, and are not aliens.


Frozen Niagara

The most impressive cave formations on this particular tour were in the relatively small Frozen Niagara area.

Surface Outcrops

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Created 22 November 2005, Last Update 06 June 2020