The Upper Crust of the Underworld

Looking down inside Mammoth DomeA

bout three years ago in West Virginia, I came face to face with the underground. I’m not talking about the criminal fringe or shady, back-room wheeler-dealers. I’m talking about the real underground, like 500 feet below ground level where stalactites hang overhead like massive primeval icicles and narrow tunnels snake downward into the earth leading to complete silence and darkness so deep its called absolute black.

Organ Cave in West Virginia was my first visit to a real underground cave, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Since then, every time Hon and I travel, we make it a point to tour local caves and this trip was no different. We didn’t have enough time to see all the caves on our drive across the country, but we made specific plans to see two of the biggies: Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

I’ll try not to be overly effusive, but these caves were the mother lode, the tip-top in rock bottoms, the upper crust of the underworld. In short, they were spectacular. Each very different from the other but both of them jaw-droppingly beautiful, fascinating, mysterious and astounding to see.

At Mammoth Cave, size matters. It is the world’s longest cave system with 367 miles of “explored” passages. That’s more than twice the length of the second largest, Jewel Cave in South Dakota, which clocks in at 145 miles. Experts say there’s still more to be seen at Mammoth and new passageways are discovered every year.

With that much distance to cover, there’s a huge array of cave phenomena to see. Since it’s impossible to see it all at once, the National Park Service, which oversees Mammoth Cave, offers a variety of tours. The Frozen Niagara tour explores a section of the cave where millions of years of dripping water have formed what looks like a gigantic waterfall. On the Violet City tour, experience cave exploration the way 19th-century visitors did, by lantern only.

Hon and I took the Historic Tour, a two-hour walk down two miles into the earth. Our tour leader Ranger Kevin told us, in Mammoth Cave, everything that goes down must come back up again. That means from our first steps in, we climbed 440 steps to get back up into the open air again. It might sound a little like torture, but the sites we saw inside the cave made it worthwhile.

We walked into the cave from an opening called Natural Entrance. As soon as Natural Entrance is in sight, we felt the cave exhaling its cool air. The temperature inside Mammoth Cave hovers around 54 degrees year round. The day we were there, the above ground temp was 94 degrees with stifling humidity, so the underground cool was very inviting.

Though the length of Mammoth Cave is its most talked about feature, I didn’t get a true sense of the size until we were in one of the massive open spaces called “rooms.” After following a long dark passage, the first room we entered was the Rotunda. To imagine this space, picture the lobby of Grand Central Terminal. Now double it. That will start to give you a sense of how big this room is. Then, remember that you’re as far as 500 feet below ground level in a room of massive stone slabs that were carved out over millions of years by underground waterways. That will start to give you a sense of how phenomenal this cave is.

While Mammoth Cave, is indeed mammoth, not all the spaces are. Some passageways we followed are a comfortable height and width, like a normal hallway. One, nicknamed Fat Man’s Misery, is such a narrow maze that we had to walk through one at a time, we had to walk sideways, and those of us with a gut, sucked it in.

Fat Man’s Misery was immediately followed by Tall Man’s Agony. This is where I starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland. Like most of Mammoth Cave, Tall Man’s Agony is a natural formation, not man-made, but it seemed like something thought up by Disney. It is a narrow, curving stairway and with each step down, the ceiling gets lower and lower. I’m 5’5” and I could barely stand upright at the beginning of the path. At the end of the path, I was going down the stairs in a sort of duck walk with legs squatting and my head bent forward. I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic and worried that I couldn’t scrunch down anymore when the pay-off came. At the end of Tall Man’s Misery we entered into another magnificent room. Great Relief Hall is so named because it’s a great relief to be able to stand upright and not be squeezed up against the tops and sides of the pathways. It’s also the only place on the 2+ hour tour where facilities are available for those in need of another kind of relief. Although, we didn’t need them, the NPS had the good sense to lend nature a hand and installed a few toilets for emergency use.

Continuing on from Great Relief Hall, we followed more limestone passageways and came to Bottomless Pit, a ravine that isn’t really bottomless, but at hundreds of feet deep, it’s close enough. When we were about 1/4 of the way across the catwalk, I looked down and realized that I could see through the bridge straight into the endless darkness below. My fear of heights took over and I was not able to move.

My fear was heightened by a little trick the NPS borrowed from Hollywood, good lighting. By installing small lights at just the right height, the Bottomless Pit, quite ominous on its own, looks even more menacing. The trick worked and I stood frozen for a few moments. Fortunately, I’ve been in that situation before and have learned to use denial, my favorite of all the defense mechanisms, to get out of it. I closed my eyes and tried to forget that I was walking across a see-through bridge and could plummet to my death at any moment. When I opened my eyes again, I looked straight-ahead and started walking. I ignored all the oohs and ahhs of everyone else on the bridge with me and took step after step until I was back on solid ground again and could continue the tour like a normal person.

Before starting the tour, the NPS and Ranger Kevin did a thorough job of telling us about the great heights we’d climb and the tiny spaces we’d squeeze through, but I wasn’t about to let my irrational fears talk me out of seeing one of the earth’s natural wonders.

The final showstopper of the tour was the climb up Mammoth Dome. The NPS has again given nature a hand and has built a staircase that lets visitors climb back up to ground level from the inside of a 200-foot vertical cave. If it sounds astounding, it’s because it is.

Mammoth Dome is one of the few wet areas in the spaces we toured. As we started to go up, a few of us got dripped on, but the drips were quickly forgotten. As we climbed higher, we started to see the tapestry of stalactites that have draped the inner walls of this underground mountain over millions of years. Seeing these ancient formations from top to bottom in layer upon layer upon layer was a fitting finale to this grand tour.

As Ranger Kevin answered final questions back at the Rotunda, I realized that one of the highlights of the tour was his presentation. We heard plenty of history and he was able to answer every question we came up with. He was extremely knowledgeable and he was very funny, without stooping to the goofy anecdotes and silly tales I’ve heard on tours at other caves. I think the NPS has done a wonderful job of training its rangers and of presenting Mammoth Cave in a way that honors its magnificence.

After leaving the cave via Natural Entrance where we came in, it was so hot and humid that we decided to sit there for a while to reacclimate. While we sat there it was fun to watch everyone’s eyeglasses fog up once they were out of the cool comfort of the cave and into the blasting Kentucky humidity. It happened at just about the same spot for everyone and everyone had the same reaction … A lean backwards and a look of surprise when they were hit by the heat, and then a little laugh when their glasses fogged up. It made us laugh even more when we realized we had reacted the same way.

A huge storm was blowing in as we walked back to the Visitor’s Center, so we waited it out next door at Mammoth Cave Hotel, where we browsed their gift shops and had lunch in the cafe. When we were ready to brave the storm, we walked back to the campsite we had reserved earlier. There are four campgrounds in Mammoth Cave National Park, and we took a space at the Headquarters site, an easy, 10-minute walk to the Visitor’s Center.

The rain must have kept all the other campers away because we had the campsite to ourselves. That night as we fell asleep to the pounding sounds of another tremendous thunderstorm, I felt content, safe and grateful for the gift and beauty of nature and for being able to experience it the way I had that day.

I knew part of our trip included plans to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but I didn’t think anything could top what I’d seen at Mammoth Cave. I was wrong.

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my photo site:


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