MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK

The USA's national parks are, each of them, fairly distinctive. Yellowstone is the world's first national park; Redwood has the world's tallest trees; and Kentucky's Mammoth Cave has- you guessed it- the world's longest cave.

The centrepiece of the park, Mammoth Cave, measures a whopping 563 km in length and 115 mt in depth (mapped terrain only), and is crisscrossed by several underground rivers, including the Echo River and the appropriately-named River Styx. This magical subterranean world is a realm like nothing you're likely to have seen before: deep shafts; towering, cathedral-like caverns; glittering stalactites suspended from high vaulted ceilings; sparkling white gypsum crystals; stalagmites, limestone formations, columns and pillars sculpted out of limestone by years of running water. Among these caves, and in the underground pools which dot the area, live an amazing range of animals- up to 200 species, from mussels and blind fish to cave shrimp, bats, crickets and flatworms. This is a world with a weird and wonderful beauty, still not completely charted, and offering discoveries by the dozen.

But Mammoth Cave is not just karst topography; above the ground too is a wealth of amazing natural beauty. The Green and Nolin rivers run through this expanse, where maple, oak and beech form vast stretches of dense forest, inhabited by white-tailed deer, raccoon, fox, woodchuck, and birds such as wild turkeys, owls and hawks. There's ample scope here for boating, canoeing, hiking, fishing- and caving, of course. Whether you venture underground, or stay above it, in the familiar warmth of the sun, you're going to be impressed.

In the National Park is a visitor centre, open throughout the year, except Christmas. Besides providing brochures, the centre has detailed information on the caves, their history and ecology; daily tours are also conducted by qualified ranger guides through the park and the caves.

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Entry Permits

Access to the Mammoth Cave National Park is free. Charges, however, are levied for tours through the caves, and can range from US$ 3.50 to US$ 35. Special licenses and rules apply for certain activities in the park, such as fishing. All outdoor activities- fishing, camping, horse riding, boating, canoeing, hiking and spelunking- are governed by the park administration and are subject to a long list of do's and don't's- please check at the visitor centre before embarking on any of these.

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Access

Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park lies about 56 km from the town of Bowling Green and 145 km from both Louisville and Nashville (Tennessee). All three cities have airports, although the one at Bowling Green is relatively small. Major airlines such as Delta, Continental, Air Canada and Northwest are among the carriers which connect Nashville International Airport and Louisville International Airport to destinations in the US and Canada.

Nashville, Louisville and Bowling Green also have good rail and road connections to the rest of the country, and from either of these cities, a taxi or rented car can be taken to Mammoth Cave. If you're driving down, Kentucky State Road 70 and Kentucky State Road 255 lead to the park. By bus, the town of Cave City (18 km from Mammoth Cave) is the nearest Greyhound terminal; from here, taxis are available for the park.

Within the park, there are plenty of choices for moving around. You can traverse the Green River and the Nolin River by boat or canoe- they're available for hire and can be used to explore the waters above ground. Horse riding or hiking along the marked trails of the park are also a great way to see the area.

The must-do, of course, for anybody visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, is to go caving- on an unforgettable journey of discovery through the dark passages of the cave itself. A number of guided cave tours, of varying duration and difficulty levels, are conducted by rangers through Mammoth Cave, and visitors can sign up to join one or more of these. Do note that there are restrictions on smoking and photography (the latter in certain areas), and only those who feel fit enough should venture underground. Temperatures below ground fluctuate considerably; passages can be steep, slippery and muddy; and you might be expected to crawl in places. Certain sections are open to experienced spelunkers only.

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Best time to visit

Mammoth Cave National Park is open throughout the year, though summer is the best time to go. Winters are too cold for comfort, and some facilities- including two of the park's campgrounds- are closed during this time.

Summer temperatures hover between 27 and 32C, while winter averages are usually around 4 to -1C. Peak winter, January and February, sees temperatures fall below -18C, and is accompanied by snowfall. Bring sufficient woollens when visiting the park, and be particularly careful if you're going caving; it's much colder underground.

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Accommodation

Park accommodation is offered at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, which is right opposite the visitor centre. Besides the hotel, there are four campgrounds: Houchins Ferry, Maple Springs, Dennison Ferry and Headquarters. The two latter grounds are open through the year; the others open only between December and February. All grounds offer basic amenities, including drinking water, grills, toilets and picnic tables. Maple Springs campground is the only one for which bookings are taken; the rest operate on a first come-first served basis.

More options for accommodation exist outside the park boundaries, in the form of hotels, motels and inns in nearby towns such as Cave City, Park City, Horse Cave, Smiths Grove and Brownsville. These run the gamut from economy to luxury, and you shouldn't have much trouble finding something to suit your budget.

Further information on Mammoth Cave National Park is available from the National Park Service (Tel: 1-800-365-2267). Bookings for accommodation and tours can also be made at the same phone number. Alternatively, you can contact the park administration directly, at Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (Tel: 270-758-2328). Reservations for cave tours may be made at 1-800-967-2283.


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National Parks

- Acadia National Park
- Denali National Park
- Everglades National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Redwood National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
 
State Parks
- Adirondack Park

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