American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Subterranean Adventures in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave
On a recent trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, my husband, Dan, and I eagerly renewed our America The Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For just $80, this annual pass will allow us free access to all federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee of some kind – including an assortment of national park units, national forests, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Although children under 16 are admitted onto federal recreation sites at no charge, the passes can save families a lot of money over the course of a year. After all, each pass, which can be obtained at any participating park or by calling 888/ASK-USGS (888/275-8747), admits the passholder (who must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident) and up to three adult passengers in a noncommercial vehicle. Since purchasing our own annual pass a couple weeks ago, we've already saved $20 in entrance fees to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Of course, you don't actually need the pass for one of my favorite national parks. Situated in southern Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park (1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy., Mammoth Cave, 270/758-2180) charges no entrance fee for many of its aboveground features, including verdant forests, various hiking and equestrian trails, and two picturesque rivers, the Green and the Nolin. Still, although I've always been fond of the landscape in this part of Kentucky, it's the world beneath the surface that interests me most. As I mentioned last summer, exploring such caves is also a terrific way to escape the summertime heat. No matter the time of year, most of Mammoth Cave is constantly cool, with temperatures usually in the mid-50s.
With over 365 miles of twisting passageways and airy chambers, Mammoth Cave is the largest known cave system in the world. To experience it properly, you should opt for one of the many subterranean tours available through the visitor center. On our first visit to Mammoth Cave, Dan and I participated in two very different expeditions: the family-friendly Violet City Lantern Tour ($15 adults, $11 children 6-12, $7.50 seniors) and the three-hour Introduction to Caving Tour ($23 adults, $18 children 6-12, $11.50 seniors), the latter of which left us dirty but exhilarated. Depending on the time of year, Mammoth Cave National Park offers more than a dozen different tours, ranging from the hourlong Mammoth Passage Tour ($5 adults, $3.50 children 6-12, $2.50 seniors) to the strenuous, six-hour Wild Cave Tour ($48 adults, $24 seniors). Just be advised that you must be at least 16 years old to participate in the Wild Cave Tour, and unfortunately, none of the cave tours are currently wheelchair-accessible.
If you're planning to spend at least part of your family vacation in this wonderful region, rest assured that you'll find plenty of places to lay your head. Besides the accommodations in surrounding communities like Cave City, you'll also have access to several campgrounds ($12-22 daily) in Mammoth Cave as well as the on-site Mammoth Cave Hotel (270/758-2225, $79-104 d), which offers standard rooms in addition to cottages.
Although it's my favorite, Mammoth Cave certainly isn't the only cave system preserved by the National Park Service (NPS). Others include Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah, Oregon Caves National Monument in Oregon, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, and Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama. No matter where you go, though, there are some important caving guidelines to keep in mind. To preserve these intriguing underworlds, avoid touching fragile formations, refrain from leaving any trash behind, and never wear shoes and clothing previously worn in other caves and mines (due to the possible spreading of the White-Nose Syndrome, which is deadly to resident bats). To protect yourself, always travel with others, tell at least two people where you’re going, bring at least three different light sources with you, and if you ever get lost, stay in one place so that your group can find you.
For more information about cave conservation and safety, consult the National Speleological Society. For more information about Kentucky's other amazing attractions, consult the Kentucky Department of Travel (Capital Plaza Tower, 22nd Fl., 500 Mero St., Frankfort, 800/225-8747). Don't forget, too, to purchase your annual America The Beautiful pass, which will ensure your family's access to the entire, 84 million-acre National Park System, including the two cave systems that charge entrance fees: Carlsbad Caverns ($6 per vehicle) and Timpanogos Cave ($6 per vehicle). If you're really lucky, you might even win an annual pass from Moon Travel Guides. Of course, if you're a senior citizen (aged 62 and older), you can purchase a lifetime pass for only $10, while disabled individuals can secure one at no charge.
Stay tuned this week for more tips about my favorite national parks!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of cave coral in Mammoth Cave National Park / Text © 2010 Laura Martone