When we found ourselves with a free weekend earlier this year, we decided to pull out the map and find a new National Park to visit. Mammoth Cave ticked all the boxes: within a day’s drive, and lots of ‘cool’ factor for the kids.
We were not disappointed. It was fantastic!
Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park With Kids
If you have a 4th grader in the family, be sure to sign up for Every Kid in a Park. This federal program allows for free admission to parks, seashores, monuments, etc., that fall under the care of the National Park Service. You can read more about the program here.
Mammoth Cave Features and History
Mammoth Cave is immense (as you may have gathered by the name). It is the longest cave system in the world clocking in at a whopping 405 miles in length and still going!
It’s truly an incredible place.
Mammoth Cave was established as a National Park in 1941, but of course its history reaches far beyond that. Native Americans have a 4000+-year history here, and there are some really great stories and folklore to learn about during your visit.
Today, Mammoth Cave welcomes well over half a million visitors per year and employs around 50 park rangers. There are several tours available for everyone of any physical ability, which is great.
What To Do At Mammoth Cave
Tours for Families and Younger Children
We took the Domes & Dripstones Tour ($15 for adults/$10 for kids) which is a wonderful introduction to the cave, and has lots of adventure to keep the kids interested. It’s roughly a two-hour tour that will require you to navigate lots of steps and narrow passageways, but if you can handle those things, you’ll be rewarded with some really amazing sights!
This Ranger-led tour was fantastic and was filled with great information, history, and of course, some cool cave formations. There’s even a ‘frozen waterfall’ that our kids loved. Other tours offered are the Mammoth Cave Accessible Tour and the Frozen Niagara Tour. While there are only a limited number of tours available during the winter months, spring and summer schedules offer up many more tours and activities for visitors to take advantage of. Be sure to check the schedules before you visit.
The Domes and Dripstones Tour is considered a moderately physical tour and covers a distance of 3/4 mile. Be sure that you know your limitations before attempting it. Someone on our tour over-estimated her abilities and realized after going down the first 280 stairs that this tour was not for her. Don’t make this mistake!
Adults and kids alike will love everything about this tour! It highlights some amazing features like waterfalls, enormous caverns, and creepy-crawlies like transparent cave crickets.
Tours for the More Adventurous
For families that have kids ages 16 or older, the Wild Cave Tour may be fun for you. Here’s a description from the website:
“Face the darkness – and the challenge. Journey with experienced guides and a small adult group through some of the starkly beautiful yet physically demanding “wild” areas of the cave. Climb, crawl, squeeze, hike and canyon walk in the realms of Mammoth Cave. See places no other tour encounters and feel the thrill of exploration!”
This definitely sounds like a fun challenge if you’re up for it!
You can book Mammoth Cave National Park tours ahead of your visit (recommended for busier seasons like summer) at recreation.gov. This is what we did, and it worked really well. When you arrive, pick up your tickets at the ticket desk and you'll be all set!
If the weather is cooperating and you have the time, Mammoth Cave National Park has extensive hiking trails to explore. Canoeing and kayaking on the nearby Green River are available along with fishing, camping, and horseback riding. If backcountry backpacking is your thing, you can do that also! Check out the Backcountry Guide Map.
A Note About White-Nose Syndrome
White-Nose syndrome is a disease that is affecting the bat population at the cave. From the website:
“Notice: All participants on cave tours must walk on bio-security mats immediately following the conclusion of their tour. No exceptions. This extraordinary measure is due to the confirmation of White-Nose Syndrome in Kentucky. Your assistance is required to slow the spread of this fungal disease affecting bats. Thank you for your cooperation.”
They take this very seriously, and you will be required to wipe and clean your shoes when your tour is complete to keep it from spreading. If you are taking the Wild Cave Tour, most of your gear is provided because it’s the only way they can ensure the safety of the bats living in the cave.
Other Places to Explore
Although Mammoth Cave charges for guided tours, note that there is not an entrance fee to the park at all. Visitors are welcome to stop by and hike and explore at their leisure. The historical entrance to the cave is located just behind the visitors center and guests are welcome to walk down into the cave and have a look around.
Since most, if not all, of the surface activities are free of charge, Mammoth Cave is a wonderful (and inexpensive) place for a trip with kids, a picnic, or just a walk around the outdoors. Fall is particularly great for this as the foliage is beginning to turn, and the forest is ablaze with fall color.
The visitor center is very nice and full of cool facts and exhibits about the cave, its history, and the science behind how it was created.
Inside Mammoth Cave NP Visitor Center
As one of the most studied cave systems in the world, you’ll want to check out all the interesting information about why Mammoth Cave is so unique. In addition to the walk-through exhibits, there is a small theater that shows a short film about the park that we found interesting.
I spoke with Vickie Carson, the park’s Public Information Officer, about her job with the Park Service and the reasons she loves the park. She says the Green River is really beautiful and the hiking trails through the forest are a highlight for her. Also, the tremendous history of the cave dating back thousands of years is fascinating. Vickie has been with the park since 1978 (wow!), and I can totally see why she’s stayed for this long. Just for fun, I asked what National Parks she would like to visit, and Alaska was her answer. Agreed!!
Overall, we found that Mammoth Cave was a fantastic way to spend a day with family. You can do as much or as little as you like and still make a full day of it. If you choose to explore with a guided tour, or on your own, your family will find something to love about this National Park.
Who’s Up For Some Glamping?
If you’re looking for some unique accommodation, Mammoth Cave National Park lodging options include a couple of places right in the park. The Mammoth Cave Hotel is just steps from the historic entrance to the park and offers a comfortable place to stay right in the park. They can sleep 2-5 people per room and offer rollaways if needed.
In addition to traditional hotel rooms, they offer cottages (10 total) that guests can stay in seasonally and are located next to the forest and trails, but still within walking distance of the hotel and camp store. For reservations, call 844-760-CAVE or visit their website.
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Nearby Parks, Attractions, and Places to Visit
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Things to do in Nashville, TN With Kids
For our trip, we decided to hang out in Nashville, TN for a night which was really fun. It’s only about an hour and a half drive from Mammoth Cave to downtown. After checking into our hotel, we had some dinner and strolled around enjoying all the honky-tonk and neon we could handle.
Nashville is a fun mix of country-chic that we really enjoyed. Every other shop was a boot/cowboy hat store, a great record shop, or bar with live music and a rowdy crowd.
Of course, Nashville is more than just boots and neon, but it’s all we had time for on this trip. We look forward to returning sometime for some hot chicken, the Johnny Cash Museum, and of course the Grand Ole Opry.
If you need a great place to stay in Nashville, consider the Hyatt Place Nashville Downtown. It was clean, comfortable, had a cool view, and had one of the coolest hotel lobbies I’ve seen – specially for a Hyatt Place. I mean, it doesn’t get any more ‘Nashville’ than cowhide on the check-in desk!
This hotel is in a great location right downtown and was within easy walking distance of everything we did (and wish we could have done!). Nashville, TN with kids is definitely doable, and we’ll hopefully be back sooner than later.
Bowling Green and Louisville, KY
We were only visiting for the day, but there is plenty for families to do if you had plans to be in the area longer. In addition to all the activities in and around Mammoth Cave, nearby Bowling Green is the home of the Chevrolet Corvette. If you’re into fast cars, you can take a factory tour and also visit the Corvette Museum. Bowling Green is a great home base to kick off your visit with plenty of accommodation and places to eat.
The Great Smokey Mountains
If you’re looking for more to do outdoors, Great Smokey Mountain National Park is about a 4-hour drive away near Knoxville, TN. While you’re in the area, drop by Dollywood in Pigeon Forge for a dose of adrenaline and some roller coasters.
This was a great weekend trip, and Mammoth Cave National Park was well worth the day’s drive to get there. Be sure to put it on your list, because it’s easy, fun, and cheap!
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