Our family recently took a trip to the Smoky Mountains. As we usually do on any long drive, we made a pit stop. Our stop this time was at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
Since we made this just a pit stop, we only had one day at Mammoth Cave. Actually, only a few hours by the time we arrived. However, it is a good park to visit if you do have limited time.
History of Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave is the longest-known cave system in the world with 426 miles and counting! The park ranger who led our tour says that those 426 miles are likely only half of what is actually there!
In fact, on the very day we were visiting, there were a group of researchers going in to discover what else they could find! There is still a lot that is unknown about this giant cave system.
The cave was likely first discovered around 4000 years ago by Native Americans, who made use of it for thousands of years before any European settlers arrived.
The earliest explorers of the cave mined minerals from it that were likely used in medicines and agriculture. In the caves, you can still see some of the artifacts used in the process.
Beginning in the 18th century, people started to mine saltpeter from the caves. Saltpeter was used in gunpowder, vital to the War of 1812.
After the end of the war, the cave became a tourist destination. The first known tour of Mammoth Cave was in 1816, but it didn’t become a National Park until 1941.
You can find an interesting timeline of events on the National Park’s website.
So, what should you do with one day at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky?
The main draw for Mammoth Cave National Park is obviously to tour the cave.
Mammoth Cave Tours
There are several different tours available, and I would suggest booking one ahead of time if you can. By the time we arrived, there was only one tour available that we could still book.
The tours range in length and difficulty. There is a handicap-accessible tour, although it was not running when we were there due to the elevator being out of service.
We did the Mammoth Passage Tour. A 1.25-hour tour, rated “easy” and for all ages. Tickets are $11/adult or $9/child. During the summer, you can opt to do this same tour as “self-guided” and tickets are first come, first served.
The tour started with a walk down to the cave entrance from the Visitor’s Center. At the entrance to the cave, the park ranger talked a little bit about the cave and then about the rules for being inside the cave.
One of those rules that is important to know ahead of time (if you brought a little one) is that back-carrying baby carriers are not allowed in the cave! I had brought the Tula carrier for our daughter and had to wear her on the front (which wasn’t the most comfortable since she is a 3-year-old!)
Anyway, we were visiting just before Christmas, so we were pretty lucky to get to see the cave decorated with a Christmas tree! Definitely a unique and cool sight!
Our tour guide/ranger led us through the largest part of the cave (the reason for its name Mammoth Passage) and talked about its history. Along the way, there are artifacts to view and signs to read.
We were surprised at how big our tour group was. We’ve toured a lot of caves, and never has there been this large of a group! About 50 people total. But I guess that’s to be expected at a National Park!
At the end of the tour, we were able to wander around a little bit on our own to read the signage and take photos. Afterward, we went back out the same way we came in.
When exiting the cave, everyone must go through the shoe-washing station. This is to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats. Mammoth Cave has sadly lost up to 95% of its bat population to this disease.
After washing off your shoes, you just continue up the hill that you came down from the Visitor’s Center.
If we had still had a choice of tours that day, we would have liked to do the Historic Tour, rated moderate difficulty, for all ages. It’s a 2-hour tour.
Had we had more than one day at Mammoth Cave National Park, not had a 3-year-old along, and booked ahead of time, we would have liked to try the difficult 4-hour Grand Historic Tour (must be 6+ years old) or one of the lantern tours.
You can find available tours here. Not all tours are available at all times and tickets do sell out!
Tours take place at specific times, so while you are waiting around for your tour to begin, or have some time after it ends, make sure you wander around the Visitor’s Center to check out all the exhibits.
Mammoth Cave Visitor’s Center
All of the tours depart from the Visitor Center. This is also where you can find a gift shop and restrooms.
Before we started our tour, we had about 45 minutes to kill. We were able to walk through all the exhibits and learn more about the cave’s history.
There were some interactive exhibits, a video to watch, and a little cave hole for the kids to climb through from one room to another.
There were two small gift shops inside the visitor center. We got a new sticker for our Wander Wagon and the kids each made a pressed penny.
View the Wildlife
On our way out of the park, we noticed some deer grazing around a little picnic area. There were people standing right up close to them, so we stopped to check them out.
It turns out the other couple was feeding them corn. I don’t know how I feel about feeding the wildlife, even if it is something they would naturally eat, but the kids loved being able to get up close and watch this pair of deer.
We sat and watched the deer for a little while and enjoyed the sunset before heading out of the park.
Mammoth Cave National Park Things to Do with More Time
Other than the cave tours and Visitor’s Center, there are hiking trails, and activities along the Green River such as fishing or kayaking, horseback riding, and bicycling.
We didn’t have time to experience any of these things on this trip, but since this park is relatively close to us, we will definitely be back!
Mammoth Cave National Park Hiking
There are several trails in the Visitor’s Center area / south side of the park. All these trails are short but can be combined to make longer hikes.
See a historic train engine on the 0.2-mile, handicap-accessible Engine No. 4 Trail. Take the Historic Entrance Trail to the River Styx Spring Trail to see the historic cave entrance (you can’t enter without a guide), see the River Styx Spring, and get a view of the Green River.
Another trail at Mammoth Cave that is great for kids (and is handicap-accessible) is the popular Sunset Point Trail. It’s a flat boardwalk trail that’s only 0.3 miles. If you want to continue hiking from here, just follow one of the signs leading to another Mammoth Cave National Park hiking trail.
One of the things I would have loved to do was the “Beneath Your Feet” program. You start by downloading the NPS app. All around the park, there are signs you can scan with your app that will tell you what is beneath your feet in that spot! So cool!
Update: We came back during summer, and did the 1-mile Echo River Springs Loop Trail, which was really pretty scenery, is mostly paved, and has a couple of boardwalks. This trail starts at the Green River Ferry.
Kayak or Canoe the Green River
There are several privately owned kayak outfitters that operate within the national park.
At Adventures of Mammoth Cave, the shortest trip is 3-4 hours. Their website says it’s a great trip for beginners and families with small children. There are no rapids, and there is a canoe-accessible cave (depending on current water levels.) Their trips are open year-round.
Zipline or do an Aerial Course
The Aerial Challenge Course has 27 challenges that progress in difficulty. I didn’t find any information on an age limit, but it definitely looks like something for older kids and adults!
There is also a 5-line zipline canopy tour that puts you up to 100 feet off the ground. There is a special kid-friendly zipline course for children 35-85 pounds.
Go for a Trail Ride on Horseback
At Jesse James Riding Stables in Cave City, ages 6 and up can ride the trails for $30/person (prices accurate as of July 2023) and ages 2-5 can ride double with a parent for an extra $5.
At the same parking area, you can also play a round of mini golf as well as tour the Outlaw Cave.
Visit other Tourist Attractions
On our summer trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, the kids’ favorite thing we did was visit the Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo. Here you can pet and feed kangaroos and wallabies, feed rainbow lorikeets, goats, sheep, and more! We rented a golf cart to drive around the place, and it was well worth it!
I would advise doing this activity earlier in the day because when we got there, the animals were mostly full from being fed so much already, and just lounging around.
At Dinosaur World in Cave City, wander among life-sized dinosaurs in a natural setting, and play on the dinosaur-themed playground. And leashed dogs are welcome here!
Explore other Nearby Caves
Besides Mammoth Cave, there are several other caves in the area to visit. If you are driving through Cave City, you will see plenty of billboards advertising different options, such as the Crystal Onyx Cave and Rock Shop, Diamond Caverns, and Lost River Cave in nearby Bowling Green, which has an underground boat tour!
If you only have one short day at Mammoth Cave, my suggestion would be to do one of the cave tours, experience one of the walking trails, and pick one other activity that suits you – whether it’s petting a kangaroo, horseback riding, or ziplining!
Have you been to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky? What would you add as a must-do experience?
Next, read one of these related posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to National Parks for Families
- Explore Columbus Belmont State Park in Kentucky
- Yellowstone National Park in One Day
- Talon Falls Christmas in Kentucky
- 25+ Fun Things to Do Around Hot Springs National Park with Kids
- Essential Road Trip Tips for Families to Stay Entertained and Sane
If you plan to visit this national park, consider pinning this for later!