Article Overview: Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
The things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park take you through the longest cave in the world. The cave runs 430 miles–that’s nearly the distance from New York City to Buffalo, New York!
More technically called the Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System, this vast subterranean world is the centerpiece of Mammoth Cave National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.
Situated on central Kentucky’s Pennyroyal (or Mississippian) Plateau, the cave system occupies multiple layers of weathered- and eroded-out limestone roofed by a protective caprock of sandstone. The caves, caverns, and sinkholes are visible above and below ground in this unique national park.
In this guide, we’ll run down the top things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park, including the surprisingly rich roster of activities available above ground.
Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
Table of Contents: Things to do in Mammoth Cave
Table of contents: Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
- Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
- Top 15 Things to Do in Mammoth Cave National Park
- 15. Explore Backcountry Trails on Horseback
- 14. Walk the Historic Violet City Tour
- 13. Tour Great Onyx Cave
- 12. Explore the Secrets of Cedar Sink
- 11. Take a Ride on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail
- 10. Go Leaf-Peeping at Sunset Point
- 9. Backpack Collie Ridge
- 8. Go Stargazing
- 7. Hike the Sand Cave Trail
- 6. See the River Styx
- 5. Go Solo on the Discovery Tour
- 4. Paddle the Green River
- 3. Take the Frozen Niagara Tour
- 2. Take the Grand Avenue Tour
- 1. Experience a Wild Cave Tour
- FAQ – Things to Do in Mammoth Cave National Park
- Map Of Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
- Summary of Things to Do In Mammoth Cave
- Pin Things to Do In Mammoth Cave
- Top 15 Things to Do in Mammoth Cave National Park
Things to Know Before You Visit Mammoth Cave National Park
There is no entrance fee for Mammoth Cave National Park, but some activities and tours will come with charges. If you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months, I suggest you purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more, including 2,000 sites for free after a one-time $80 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one, which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, Earth 🙂
The Best Guide Book for Mammoth Cave National Park is this one which we’ve marked up and highlighted quite a bit.
The Best Map: I like this map best for Mammoth Cave National Park.
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps; this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Mammoth Cave National Park
Where to Stay: This is our favorite hotel in/around Mammoth Cave National Park.
Top 15 Things to Do in Mammoth Cave National Park
15. Explore Backcountry Trails on Horseback
No, you’re not in the Kentucky Bluegrass, but you aren’t all that far away, either! Mammoth Cave National Park welcomes equestrians, with the extensive backcountry trail network north of the Green River open to riders and some nice horse-camping opportunities available.
If you don’t have your own steeds, licensed outfitters operate guided horseback rides in the park. It’s a memorable way to experience the rolling forests overlying the world-famous cave network. One of the park’s developed front-country campgrounds, Maple Springs, offers equestrian camping, and meanwhile, horseback riders can also camp in the backcountry.
Spending some time in the saddle is among the most enjoyable things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park!
14. Walk the Historic Violet City Tour
This is one of the best tours in Mammoth Cave if you don’t mind the challenge but could do without the tight spaces. For three hours, you’ll walk through lantern-lit wide passageways. The goal is to offer a tour as if you were a cavern pioneer exploring for the first time.
In this situation, you should consider this more of a hike than a tour. The trail goes for three miles, there aren’t a lot of handrails or paved trails, and you’ll cover many underground hills. You are also asked not to use flashlights here to keep the authenticity of the historic tour.
For those (like me) who can get easily spooked, you should learn about the tuberculosis hospital that was once housed underground here. The huts of the patients still stand, and “corpse rock” is where their bodies were laid after they passed. It’s just not a story I’d like to come across in a dark, deep cavern with only a lantern.
13. Tour Great Onyx Cave
Not known to connect to the Mammoth system, the Great Onyx Cave is nonetheless tantalizingly close by. Among the most interesting things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park is to take the guided lantern tour of its standalone majesty.
From the Hall of Giants to Helictite Hall, the Great Onyx Cave is beautiful in its own right. But the history here is also part of the draw. This was a longtime show cave, not acquired by the National Park Service until 1960—more than 40 years after it was discovered.
Onyx Cave is known for its sparkling rocks that glisten in lantern light. It’s a magical and educational tour wrapped up into one of the best activities in Mammoth Cave, which technically is a separate cavern.
12. Explore the Secrets of Cedar Sink
You’d think with the world’s longest cave, most of the things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park would be below ground. However, the shocking popularity of the trails, like the unique formations at Cedar Sink, has led to the park rethinking its trail management plan.
“We have over 85 miles of trails which have increased in popularity over the last several years. We need the plan so we can maintain consistent trail design, note where there is erosion and see where trail braiding is occurring.”Molly Schroer, Mammoth Cave National park public information officer
Set near the southern edge of Mammoth Cave National Park, Cedar Sink would be worth visiting for its geologic significance and enigmatic landscape alone. It’s an enormous, roughly 300-foot-deep sinkhole, a common karst landform, created by weathering collapses on an overlying layer of rock. At the same time, it’s an easy trail with just one mile to explore.
But the trail to Cedar Sink—cool enough for its stairway descent into the vast wooded pit and for traverses along its ledged, alcoved rim—is most celebrated as a showcase for spring and summer wildflowers.
11. Take a Ride on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail
Accessible from the park visitor as well as the Mammoth Cave Parkway and Park City, Kentucky, the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail provides a pleasant nine-mile corridor for cyclists looking to work a little pedal-powered action into their visit.
The paved, multi-use path traces part of the old line of the Mammoth Cave Railroad, which ran from 1886 until 1931 and brought tourists to Mammoth Cave and other local show caves.
One of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park for families, outdoorsy types, and, naturally, dyed-in-the-wool cyclists, the trail also affords historical sites and walking paths across nine miles.
10. Go Leaf-Peeping at Sunset Point
Come mid-to-late October, the foliage of Mammoth Cave National Park’s impressively diverse forest and woodland canopies begin putting on a typically dazzling show of seasonal color. The park happens to be a great place to enjoy a side of “leaf-peeping” with your cave explorations.
From American beeches, sugar maples, and tulip poplars to various oaks and hickories, there’s a nice range of colors, hues, and timing when it comes to fall foliage here. And it’s easy to appreciate, whether via a scenic drive or a contemplative hike. Few spots offer a better vantage during peak autumn color than Sunset Point, reached by a short, easy walk.
Not least for photographers, leaf-peeping is one of the most rewarding things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park during the shoulder season.
9. Backpack Collie Ridge
Collie Ridge is one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park that’s above ground and designed for backcountry explorers. Better than 60 miles of trails lace through the ridge-and-hollow backcountry of the park’s northern sector.
Dayhiking’s totally worthwhile, but we suggest overnighting it if you can at one of the numerous backpacking campsites. A fine choice for getting into the Mammoth Cave wilds is the Collie Ridge Trail, which climbs up onto the namesake ridge from the Lincoln Trailhead. The trail runs at least four miles, but figure in some added time for spur trails.
It’s a view-rich route, but also recommended on account you can loop in a variety of other paths, including the Mill Branch, Spring Hollow, and Buffalo Creek trails, to weave together hiking itineraries of various lengths. The Collie Ridge Campsite makes a nice backcountry hangout for a night or two.
HIKING NOTE: One thing that sets Mammoth Cave National Park’s above-ground landscape is the extensive of karst topography on the trails. You don’t get that much of a luxury at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but the trails are still very cool.
8. Go Stargazing
Certain National Parks like to brag that “half the park is after dark,” and that’s why stargazing shouldn’t be overlooked as one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park.
In 2021, the International Dark-Sky Association declared Mammoth Cave an International Dark Sky Park, recognizing the quality of its night skies and its commitment to ongoing protection.
So from a campsite, or perhaps at one of the ranger-led Star Parties regularly offered in the peak season, spare some time for admiring the Summer Triangle, the red fire of Antares, the moons of Jupiter, a meteor shower, or the scrawl of the Milky Way above the karst country.
Be sure to bring a stargazing flashlight to keep light pollution to a minimum and still be able to see where you’re walking.
7. Hike the Sand Cave Trail
Never in my life did I think I’d put a 0.3-mile roundtrip boardwalk to an unassuming cave mouth on the list of things to do at Mammoth Cave. That was before I went down a two-hour rabbit hole about the Sand Cave Trail and its erie, tragic, and sensational history. I was happy to find out I wasn’t alone in my macabre fascination with this literal hole in the ground.
“The history is way more interesting than the trail, but I had to check it out after hearing it on a National Park After Dark podcast.”Tiffany Trueblood-Adkins Review on alltrails.com
Please note–there isn’t a happy ending here, and I’m rather claustrophobic to the point I’m gasping for air as I write this.
The trail kiosks will give you the full backstory, which has inspired everything from books to a musical. But, it surrounds a man named Floyd Collins, who owned one “show cave” and wanted another in a better location.
On January 30, 1925, Floyd entered Sand Cave. It would be the last light of day he’d ever see. Once inside, Collins found himself belly-down, barely crawling through a space that hugged his body. One arm splain in front of his, the other trapped at his side. He made it through. The cave was impressive.
He was trapped by the rock on all sides 60 feet below ground. As Collins made the return scooch through the tight crawlspace, he unlodged a rock that pinned his ankle. A two-week rescue effort followed, with up to 10,000 looky-lo0s coming to see the rescue that would never happen. His body was found on February 16.
If that story fascinates you as it did thousands of others, you can also visit the Floyd Collins Homestead at Mammoth Cave National Park.
6. See the River Styx
An iteration of Greek mythology makes its way as one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park. The River Styz is but one of a number of subterranean rivers flowing through the Mammoth Cave system, eventually meeting up with the Green River.
In periods of reverse flow, water from the Green River moves up into the River Styx, which then runs into another of the cave’s subterranean channels, the Echo River.
It’s impossibly cool (and somehow also a bit unsettling) to see an underground river flowing through a cave passage. Additionally, the Rivers Styx and Echo demonstrate in real-time part of the process by which Mammoth Cave formed (and continues to form).
When conditions allow, park rangers periodically lead a 2.5-hour, 2.5-mile River Styx Tour that follows the Mammoth Cave Historic Tour route but also adds a detour to view the river in lantern light. (Back in the day, there were even boat tours of Mammoth Cave’s underground rivers, but logistical and environmental concerns eventually put a stop to those.)
5. Go Solo on the Discovery Tour
Most of the opportunities to see the Mammoth Cave system come via guided ranger-led tours. But on and off during the summer, the park opens the Discovery Tour for self-guided walkabouts underground. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most rewarding things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park at your own pace.
The Discovery Tour accesses the cave system via the Historic Entrance and serves as the self-guided version of the Mammoth Passage Tour. You’ll see a variety of exhibits and displays, including World War I monuments, the Saltpeter Vats, and the artifacts showcased in Audubon Avenue.
IMPORTANT: Even though the tour is self-guided, you still need a ticket with a designated entry time.
4. Paddle the Green River
Go above ground for one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave and paddle the Green River or its tributary, the Nolin.
Honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air or a nice alternative for those who don’t like caves. The Green River runs about 25 sandbar- and islet-studded miles.
Overnighter or not, you’ll be paddling your way through a pretty remarkable riverine ecosystem. Additionally, the Green ranks among the most biologically diverse rivers in the U.S., boasting more than 150 species of fish and 70-plus kinds of freshwater mussels.
3. Take the Frozen Niagara Tour
The Frozen Niagara Tour is one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park for those who want an easy walk with a big reward.
A bit north of an hour (and involving only a dozen stairs), this long-running foray underground along the southeastern flanks of Mammoth Cave Ridge shows off some drop-dead gorgeous formations.
Those include abundant flowstone draperies, not least the Frozen Niagara itself, plus many stalactites and stalagmites. Standout landmarks include Onyx Colonnade, Crystal Lake, Moonlight Dome, and Showerback Spring.
2. Take the Grand Avenue Tour
The longest of the walking tours offered, the Grand Avenue Tour is definitely one of the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park for those with the physical ability and time.
Combining the Frozen Niagara and Domes & Dripstones tours, this tour is four hours long. At the same time, it serves as a comprehensive subterranean introduction to karst formations.
It’s a bit of a workout, with all the up-and-down passageways and some 1,300 stairs. However, you’ll get great value for your time with the features you’ll see. Those include amazing dripstone and flowstone features, tight slot passages and halls, and gypsum-glittering tunnels.
1. Experience a Wild Cave Tour
The Wild Cave Tour is the premier thing to do in Mammoth Cave National Park, but it’s definitely not for everybody. For starters, it’s not for kids younger than 16 years old or anyone with chest or hip measurements beyond 42 inches.
The 5.5 miles in six hours includes the arduousness of off-trail scrambling and squeezing through extremely narrow passageways. Obviously, the Wild Cave Tour also demands a certain base level of physical fitness and comfort with tight spaces.
The payoff is a hardcore guided exploration into parts of Mammoth Cave your average tourist isn’t ever going to see. The park provides much of the necessary garb for this crawling tour—helmets, headlamps, coveralls, and knee pads. Keep in mind that you must have proper footwear, including lace-up hiking boots covering your ankles with “aggressive tread.”
FAQ – Things to Do in Mammoth Cave National Park
The temperature stays a consistent 54°F year-round, and you’ll want to bring a jacket if you’re visiting when it’s hot and muggy outside.
It is strongly recommended you reserve your tickets through Recreation.gov. That will ensure you have a spot on the tour. Those who purchase tickets the day of could find very limited options, especially in spring and summer.
As you plot your Mammoth Cave itinerary, you should look at the options on each side of the river and choose your driving route. If you do need to cross the river for a trail or campground, you can do so almost every day of the year. The ferry is free and does shuttle cars, too.
Map Of Things to Do in Mammoth Cave
Summary of Things to Do In Mammoth Cave
- Wild Cave Tour
- Grand Avenue
- Frozen Niagara
- Green River
- Discovery Tour
- River Styx
- Sand Cave Trail
- Collie Ridge
- Leaf-peering at Sunset Point
- Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail
- Great Onyx Cave
- Cedar Sink
- Violet City Tour
- Horseback Backcountry
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