Nestled in the rolling hills of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park offers 52,830 acres of a biodiverse wonderland. The park is home to the longest known cave-system in the world. Steeped in history, the park has drawn visitors for thousands of years.
Here is our guide on how to explore Mammoth Cave National Park.
Getting to Mammoth Cave National Park
From Detroit, expect around a six-hour drive via I-75. Your trip will take you past Toledo, Cincinnati and Louisville. Cincinnati is about halfway to Mammoth Cave and offers a wealth of fun family activities like the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the Coney Island Water Park. Your family may also enjoy a pit stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory or, for horse enthusiasts, Churchill Downs.
There are also plenty of lovely rest stops that will offer everyone the opportunity to stretch their legs. We always keep a football on hand for my boys to play a quick game of pass during pit stops.
What families love about Mammoth Cave National Park
The Visitor Center should be your very first stop. It is a beautiful, large facility that features a small, but mighty museum including exhibits about the history of the area, native animals and bugs (both above ground and below ground), and the art of spelunking. There is a gift shop full of both Mammoth Cave and National Park treasures.
At the gift shop, you will also find a stamp station for your National Park Passport. (Don’t worry, if you don’t have one yet, you can buy one there.) In the middle of the facility is a help desk staffed by park rangers. You can ask them questions about activities and they will provide you with maps and guides. The Visitor Center and the park are free to enter.
Before you leave the Visitor Center, make sure to pick up The Junior Ranger Workbook. During your visit, your kids can use it to reflect on what they learned and saw. On your last day, they can bring their completed book to the help desk and a ranger will look through it and ask them questions about their adventure through the park. The ranger will then ask your children to raise their right hand for the ranger oath. Have your cameras ready because it is a very official and adorable moment. They will receive a pin and a certificate. Best part: it’s all free! Of course, there is also a section in the gift shop dedicated to junior ranger gear, including pint-sized ranger hats and vests.
Although you can explore a part of the cave on your own for only $8, you will feel much more satisfied with a longer, ranger-led tour. This requires a little pre-planning. Be sure to visit the tour website at least a month in advance. People come from all over the world to see the cave, and the tours sell out quickly!
My family loved The Historic Tour, which took us two miles through the cave. We learned about how Indigenous people used the cave and the first early explorers. We even saw some of those early explorers’ etched names from the 1800s. Another fun tour, with a lot less walking, was The Wondering Woods Tour. This tour includes a narrated bus ride through the park to a small, isolated cave with shiny stalagmites and stalactites.
Besides exploring the world underground, be sure to explore the gorgeous park above ground.
Echo River Springs Trail, just under a mile, takes hikers to where Mammoth Cave’s underground river, Echo River, emerges creating Echo River Spring.
If you don’t mind stairs and are up to a fairly rugged hike, Cedar Sink Trail will lead you into a stunningly enormous sinkhole dressed up in an abundance of wildflowers throughout the warm seasons.
By far, our favorite trail was Sloan’s Crossing Pond Walk. It’s really a very short trail around an unassuming pond, but it is brimming with wildlife. We enjoyed every minute on this leisurely hike. We made acquaintance with frogs, tadpoles, snakes, birds, ducks and squirrels. At the end of the trail, we found Ranger Scientists who were working in the pond and were more than happy to answer all 500 of my boys’ questions.
The park also features some beautiful mountain biking paths. If you have a bike, bring it! If you are a road biker, you are in luck. Mammoth Cave is included in two US Bicycle Routes. The Trans-America Bicycle Trail spans 4,228 miles across the U.S., coast to coast and passes right through the park. The Cave Country Bicycle Route will take you 109 miles through Kentucky’s Cave Region.
If you want to cool off, head to Kentucky’s first national water trail, The Green and Nolin Rivers Blueway. This water trail can be accessed at multiple locations, and it runs for 36 miles. If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, there are many outfitters in the area where you can rent equipment.
Finally, it is a good idea to bring a ball or frisbee, some portable outdoor yard games and a blanket for resting or picnicking. The Visitor Center has many open spaces where you can spread out while you wait for a tour to begin or to relax and enjoy the day.
Where to stay near Mammoth Cave
Campers and backpackers will love the many options at the park. If you want to be within walking distance of the Visitor Center, Mammoth Cave Campground is just a 10- to 15-minute walk. There is a store/restaurant/restroom/shower facility on the grounds. The only drawback is that it is very close to the main road that goes through the park, and it is not a heavily wooded area. This is a spot for campers who like to mix and mingle.
For campers who want a more peaceful environment, check out Houchin Ferry Campground, which lies next to the Green River. There are just 12 tent-only sites here, and it is a 20-minute drive to the visitor center. For backpackers, there are 13 backcountry-designated sites. These sites require a hike or boat ride to get to, but the views are worth it.
Right next to the visitor center is The Mammoth Cave Lodge. When we visited the hotel and cottages were undergoing renovations. While we didn’t stay there (they were all booked up), I would recommend it. It is an affordable, comfortable option that puts you in the center of it all.
We stayed at The Holiday Inn Express in Horse City, about 20 minutes away from the park. It was perfect for my family. The free breakfast was great and the large, heated pool and hot tub kept my boys entertained for hours before bedtime. They met a lot of other kids their age at the pool who were also visiting the park. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to sit on a lounge chair and read while they played. It is just one of many hotels in the surrounding area so you’ll find something to suit your family, too.
Where to eat near Mammoth Cave
There is a food shack next to the Visitor Center that offers backyard barbecue foods, such as hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken. There are plenty of picnic tables and places to spread a blanket in the sun or shade. Honestly, this was one of our favorite meals of the trip. There is nothing like a juicy burger after a long day of hiking. The boys passed the football and climbed trees while we took our time enjoying the meal.
I would recommend visiting a local grocery store to pack a picnic for at least one or two meals. Alongside many of the picnic tables scattered around the park are grills perfect for roasting marshmallows for s’mores.
My boys were unreasonably excited about eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky and they took quite a few pictures and selfies while doing so. There is one near the park on Mammoth Cave Street. There is also a Pizza Hut, A&W and a Cracker Barrel nearby.
If you are looking for local fare, you can’t beat Bucky Bee’s, a family-owned restaurant with delicious Kentucky barbecue and outdoor seating. You can’t miss with “Buckingham’s Mammoth Sampler,” which includes three baby back ribs, 1/2 pound of chopped beef brisket, a Little Piggie pulled pork sandwich, one pork chop, a piece of grilled chicken and served with four side choices and two bread choices. This $33 meal just might feed the whole family.
For a special treat, visit Farmwald’s Restaurant, Dutch Bakery and Gift Shop in Horse City. Everything here is made fresh daily. The restaurant provides hearty, southern-style cooking. If you are a biscuits-and-gravy person, make a point to have breakfast here one day. The bakery offers pies in every flavor, homemade ice cream, cookies and yummy doughnuts. The gift shop features goods created by local Amish crafters.
If you are lucky enough to visit this awesome place, I guarantee you that you will leave wondering why you hadn’t visited sooner. Safe travels!
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