Julie United States 22 Comments

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest cave system, with over 400 miles of explored caves and passageways. On a visit to Mammoth Cave, explore this subterranean world of immense rooms, long canyons, and tight passageways and learn why it is called a “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place” by Stephen Bishop, Mammoth Cave’s most famous guide and explorer.

In order to explore Mammoth Cave, you will have to join a tour, of which there are many. If this is your first visit to the cave, picking the right tour can feel overwhelming. In this guide, we list your various options and give you some recommendations based on your travel style and time available.Touring the cave is the main attraction, but there are also miles of above ground trails that wind through the hills and forests in the area.

With one day, you can take one or two tours of the cave and walk the nature trails. Two days allows you to spend more time in the underground world of Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave NP

Interesting Facts about Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest cave system and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mammoth Cave was established as a national park on July 1, 1941 although people have been touring the caves since the 1800’s.

Currently, over 400 miles of the cave system have been explored and mapped, with new discoveries being made all of the time.

It is a constant 54°F year-round inside of Mammoth Cave.

Bats dwell inside of the cave. However, a disease called White-Nose Syndrome has drastically reduced their numbers. At the conclusion of the tour, you will walk across medicated mats to help avoid the spread of this disease (this disease does not affect humans).

Mammoth Cave

Geology of Mammoth Cave

Many caves are famous for their stunning array of rocky formations, stalactites that defy gravity and the stalagmites that have slowly been rising up from the cave floor for millennia.

Mammoth Cave is different.

Yes, you can see stalactites and stalagmites here, but they are not the main attraction. And there’s a reason for that.

A giant roof of shale and sandstone form the upper cap of the cave system in Mammoth Cave. This rocky layer acts as an umbrella, preventing the slow dripping of water into the cave. It is the action of water that forms stalactites and stalagmites. Without the water, you don’t get these formations.

Instead, Mammoth Cave is long series of subterranean rooms and passageways. They twist and turn like strands of spaghetti, weaving their way through the Earth’s crust. Some rooms are enormous and some passageways are just large enough for a small person to squeeze through.

The fun of visiting Mammoth Cave comes in exploring these passageways and seeing the sheer size of the rooms. If you really want to see stalactites and stalagmites, take the Frozen Niagara or Domes and Dripstones tour.

Tour Options at Mammoth Cave

Summer and Winter Season

There are two seasons of operation at Mammoth Cave: winter and summer.

Summer is the most popular time to visit, so more tours are available during this time of year.

Winter is quieter. Fewer tours are offered, but there are also a lot fewer visitors, so this just may be the best time of year to visit. And with temperatures a constant 54°F inside of the cave, you can still have a very pleasant visit during mid-winter.

I recommend checking the National Park Service website for updated hours and available tours during each of these seasons. 

Make your tour reservations in advance because they do sell out.

Important! The tours listed below are not all offered year round, either because they are offered on a seasonal basis or because of construction projects in the cave. I do my best to keep this post updated, but tour offerings can change at any time and I recommend that you get updates on the National Park service website.

Tour Options

You can only visit the cave system of Mammoth Cave on a tour. Take your pick from 15 different tours. Here is an overview of each tour.

It can be overwhelming trying to choose from such a long list. At the end of this section, I will give you our recommendations, based on our experience and with talking with several park rangers at Mammoth Cave (or skip ahead now).

Below is a map of the cave. The caves and tunnels are color-coded by tour. Note, there are several different entrances into the cave and the tours and tour times include you transportation to and from these entrances. 


Historic Tour

Duration: 2 hours
Distance: 2 miles
Total Stairs: 440
Tour Limit: 110 people

The Historic Tour is one of the most popular tours at Mammoth Cave. This tour starts at the “main entrance,” also called the Historic entrance, into Mammoth Cave. Follow in the footsteps of other visitors who have been touring the cave for the past 200 years. On this tour, you will learn about the history of the cave (it’s surprisingly fascinating), see the Bottomless Pit, Mammoth Dome, squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery, crouch through Tall Man’s Misery, and see the old saltpeter mines.

Photos from the Historic Tour

Historic Entrance

Historic entrance


Historic Tour

Fat Mans Misery

Tim in Fat Man’s Misery


Tall Man's Misery

Tim in Tall Man’s Misery

Frozen Niagara Tour

Duration: 1.25 hours
Distance: 0.25 miles
Total Stairs: 12, plus an optional 98
Tour Limit: 30

If you want to see stalactites and stalagmites and don’t want to go on a long tour or do a lot of walking, this is a great option for you. The 1.25 hour tour time includes 30 minutes on a shuttle bus (included with the tour) to and from the entrance, with roughly 45 minutes spent inside of Mammoth Cave. The highlight is seeing Mammoth Cave’s best display of decorative formations in Frozen Niagara and the Drapery Room.

Domes and Dripstones

Duration: 2 hours
Distance: 0.75 miles
Total Stairs: 500
Tour Limit: 110

This is very similar to Frozen Niagara, only on this tour you get to journey farther into the cave. You start off descending down into the depths of the cave on a series of steel staircases. All the while, you are walking through drippy, moist caverns. Finally, you emerge at Frozen Niagara and the Drapery Room, also featured on the Frozen Niagara tour.

Photos from the Domes and Dripstones Tour

Domes and Dripstones

Mini Waterfall


Drapery Room

Frozen Niagara

Cleaveland Avenue Tour

Duration: 2 hours
Distance: 1 mile
Total Steps: 200
Tour Limit: 38

On this small tour, you will descend down into gypsum-encrusted Cleaveland Avenue, see the Snowball room, and then take an elevator ride back to the surface.

Grand Avenue Tour

Duration: 4 hours
Distance: 4 miles
Total Stairs: 700
Tour Limit: 78

This is longest standard tour at Mammoth Cave. It’s so long that they offer bathrooms stops (yes, there are restrooms inside of the cave). On this tour, walk down Cleaveland Avenue, Boone Avenue, and Kentucky Avenue, and a high point in the cave referred to as Mt. McKinley. This tour ends with a visit to Frozen Niagara and the Drapery Room.

If you like the idea of going on a “hike” in a cave and seeing some “less touristy” parts of the cave, this is a good option for you. However, four hours underground will feel like a very long time for some people.

Accessible Tour

Duration: 2 hours
Distance: 0.5 miles
Total Stairs: none
Tour Limit: 14

This tour is for those people with mobility issues or a physical disability. An elevator eliminates the need to climb or descend stairs. On this tour, you will visit sections of the Grand Avenue Tour route.

Gothic Avenue Tour

Duration: 2 hours
Distance: 1 mile
Total Stairs: 230
Tour Limit: 40

Enter through the Historic entrance, pass through the Rotunda, and enter Gothic Avenue. In this section of the cave you get to see “historical graffiti,” candle-written signatures and artifacts left behind from the nineteenth century.

Discovery Self-Guided Tour

Duration: 30 minutes
Distance: 0.75 miles
Total Stairs: 160
Tour Limit: none

This tour is offered during the busy summer months for visitors who just want a quick visit to Mammoth Cave. Enter through the Historic Entrance, see the Rotunda and explore a canyon passageway on this fast, self-guided tour.

Mammoth Passage Tour

Duration: 1.25 hours
Distance: 0.75 miles
Total Stairs: 160
Tour Limit: 70

This tour is a combination of the Discovery Self-Guided tour with several elements of the Historic Tour. See the Rotunda, the saltpeter mine, and Indian artifacts. Enter and exit through the Historic Entrance.

Violet City Tour

Duration: 3 hours
Distance: 3 miles
Total Stairs: 160
Tour Limit: 38

Travel by hand-held lantern light through some of the most popular and oldest sections of Mammoth Cave. This tour features parts of the Historic Tour, Gothic Avenue, Star Chamber, and Mammoth Passage tours.

River Styx Tour

Duration: 2.5 hours
Distance: 2.5 miles
Total Stairs: 540

Hike down to into the depths of Mammoth Cave and see the underground flowing water of the Dead Sea, River Styx, and Lake Lethe.

Star Chamber Tour

Duration: 2.5 hours
Distance: 1.5 miles
Total Stairs: 260
Tour Limit: 40

This tour is very similar to the Violet City Tour, in that you tour the cave by hand-held lantern and see similar sights. However, this is a shorter tour with less walking so it makes a nice option for those who do not want a long tour.

Trog Tour

Duration: 3 hours
Distance: 1.5 miles
Total Stairs: 200
Tour Limit: 12

You have to be between the ages of 8 and 12 to join this tour. This is an introduction to caving where kids can worm their way through narrow passageways and tight spaces. Highlights include the Rambo Crawl and the Duck Room.

Introduction to Caving

Duration: 3.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile
Total Stairs: 300
Tour Limit: 20

This tour is an introduction to caving for those who are 10 years and older. Enter the world of spelunking and expect to climb through tight passageways that may involve army-crawls and scrambling. You will get dirty on this tour.

Wild Cave Tour

Duration: 6 hours
Distance: 6 miles
Total Stairs: 500
Tour Limit: 12

This is by far the most adventurous and the most strenuous tour on this list. On this tour, you get to learn what it is like to be cave explorer. You will belly crawl through tight spaces less than one foot high, scramble over rocks and climb up cave walls, and squeeze yourself through narrow spaces. On this tour, you will wear kneepads, a miner’s headlamp, and a hard hat. Obviously, this tour should be avoided if you suffer from claustrophobia.

This tour is very popular and should be booked well in advance of your travel dates if this is on your list of things to do.

On the Tour

So, How Do You Decide on a Tour?

That’s a long list, right? Well, it’s a massive cave system so it’s only fitting that there are a lot of different ways to see it.

Tim and I took two tours, the Historic tour in the morning and the Domes and Dripstones tour in the afternoon.

Both were great tours but Tim and I both agree that our favorite was the Historic Tour. Learning the history about Mammoth Cave is surprisingly interesting. Mammoth Cave served a lot of important functions before it became a tourist attraction and it is fascinating learning about this on the tour. Plus, you get to see the largest section of the cavern, squeeze through tight spots, and see one of the deepest sections, as well.

Domes and Dripstones was good, but it didn’t “wow” us. There is one small section of impressive stalactites and stalagmites, but it’s nothing like the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico or the Luray Caverns in Virginia. What amazed me the most on this tour was the huge number of metal staircases that were added to this section of the cave. It’s a feat of engineering to add the steps and catwalks. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to explore or tour this part of Mammoth Cave before these steps were added.

US National Parks Guide

Our Recommendations

The Historic Tour. Perfect if you want a 2-hour tour to learn the history about Mammoth Cave, stand in the immense Rotunda, and see one of the oldest sections of the cave.

Frozen Niagara Tour. The quickest, easiest way to see the decorative cave formations.

Domes and Dripstones Tour. See the stalactites and stalagmites in the Frozen Niagara and Drapery Rooms, plus, spend more time in the cave, descending on a long series of staircases through wet canyons.

Wild Cave Tour. The Wild Cave Tour is the ultimate adventure in Mammoth Cave. This sounds like a ton of fun, if you don’t mind dirty clothes, 6 hours in the dark, and dragging yourself through tight spaces. The Wild Cave Tour was not offered during our visit. If it had been, Tim and I would have strongly considered it.

Violet City Tour. This is another one that sounds fascinating. To tour Mammoth Cave only by lantern just like they did in the 1800’s…how cool would that be?

Gothic Avenue Tour. We considered this one but chose Domes and Dripstones instead. This is another way to experience the history of Mammoth Cave, and with its small group size, it sounds wonderful.

Park Ranger Recommendations

We also asked several park rangers about their picks for first-time visitors to Mammoth Cave. They told us that our choice of the Historic Tour and Domes and Dripstones was a great combination, because we got to see both ends of the cave system.

One guide told us that his favorite tour is Violet City. The small group size and lanterns make this a special way to tour Mammoth Cave.

And if you are looking for adventure, do the Wild Cave Tour!

Booking Your Tours

If you will be visiting Mammoth Cave during peak season (the summer months and holiday weekends) book your tickets in advance. Some tours only offer a small number of spots so they can sell out ahead of time.

The Wild Cave Tour is the tour that is most likely to sell out in advance, from what we were told.

We visited Mammoth Cave in mid-February on a Saturday and there were lots of open spots on each tour.

You can book your tickets online in advance. I suggest you start on the National Park website. They will list available tours for the season you plan to visit. For each available tour, they provide you a link that will take you to recreation.gov, the website you will book your tickets. Or, you can go directly to recreation.gov to look at the available tours.

More Things to do at Mammoth Cave

Crisscrossing through the park is a series of hiking and nature trails. You can do much more at Mammoth Cave than just explore a subterranean world.

We walked the Heritage Trail, a 0.5-mile flat trail that starts near the Visitor Center. It takes you to Sunset Viewpoint for a so-so view over the hilly landscape. It’s not so pretty on a rainy day in February, but I would imagine that it’s a lot nicer most other months of the year.

Heritage Trail in February

There are many more trails to explore at Mammoth Cave, as well as backcountry hiking. Click here to learn more.

How to Get Here

Mammoth Cave National Park is located in Kentucky. It is located roughly halfway between Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky. You can visit Mammoth Cave on a day trip from either of these cities, if you only plan to do a cave tour and walk a nature trail.

Mammoth Cave Location

To get here, we entered “Mammoth Cave Visitor Center” into Google Maps and had no issues getting to the park. However, there are numerous warning on the NPS website that Google and other navigation systems have directed visitors to the wrong place. To view their recommended directions, click here and scroll to the bottom of the screen.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Items Not Allowed on Cave Tours

  • Flash photography
  • Tripods
  • Strollers
  • Child Carrier Backpacks
  • Walking sticks

Where to Eat at Mammoth Cave

There is an onsite restaurant at Mammoth Cave. Located next to the Visitor Center is the Spelunkers Café, a small restaurant that serves salad, burgers, chicken burgers, and more. We ate lunch here in between tours.

Where to Stay at Mammoth Cave

There is lodging right inside the park, called The Lodge at Mammoth Park.

You can also drive outside of the park to Cave City, a small town with a bunch of hotel and restaurants to choose from.

What We Did

We visited Mammoth Cave in mid-February. It was a rainy, dreary, cold day, but since our visit took us underground, the weather did not matter much. It is always 54°F inside of Mammoth Cave.

Tim and I visited Mammoth Cave as part of a mini-road trip. We spent two days in St. Louis, visited Gateway Arch National Park, and then drove to Owensboro, Kentucky. We spent the night in Owensboro, woke up early and drove to Mammoth Cave, spent a day at the cave, and then drove to Nashville. After spending one day in Nashville we flew home.

If you have any questions about touring Mammoth Cave, or if you want to share your experience (we would love to hear what your favorite tour is), comment below!

More Information for Your Trip to Kentucky

LOUISVILLE: Plan your visit to Louisville with our articles about the Best Things to Do in Louisville and Best Places to Eat in Louisville.

KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL:Pick out which distilleries to visit in our article Best Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For information on how to plan your visit, don’t miss our Guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Itinerary.

NEARBY DESTINATIONS: Asheville, North Carolina makes a great weekend destination. You can also spend a few days in Nashville or visit nearby New River Gorge National Park. 

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries. You can also learn more about the national parks and get a FREE printable checklist in our US National Parks Checklist.


Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.


Mammoth Cave Kentucky


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Comments 22

  1. Avatar for LW
  2. Avatar for Iris Bichler
    Iris Bichler

    Hi, thank you for your great review of Mammoth cave tours.
    Could you advise if the istoric tour is suitabke to someone tha t is a bit claustrophobic….? going into narrow,low aras might be a problem…
    or should we chise the domes tour?
    or another tour?
    thank you

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      If you are claustrophobic, the Historic Tour is not recommended because there are some tight spots to squeeze through. The Domes and Dripstones tour is better because there aren’t any tight spots that I recall. Plus, you get to see a lot of interesting formations so this is a great tour. Cheers, Julie

  3. Avatar for Ken

    Hi there, in your post you referred to your road trip through St. Louis, Kentucky and ending in Nashville, but I couldn’t find any link to that trip (sorry if I am just missing it). We are actually doing the same journey, but just backwards and I would be very interested to hear about the places you may have stopped along the way and how long you spent. We were really only planning a short 2 day journey, but could extend it slightly. Many thanks for all the information you have already provided; great Blog!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Ken. You didn’t miss anything…I haven’t written about the road trip on our website. We spent about a day and a half in St. Louis to see the Arch. In the afternoon of the second day, we drove to Owensboro and spent the night here. A good thing to do here is to visit the Green River Distillery, if you get here early enough (it’s on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail). Then we woke up early, drove to and visited Mammoth Cave, and in the late afternoon, drove to Nashville. Cheers, Julie

  4. Avatar for Brenda
  5. Avatar for Sandra M.
    Sandra M.

    Thank you so much for this article (and frequent updates)! I was definitely looking at the NPS website going…. how to choose a tour? There is very little description on their website and yet they say you should book them in advance of your trip (we are 3 weeks out from ours and there are not tours posted yet for that week). Anyway, I appreciate all your comments and would request that you add (if possible) more photos of the tours and a description of how tight the 2 sections are in the Historic tour – is the Fat Man’s Misery section really so narrow that an overweight person would have difficulty getting through? How long are the Fat Man’s Misery and Tall Man’s Misery sections for those of us with anxiety about tight spaces? Your photos of these areas were really helpful but wondering how long the sections are…. Thanks!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      All of my photos that I have are in this post. As far as the length of each of these sections, they aren’t very long. It’s been several years since we have been here but from my memory both are around 100 feet long. Fat Man’s Misery just had a few tight spots. Tall Man’s Misery was harder to get through since you have to walk crouched over. Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Sandra M.
        Sandra M.

        Thank you Julie this was so incredibly helpful! I’ll take a Xanax just in case but should be able to navigate short tight spots. Once more question – the website says the Historic Tour has 540 stairs, but doesn’t specify if these are all “up” (although it says “Moderate” difficulty). I have to imagine it can’t be that bad if it is their main tour. Do you recall it being difficult or if there were an equal number of “up” and “down” stairs?

        1. Avatar for Julie Post

          I can’t recall how many stairs went up and down, but I don’t recall it being difficult. It’s not like you have to do all of the stairs in one go, rather they are spaced out over the 2 hour tour, so it’s not too bad. Any adult of average fitness should be just fine on this tour, other than if they have a moderate to severe claustrophobia. Have fun!! Cheers, Julie

      2. Avatar for Mia

        HI Julie, enjoyed reading your experience visiting Mammoth Cave very much. We just booked the following cave tours for a 2-day trip in October:

        Day 1 — Gothic Ave Tour in the morning and Great Onyx Tour (not in Mammoth) in the afternoon;
        Day 2 — Grand Ave Tour at 9:45 am and trail after 2 pm.

        It is important to know, as you noted, that Grand Ave Tour does not include any part of the Historic Tour. I wonder whether we should book Historic Tour and cancel Gothic Ave Tour. I spent several hours to “dig” information online yesterday and did not see your helpful post until this morning.

        Inspired by you and your post, we are interested in visiting St. Louis and Nashville. Thank you again.

        1. Avatar for Julie Post

          Hello Mia. We really liked the Historic Tour. You will see most of the sights on the Gothic Ave Tour but then go deeper into the cave. It might be worth changing your tour if you want to see more of Mammoth Cave. There is a rehabilitation project going on for part of the Grand Ave Tour route. The NPS is still offering the tour, and it is still 4 hours, but I don’t know what the changes to this route will be. Regardless, it sounds like a great tour for those who really like caves. I hope you have a great time in Nashville and Louisville, those cities are so much fun. And I apologize for the wacky appearance of our website…we are having some technical issues and hope to get those resolved soon. Cheers, Julie

  6. Avatar for Ramon Berroa
    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      You’re welcome! I do my best but it’s a good idea to always double check the NPS website, especially this year since things are changing so frequently. Cheers, Julie

  7. Avatar for jolene nielsen
    jolene nielsen

    so if you are claustrophobic it is probably not a good idea to do the historic tour…any other ones to avoid if you are clastrophobic?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Definitely skip the Wild Cave Tour. If you have issues in an elevator, skip the Cleveland Avenue Tour and the Accessible Tour. There might also be an elevator on the Grand Avenue Tour and Violet City Tour. And yes, there are some tight spaces in the Historic Tour. Cheers, Julie

  8. Avatar for Geronimo

    I am stiff confused with the multiple tours but these answers might help untangle my confusion,

    Are the Historic Entrance and Frozen Niagara distinct sections of Mammoth Cave?
    Do all tours take place in either of the above sections or is there a third, forth or fifth section as well?
    Does Grand Avenue or other long tours connect two or more of those sections?

    Thanks once again for so many good advice!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      There are multiple entrances into the cave. It’s a long series of interconnected tubes and tunnels. The Historic Entrance is at one end and the Frozen Niagara section is at the other end. There are other entrances as well. The Grand Avenue Tour goes from the Carmichael Entrance to the Frozen Niagara entrance and does not cover any of the Historic Tour. However, I just saw on the NPS website that Grand Tour will not be offered for the next 18 months due to cave rehabilitation. I found a map online that I will attach to this post for more clarity. I hope this helps! Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Geronimo
  9. Avatar for Joan Armstrong
    Joan Armstrong

    I love reading about your adventures. My name is Joan from the UK, my adult son and I are planning a road trip from Chicago to Dallas over 14 nights next October, and I wondered if you would be so kind as to advise me where is best to go. We very much like the sound of Mammoth Caves, are there any other national parks worth visiting ?
    We thought about spending 4 or 5 nights in both Chicago and Dallas but not sure.

    Thank you in kind anticipation
    Joan Armstrong

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Joan. This could be a very nice road trip. Would you believe that I have never been to Chicago? It’s crazy! That’s because it’s not a great place to visit (because it is), just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I hear that the restaurants and the food is fantastic. 4 to 5 nights would be fine. I have been to Dallas. It’s a good city, I just wonder if 4 to 5 nights is too much time here. 2 to 3 nights might be enough. But here are some ideas for your road trip.

      From Chicago, you could drive down to Louisville, spend one or two nights here. You might be able to watch a horse race at Churchill Downs if they are racing in October. The restaurants are great here too. If you like whiskey, consider spending a day or two on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. From Louisville, spend a day at Mammoth Cave and get to Nashville that night. Two to three nights in Nashville is so much fun. This is one of our favorite cities in the USA. You could drive through Memphis and visit Graceland. In Arkansas, you could visit Hot Springs National Park (we haven’t been here yet) and then go to Dallas. OR, from Memphis, go to New Orleans for 2 nights and then drive to Texas (this would be more driving).

      Another option is to add in the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It just recently became a national park. You just need to take a look at your options, pick out what you want to do, and then map it out. But you have lots to choose from!

      Have fun planning your road trip and let us know if you have any more questions.

      Cheers, Julie

    2. Avatar for Lauren

      Hi Joan,

      I happened across this post as I also love reading this blog! So much great information. I referred back to it a lot when I planned my hike to Half Dome. 🙂

      Anyway, I live in Northwest Indiana and you may want to check out Indiana Dunes National Park. It’s on the way from Chicago to Kentucky. We’re about 45 minutes out side of Chicago and about 15-20 minutes from the major highway that takes you down to Kentucky. Beautiful sand dunes and lots of hiking, right on Lake Michigan. It’s on the way, so just thought you may like it! 🙂

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