Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is a truly amazing year-round destination. Read our full season guide below and scroll down even further if you're interested in the best cave tours and the top tips before visiting almost at the end of this guide!
Special Tip: While you're in Kentucky, do not make the mistake and visit Mammoth Cave only. Take a look at Kentucky Off the Beaten Path® - A Guide to Unique Places. This guidebook from the 'Off the Beaten Path' series is terrific! It's your chance to visit unforgettable places!
In peak seasons (late spring until early fall) the cave draws big crowds, even more in the busy summer months. Each year, about 2 million visitors come to the park, with almost half a million of them taking a cave tour. Read our seasonal cave tour breakdown (shoulder season, high season, low season) and take a look at our tips to avoid the crowded tours in peak season. Please note that there are different tour schedules available for each season and that the number of participants allowed for each tour varies (up to 120). The visitation chart below contains official 2018 data. It gives you a nice insight about the busiest months at Mammoth Cave:
March - April - May | Spring (Crowded Tours): Early March is often still a good time crowd-wise. From mid-March until May the tours get more crowded, especially on weekends and public holidays (Memorial Day). Making online reservations is recommended. To ensure a slot for your desired tour, we suggest booking 1-2 weeks in advance, although for many tours it's sometimes possible to make reservations 1-3 days in advance only during the spring. Spring 2019 Schedule — March 10 - May 25
June - July - August | Summer (Very Crowded Tours): During peak summer months, the cave tours are heavily jammed. However, especially in June it's possible to get into a less crowded tour if you book an early morning spot on a weekday (Mon-Tue). Either way, making reservations is strongly recommended and often required to get into your desired tour. For the rare tours with very few participants, like the Wild Cave Tour, we highly recommend booking 3-4 weeks in advance, as it sells out real quick. Summer 2019 Schedule
September - October | Fall (Crowded Tours): After Labor Day weekend (early September) the crowds at the park thin out slightly at least, and not every tour is sold out in advance. However, it's still not quiet at all and making online reservations is recommended even during shoulder season.
November - February | Winter (Uncrowded Tours / Quiet Time): November and December are much quieter months. January and February is the quietest time in the park. During both months there is a possibility, that you may have a mid-week tour nearly to yourself. 'Walking along Broadway without anyone else is a surreal and otherworldly experience.' You'll also enjoy lowest hotel rates in winter. Winter 2018/19 Schedule
Avoiding Crowds and Waiting Lines
Since the cave temperature is at a constant 54 °F (12 °C) year-round, you may just visit in the off-season in winter (see above) or at least during shoulder months, in late fall or early spring. In the summer, the whole place is jammed with tourists, particularly between 10 a.m. and 2. p.m.
However, if you'd like to visit in the summer months or maybe you can only visit then, we got you covered. Choose from one or more of our 3 tips to dodge the crowded tours:
- Book the Earliest Tour Spot: Book one night at a close hotel (see the tips below the weather details). Then you use the NPS online reservation (click on the current schedule) and book the earliest tour spot before the buses arrive: 8:30 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 9:15 a.m. (depending on the tour). Book a few weeks ahead of time to make sure the slot is available. Additionally try to go mid-week (Mon-Tue) and not on the weekends. Even those early tours can still be crowded (full) at times but the whole park is a lot quieter in the morning without the masses of tourists arriving via buses.
- Book a Tour with Fewer Participants: The number of people allowed on a cave tour varies by tour. The 'Domes and Dripstones Tour' for example allows 118 participants, which results in quite a crowd when fully booked. The Frozen Niagara Tour allows 'only' 39 people. Combine this one with an early morning time slot (see above)! However, the best tour to avoid the crowds is the Wild Cave Tour: An intense and very strenuous 6 hour drive for spelunking enthusiasts. Up to 14 participants only.
- Use Another Parking Area: If you happen to arrive when everything is busy, do not use the parking lot in front of the Visitors Center. It's ridiculously crowded. Just park in the overflow parking at the Lodge (turn right before the Visitor Center). Walk through the Lodge and cross the bridge that takes you to the Center.
Weather (For Camping) | Cave Temperature
The cave has a constant temperature of 54 °F (12 °C) throughout the year, regardless of the outside weather. However, winter temperatures can be below freezing at entrances. In most areas of the cave, you'll be comfortable if you wear long pants and take a sweater or jacket with you.
Outside Weather: Even with the consistent year-round cave temperature, the outside weather shouldn't be overlooked. Not only by camping visitors (jump to the campsite section). In general, the climate around Mammoth Cave National Park is moderate with warm summers and pleasant spring and fall temperatures. Winters are mild and rarely harsh. Monthly climate details at Monthly Climate - Mammoth Cave. Excellent weather details including temperatures, rainfall, humidity and winds at Average Weather - Cave City Kentucky. For current conditions check out the weather webcam: Mammoth Cave NPS Webcam. Want to know the weather details for each season and month:
Spring Weather (March, April, May)
Spring is a pleasant time to visit the area, although the weather can vary a lot from day to day. In March the average highs already reach 61°F (16°C), in April 72°F (22°C). The nights are usually still chilly during March. In May it gets even warmer. May is also the month with the highest precipitation throughout the year. In general, rain is somewhat common during the spring with 8 to 9 days of precipitation per month. Also keep in mind that the weather is unpredictable, especially in spring. An afternoon can go from clear and sunny to rain or thunderstorms within two hours. Campgrounds open March 1 (see below). The campgrounds are not too busy in the spring (except for spring break and maybe weekends). Due to more precipitation, a rain fly is highly recommended for camping.
Summer Weather (June, July, August)
In general, the weather is quite stable compared to spring and other seasons. Summers outside Mammoth Cave are usually sunny, hot and humid. Daytime high temperatures often pass 90°F (32°C) in July and August. The downside is the high humidity between mid-June and mid-September. Especially from early July until mid-August / late August it gets really muggy, which might be uncomfortable for some visitors. On the other hand, the less humid and lower cave temperature comes in handy during those muggy summer weeks. If you're not bothered by the high humidity, the summer months are great for camping. Big plus: Thanks to the bats, you don't have to deal with mosquitoes at all.
Fall Weather (September, October, November)
Autumn weather can also be unpredictable, but not so much as in spring. In September it can still be humid, although not as muggy as in the summer months. The average highs reach 83°F (28°C). October is still pleasant with temps up to 72°F (22°C). In November it gets cooler but it's still mild with average highs of 60°F (15°C). Locals say that November weather can be nice most of the times. The campgrounds are significantly less crowded compared to summer. First signs of turning leaves are often in early October. And a good chance to catch the beautiful peak fall foliage colors is typically from mid to late October
Winter Weather (December, January, February)
Although it gets colder, the winter months are rarely harsh. However, ice storms in January and February are possible, which may cause difficult driving conditions. The snowy period usually starts early December and lasts until mid-March. Most snow falls in January and February. Although the cave temperature is constant year-round, it can be freezing in the cave entrance area in winter. In winter whole Mammoth Cave becomes a warm refuge and the quietness in the park area makes up for the lower outside temperature.
Mammoth Cave, the world's longest known cave system with more than 400 miles that have already been explored and mapped but park rangers say scientists believe that may still only be a fraction of what actually lies beneath the surface waiting to be discovered.
Mammoth cave doesn't attempt to be a spectacle or shock with a blinding light display capitalizing on its grandeur. You never forget you are underground in a strange, damp, almost melancholy place. The underworld invites you to be quiet and contemplative. Of all the tours, there are two that stand out, the Lantern Tour where you walk through the veins of the cave as they did hundreds of years ago, and the Wild Cave Tour, where you will be measured to assure you can squeeze through the vetting openings of the cave, earning the mystical views you no doubt will witness.
The first people came to the cave 12,000 years ago using the cave as a burial place for their dead. It seems they may have felt the cave was a passage to the next world. During the French and Indian War of the late 1750’s, a British soldier became the first reported European to reach the Mammoth Cave region. The legend is a frontiersman named Houchins, chased a bear into an entrance to the cave in 1797. Mammoth Cave was officially refound! It was in the discovery of the saltpeter deposits that Mammoth's greatest resources were realized. The saltpeter led to the first legal ownership of the cave. Many books have been written just about that period of the cave earning men great wealth. But fast forward now to 1818, as the first visitors were invited into the magnificent cave. A couple of decades farther and its now 1839, the cave has caught the attention of Dr. John Croghan’s, who purchases Mammoth after reading in the journals of the day, accounts of the preservative qualities of the cave. Dr. Croghan specialized in "pulmonary consumption" – known today as tuberculosis (TB). Underground, he would "treat" those with TB. Depending on a patients wealth, they could sleep on the floor of the cave or live in a cabin of sorts built underground. The National Park's website for the cave writes, "Tours would pass a bizarre scene. Pale, spectral figures in dressing-gowns moved weakly along the passageway, slipping in and out of shadowed huts, the silence of the cave broken by hollow coughing and muttered conversations."
For the next nearly two-hundred years, visitors have continued to flock to this inviting beast of a cave. Do a thorough search on the park's website to consider a tour that suits you. Make sure to pre-order your tour tickets, lines in the morning sell out as soon as they are open. NPS Mammoth Cave Official Site
reviewed by Melissa
The 4 Best Cave Tours
Not sure which tour you should book? Check out our selection of the 5 top tours below. To find more details for each tour click on the current seasonal schedule and read the tour details (description, starting times, capacity, reservation): NPS Mammoth Cave Tours We suggest to spend two days or at least do two tours on one day. No matter which tour you choose, all have one thing in common: The guides are usually very informative as well as entertaining. Most visitors say, that the guides are really exceptional.
1) Frozen Niagara Tour
- Duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes
- Distance: 0.4 km (0.25 miles)
- Difficulty: Very easy
- Stairs: 12 (+98 optional)
- Max Participants: 30
- Price: 14 USD (Adults)
If you'd like to do one shorter tour only, go for the easy Frozen Niagara Tour. It covers the best part of the popular Domes and Dripstones Tour. You'll see all heavily decorated areas of the cave while skipping all the 'boring' parts. You'll see all the stalactites, stalagmites and unusual formations which cannot be found in other parts of the cave. It's also one of the easy tours. Perfect for families with smaller kids, elderly family members and those who are not able to climb long staircases. Tiny downsides: There are some tight spaces. If you are very claustrophic, you may better skip this tour. Another issue for a few visitors might be the insects, as lots of cave crickets are hanging very closely above your head. To see what part of Mammoth Cave this tour covers, view this image: NPS Frozen Niagara Coverage - Yellow Marking
2) Grand Avenue Tour
- Duration: 4 hours
- Distance: 6.4 km (4 miles)
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Stairs: 700
- Max Participants: 78
- Price: 30 USD (Adults)
If you are interested in a longer tour, skip the medium/moderate Domes and Dripstones and choose the Grand Avenue Tour. It covers all of Frozen Niagara as well as Domes and Dripstones. It's longer (4 hours) and more strenuous. However, don't let the official NPS rating ('Very Strenuous) scare you. It's doable. Visitors with kids (7 and 8 years) as well as seniors (65 years old) report that it was possible. The difficulty rating is because of its length and the amount of stairs. Only if you're totally out of shape, then don't do it. We also recommend doing this one in shoulder or off-season (see above), as the capacity is 78 visitors, which can feel kind of crowded. In slower months this one is much better because of fewer participants. However, it's an amazing tour, regardless of the number of participants. Please note that the age limit for this tour is 6+. To see what part of Mammoth Cave this tour covers: NPS Grand Avenue Tour - Yellow Marking
3) Historic Tour
- Duration: 2 hours
- Distance: 3.6 km (2 miles)
- Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
- Stairs: 440
- Max Participants: 110
- Price: 17 USD (Adults)
This is a 2 hour tour at a more comfortable pace. It's different from Frozen Niagara and Grand Avenue since you won't see any stalagmites or stalactites at all. Instead you'll spot high cathedral ceilings and other exciting areas. You ascend and descend to 4 different levels of Mammoth Cave and experience the narrowest of passages (Fat Man’s Misery) and climb up Mammoth Dome Tower. Please note, that when going through the cramped areas you have to walk about 200 feet while hunched over. The whole tour is not really difficult and perfect for families with kids! Because of over 400 stairs it is somewhat strenuous, but even visitors 70+ say it's not that hard. Quote: 'If you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can do this tour'. To see what part of Mammoth Cave this tour covers: NPS Historic Tour - Yellow Marking
4) Wild Cave Tour
- Duration: 16+ hours
- Distance: 8 km (5 miles)
- Difficulty: Extremely Strenuous
- Max Participants: 14
- Price: 60 USD (Adults)
- Special: All equipment will be provided by the park. You must provide your own boots (sturdy, hiking boots!)
Places no other tour encounters! For those who are or want to be real spelunkers, go for the Wild Cave Tour. 6 hours, very strenuous, only 14 participants max. Perfect to get away from the crowds in peak season (see above). "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 and feel the thrill of exploration!"
Extra: Discovery Tour (Self-Guided)
If you don't have a lot of time or forgot to book a tour, always go on the self-guided Discovery Tour. It's 30-40 minutes walk and takes you to the entrance and to one of the saltpeter mining rooms.
Top Tips and Facts
- Make tour reservations online well in advance, especially in the summer.
- Reservations on the same day are not possible.
- 30 minutes of the total tour time will be taken up with a bus ride to the entrance.
- On tours with large groups the front spots are the best: First on the bus means first in line at the cave.
- Plan 1-2 hours for the informative Visitor Center.
- Cave and surface trails are uneven and slippery so be sure to wear shoes with traction.
- Bring a light jacket for the cave tours, even if it's hot and humid outside.
- Visitors under age 16 must be accompanied by someone over 18.
- Flash photography is prohibited. Tripods and monopods are prohibited.
- Camera use is generally allowed.
- Trekking backpacks are prohibited.
- Child backpack carriers are prohibited.
There are three developed campgrounds as well as more than a dozen primitive sites in the backcountry and along the Green and Nolin Rivers. Obtain a backcountry camping permit at the Visitor Center. General regulations for all three developed campgrounds:
- Pay the fee at the entrance kiosk
- Check-in time is 12 noon. Check-out time is 11 A.M.
- Maximum stay of 14 days
- Showers and laundry are available
Quiet hours from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M.
Mammoth Cave Campground (Headquarters Camping): This is the main campground and the closest one to the Visitor Center (¼ mile distance). Perfect as a launching point for cave tours as well as an entry point for 14 miles of hiking trails. NPS | Mammoth Cave Campground
- Sites: 105 (RV: 6, tent: 99)
- Open: March 1 - November 30
- Electric Hookups: none
- Reservations: May 1 - October 15 (Online-Reservations)
- Maximum Persons: 8 per site
- Fees: Single site $20, group site $25, VIP site (RV only) $50
- Features: Restrooms, fresh water, a dump station, garbage dumpsters, a recycling station
- Map: Map - Mammoth Cave Campground
Maple Springs Group Campground (Google Maps): Located six miles from the Visitor Center. Natural starting point for backcountry hiking. The fastest way from the Visitor Center to the campground requires using the Green River Ferry. All sites are designed to accommodate larger groups, even for horses. NPS | Maple Springs Group Campground
- Sites: 8 (RV: 2, tent: 6)
- Open: March 1 - November 30
- Electric Hookups: 2
- Reservations: May 1 - October 15 (Online-Reservations)
- Maximum Persons: 16 per site
- Maximum Horses: 8 per equine site
- Fees: Regular group site: $25, equestrian site - hookups: $35
- Features: Picnic tables, fire grates, chemical toilets, garbage dumpsters, fresh water
- Sites: 12 (tent only)
- Open: year-round
- Electric Hookups: none
- Reservations: not available
- Maximum Persons: 8 per site
- Fees: Primitive site: $12
- Features: Picnic shelter, fresh water
There is one great guide book you should use to prepare and take along. It's 'Exploring Mammoth Cave National Park' (click on the image below). It covers the cave tours in detail as well as hiking trails. It's an excellent resource! If you'd also like to hike, please get the National Geographic Trails Map as well.
Place created by Melissa. Extended and updated by WHEN to be WHERE