Our next stop as we continued to Illinois was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
With over 400 miles of surveyed passages, it is the longest known cave system in the world! And keep in mind there are sections of Mammoth Cave not yet discovered and explored! Geologists think there could still be 600 more miles of undiscovered passageways and every year more passages are explored. The passageways don’t stretch in a single line, but intersect and run above and below each other like a big plate of spaghetti. Mammoth Cave has at least 27 known entrances, with about a third of those being natural. The next longest known cave is Sistema Sac Actun Cave in Mexico at 234 miles.
Unlike many caves formed of limestone that erode over time, Mammoth Cave is covered with protective layers of sandstone so water does not easily erode the rock. This protects the many layers of limestone rock that formed the cave passages over the last 10 million years. Mammoth Cave was formed by water sinking into the ground over time and flowing through underground streams to the Green River.
Mammoth Cave is home to diverse life forms including eyeless cavefish which can live for up to two years without food, cave crickets which spend their entire lives underground, and raccoons and bats which shelter in the cave but go outside to hunt for food. Thirteen species of bats can be found at Mammoth Cave. Thousands of bats live in the cave though they are seldom seen. We did not see any during our visit. Crayfish and shrimp live in remote areas of the cave closer to the surface near water.
American Indians found the underground passageways of Mammoth Cave more than 5,000 years ago. In 1798 a Kentucky homesteader shot and wounded a bear and followed it into the natural cave entrance, bringing the cave into recorded history. Early visitors found discarded moccasins, torches made of reeds and several mummified bodies, preserved by the cool, dry cave air.
By 1816 Mammoth Cave had become a tourist attraction, making it the second oldest attraction after Niagara Falls. In 1926 Congress authorized the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) got to work building trails and cave walkways etc. It officially became a national park in 1941.
One of the earliest uses of Mammoth Cave was as a source of nitrate used for producing saltpeter, a key ingredient of gunpowder. The War of 1812 and the Civil War increased the demand for the nitrate.
In 1842 a physician believed the constant temperature of the cave air would benefit tuberculosis patients. He had stone and wood huts built inside the cave for a dozen patients. No one was cured and the sanitorium was shut down a year later. Other uses of the cave included a mushroom farm, a sleep cycle experiment and a civil defense shelter in the 1950s and 1960s.
There is a large selection of cave tours to choose from and since we were on a fairly tight schedule, we booked our tour ahead of time to be sure it wasn’t full. It was hard to pick, but we decided on the Historic Tour, a two hour, two mile tour with 540 stairs including squeezing into some tight places.
When we first arrived we spent some time in the Visitors Center watching a movie about the Cave and looking at the large number of exhibits.
Next was our pre-booked tour. We had an excellent park guide who obviously loves his job. With his charming Kentucky twang, he had us laughing throughout the tour with his sense of humor and interesting stories about the cave.
The tour began with a downhill hike to the cave entrance. We knew what that meant. A long uphill hike on the way back!
People who are tall like Bill had to really watch their heads as we bent and stooped along low passageways which were particularly challenging on stairs, and squeezed through “Fat Man’s Misery”.
We really enjoyed Mammoth Cave even though it is not the prettiest cave we have visited. Since most of Mammoth Cave passages are dry, it doesn’t have many stalactites and stalagmites.
Leaving the park, we headed towards Illinois. In Pembroke, Kentucky we noticed a huge monument in the distance rising in the sky. It looked just like the Washington Monument.
Why in the world is that out in the middle of this small farming community in Kentucky? We had to find out so we turned in the direction of the monument. Turns out it was Jefferson Davis State Historic Site. Jefferson Davis was born on this site in 1808 and the 351 foot obelisk is constructed on a foundation of solid Kentucky limestone. NOTE: Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.
There is a museum, visitor’s center and elevator that takes you to the top of the obelisk. We were in a time crunch to get to Illinois by dark so we just took some quick pictures. I would have liked to see the view from the top.
We reached Metropolis, Illinois, our destination for the next several nights.
Can you guess what the top attraction in Metropolis is? Yes, that is right. It is home to Superman.
We did find some time to visit Superman, but most of our time in Metropolis was spent honoring and remembering cousin George and visiting with his family. George proudly served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He was buried next to his parents with full military honors. His family traveled from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois and California to honor him and it was nice being with them.
On the way back to Florida we stopped to see some of Bill’s cousins in Alabama and Georgia.
Next up: Another road trip in November. This time for a happy occasion. A wedding in Bethlehem, PA!