In A Tight Spot

Six hours of crawling and climbing gives visitors a glimpse into a hidden underground world

“We’re going to be going through some pretty tight places today, some so small that I have to turn these size 14’s sideways to get my feet through,” says our guide, Marcus, holding up an oversized boot. “So if any of you think you might be even the least bit claustrophobic, well, now would be a really good time to reconsider your decision to take this tour.”

With that sobering advice ringing in our ears, our group of 14 intrepid explorers laughs nervously and begins donning helmets, headlights, gloves, and knee pads for our descent into southern Kentucky’s world-famous Mammoth Cave.

The centerpiece of Mammoth Cave National Park, the cave comes by its name honestly, with truly massive rooms over 100 feet high and black pits that are every bit as deep. Besides those super-size vertical dimensions, this is also the world’s longest cave system, with more than 360 miles of passageways already recorded and more being created and mapped all the time.

My history with this big hole in the ground goes back to the first time I visited Mammoth Cave as a child. Shuffling along on one of the park’s more tame underground tours with my family, our guide casually mentioned something they called the Wild Cave Tour and, frankly, the idea had been stuck in my head ever since.

This six-hour tour—the park’s longest and most strenuous by far—is designed to offer visitors a small taste of what cave exploration is all about. Aside from a brief lunch stop at the cave’s underground “Snowball Room” cafeteria, most of the tour is spent inching along narrow ledges, climbing jumbles of fallen boulders, crawling on your belly, and squeezing through holes the size of your average apple pie.

Having done a little rock climbing in my misspent youth and never having had any problem with tight spaces, I figured none of this would present much of a problem. I discovered just how wrong I was 10 minutes into the tour when our guides led us through a 10-inch-high passage that reminded me of crawling under a quarter-mile-long limestone coffee table.
Despite my initial uneasiness, I managed to push through my new-found sense of claustrophobia to finish the tour. While our route lacked the fabulous formations found in other parts of the cave, this subterranean excursion delivered exactly what it promised: A true spelunking experience.

By the time our group returned to the surface I was dirty, tired, and a little sore. But, to my way of thinking, all this was a small price to pay for a peek into an underground world few people will ever get to see.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The next longest cave system in the world is just a quarter the size of Mammoth Cave. In fact, if you added the lengths of the world’s second- and third-largest caves, Mammoth Cave would still be longer by nearly 100 miles.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Prehistoric Native Americans explored more than three miles into the cave using nothing but reed torches.

The Facts
Name: Wild Cave Tour
Location: Mammoth Cave National Park is located off Interstate 65 in southern Kentucky, about halfway between Louisville and Nashville.
Phone: 270-758-2180
Website: www.nps.gov/maca/home.htm

My Advice

  • Given the strenuous nature of this adventure, Wild Cave Tour participants must be a minimum of 16 years-old (accompanied by a parent/guardian) and have a maximum chest/hip measurement of 42 inches.
  • For the same reason, you’ll want to come dressed for success with over the ankle lace-up boots with good tread, work-type gloves, soft volleyball-style kneepads, and long pants (helmets and headlights are provided). And despite the cave’s cool year-round temperature, don’t overdress—trust me, the exertion will have you working up a good healthy sweat.
  • If you like the idea of the Wild Cave Tour but aren’t sure you’re up for six hours of crawling and climbing, check out the less strenuous three-hour “Introduction to Caving” tour.
  • If you’re planning on taking either of these tours, make your reservation as far in advance as possible as group size is limited and the tours often sell out.