To be clear, the best way to experience Mammoth Cave National Park is through a guided Mammoth Cave tour!
And no, I’m not sure if I’d drive a few hours out of the way to Mammoth Cave National Park if there’s no chance of being able to actually go inside Mammoth Cave.
As you can imagine, THE thing to do in Mammoth Cave National Park is to go underground and inside Mammoth Cave!
But if you are finding that all of the Mammoth Cave tours are sold out (it IS better to book online before you go!), you still may have another option!
This other option may also sell out, but you can only buy tickets for it in person.
So if you are planning your trip to Mammoth Cave National Park late, then you do still have a chance!
Can you go in Mammoth Cave without a tour?
Yes, you can go inside Mammoth Cave without a guided tour, but you cannot go inside Mammoth Cave without buying a ticket.
So you can go inside Mammoth Cave on your own, but you just need to buy a ticket before you do so.
So going inside Mammoth Cave is not free.
Walking through Mammoth Cave on your own is the quickest and cheapest way to explore Mammoth Cave.
Mammoth Cave self-guided tour: Discovery Tour
The Discovery Tour is the way to enter Mammoth Cave without a guided tour.
This is called the Discovery “Tour” but it is something that you do on your own.
And it is hardly a tour. It is more like a simple leisurely walk through Mammoth Cave.
The Discovery Tour is basically a trail that you follow through Mammoth Cave.
And when the Discovery Tour trail ends, you will turn around and return the same way you came.
There may be a couple of park rangers inside the cave along your “tour” route who will be happy to tell you about the history of Mammoth Cave.
This self-guided “tour” will give you a glimpse of what Mammoth Cave is like.
You will walk through wide open passageways underground, which represents what much of a large part of the underground cave system in Mammoth Cave National Park is like.
The National Park Service recommends giving yourself 30 minutes for the Discovery Tour.
The Discovery Tour is listed as an easy trail of 0.75 miles with 125 steps.
According to the National Park Service:
The Discovery Tour is the self-guided version of the guided Mammoth Passage Tour.
Is it worth going to Mammoth Cave National Park without a tour?
It can be worth it to do this relatively short walk through Mammoth Cave without a tour.
Yes, it is a cool experience to walk inside Mammoth Cave no matter how much time you spend walking inside!
I do think it’s possible that even if going inside Mammoth Cave without a tour is the only thing you do in Mammoth Cave National Park, there’s a good chance you’ll leave happy about your experience!
I mean, unless you go into caves regularly and it may just be another cave… 😜
I had most recently been to Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Craters of the Moon National Monument, and walked inside the caves there within a year prior to Mammoth Cave.
Walking inside Mammoth Cave without a guided tour was the first thing I did when I arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park, and I thought it was cool!
That said, I guess some people may be unsatisfied with an unguided Mammoth Cave experience.
So it brings about the lame answer of it depends… on you, your feelings about caves, and how much of a detour you’re making to go to Mammoth Cave as to whether it will be worth it!
I also did later do 2 guided cave tours and I was happy to have done them both too, as they each offered something different.
But personally I think I would have also been just fine if I only walked inside Mammoth Cave on my own as a quick visit without any guided tours.
Of course, easier to say that since I did do the guided tours. 😜
But I was driving through Kentucky on my way from Florida to Michigan and taking my time doing so, so I didn’t consider Mammoth Cave National Park to be much of a detour.
So if you’re driving a long distance between the north and south and going through Kentucky, Mammoth Cave can also be a nice little side stop as a quick visit.
There is also the Mammoth Cave Campground located near the visitor center.
See more to decide if you want to do a guided cave tour: Best Mammoth Cave tours
How to buy tickets for the self-guided Mammoth Cave tour
In 2022, the only way to buy Mammoth Cave tickets to walk inside Mammoth Cave without a guided tour is to show up at the Mammoth Cave visitor center.
So you cannot make a reservation for the Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour in advance. (For all other Mammoth Cave tours, you DO want to make a reservation in advance!)
In 2022, the cost of the Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour is $8 per person. See current fees.
But these things can always change, so it’s important to check for updated Mammoth Cave ticket info from the National Park Service website.
You may also try calling the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center to speak with a park ranger to ask about how the availability of the Discovery Tour has been in the past few days to know if you should try even harder to show up earlier in the day rather than later.
The listed phone number for the Mammoth Cave visitor center is 270-758-2180.
A little bit about the Mammoth Cave self-guided tour below!
More national parks with caves:
Going inside Mammoth Cave without a tour
I did the self-guided Discovery Tour in May 2022. Your experience may vary!
1. Buy Discover Tour tickets at the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center
So the first thing you’ll do once you arrive in Mammoth Cave National Park is to go to the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center. (For google maps, navigate specifically to the visitor center, not some general “Mammoth Cave National Park” spot.)
You’ll go inside the visitor center and buy tickets for the Discovery Tour.
2. Walk the Historic Entrance Trail
For the Discovery Tour, you will be entering Mammoth Cave through the “historic entrance.”
From the visitor center, you can go out through the back and follow signs for the Historic Entrance Trail.
This is basically downhill all the way to the historic cave entrance.
Which means it’s uphill on the way back! You might see people struggling as they make their way back up. You’ll understand when you are on your way back. 😆
3. Arrive at the Mammoth Cave historic entrance!
You can walk up until this point without a ticket.
So if for whatever reason you are not able to, or don’t want to, buy any sort of Mammoth Cave ticket, then the least you will want to do is to go to see the main Mammoth Cave entrance.
When I went to the Mammoth Cave historic entrance, there were people there who didn’t have tickets.
But the park ranger allowed them to take a few more steps to get a better look at the cave entrance.
You won’t be able to go down the stairs without a ticket, but you can see the Mammoth Cave entrance from the top.
There are some Mammoth Cave tours that enter from this historic entrance, but not all do.
If you decide to do a guided cave tour, you’ll want to check the description to see if that tour will be starting from the historic entrance.
If it does, you may think it’s a waste to come here on your own. (I will say that it was nice to walk through the cave mostly people-free without a tour, though! Cave tours can be 100+ people!)
If you are doing a historic cave tour, then you will walk through the same path of the Discovery Tour, and then your historic cave tour will take you deeper into the cave.
If your cave tour does not start from here, then you may want to do the Discovery Tour to see a famous aspect of Mammoth Cave! If you are doing the Frozen Niagara Tour or Domes and Dripstones Tour, you will not be entering through the historic entrance.
4. Enter Mammoth Cave on your own from the historic entrance!
Now that you have seen the Mammoth Cave historic entrance from above, you can enter the cave!
Because walking inside Mammoth Cave through the historic cave entrance will allow you to walk through these wide open passageways that Mammoth Cave is known for, you should not miss walking inside the cave from the historic entrance, whether with a tour or without a tour!
Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, and walking from the historic entrance can give you a sense of what most of the world’s longest cave system is like!
How to get to Mammoth Cave National Park
All things to do with going inside Mammoth Cave will begin at the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center.
The National Park Service tells you not to rely on GPS or google maps to get to Mammoth Cave National Park.
I believe the problem may be if you just click on a random “Mammoth Cave National Park” on google maps, as it may not be a specific location within the park.
But if you navigate specifically to Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center then you should be fine.
I navigated to Mammoth Cave Campground (which is near the visitor center), and it took me to the right place.
Still, if you want the National Park Service directions for confirmation, these are the directions to get to Mammoth Cave National Park.
How to get to Mammoth Cave National Park from the north:
Take Interstate 65 to Exit 53 (Cave City Exit).
Turn right onto KY-70.
Follow 70/255 as it becomes the Mammoth Cave Parkway in the park.
Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
How to get to Mammoth Cave National Park from the south:
Take Interstate 65 to Exit 48 (Park City Exit).
Turn left onto KY-255 and follow 255 as it becomes the Park City Road into the park.
Follow Park City Road until it joins the Mammoth Cave Parkway.
Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
Other than that, you may be driving through rural areas, so it’s best to download offline google maps for Kentucky before you go!
Mammoth Cave National Park is in central time zone!
Some of Kentucky is in central time zone, and some of Kentucky is in eastern time zone.
And that’s a bit about going inside Mammoth Cave on your own through the Discovery Tour!
After you finish up the Discovery Tour and come back up to daylight, you can continue on the same trail past the cave entrance to go see the River Styx Spring and Green River: Things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park
See more about planning a trip to Mammoth Cave:
- Best Mammoth Cave tours
- Mammoth Cave lantern tour
- Mammoth Cave frozen niagara
- Mammoth Cave fat man’s misery
HAPPY GOING INSIDE MAMMOTH CAVE WITHOUT A TOUR!