As you can imagine, THE thing to do in Mammoth Cave National Park is to go underground and inside Mammoth Cave!
Mammoth Cave National Park is the only official national park in Kentucky.
It’s also one of the national park caves that is managed by the National Park Service.
It can be reasonable to visit Mammoth Cave as part of a stop along the way as you’re driving from north to south… or south to north… if you’ll be driving through Kentucky.
So if you’re headed down south and driving from places like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, or Chicago, and wondering if it’s worth it to make a side trip to Mammoth Cave National Park as you drive through Kentucky, then yes, it can still be worth it to do a small discovery of Mammoth Cave!
Can you walk through Mammoth Cave without a tour?
Yes, you can go inside and walk through 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.
You’ll be buying a ticket for the self-guided Discovery Tour.
So going inside Mammoth Cave is not free.
Walking through Mammoth Cave on your own is the quickest way to explore Mammoth Cave.
It can be worth it to do this relatively short walk through Mammoth Cave on your own.
Yes, it is a cool experience to walk inside Mammoth Cave no matter how much time you spend walking inside!
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, and I thought Mammoth Cave National Park was cool!
But it can be even more (way) worth it to do a guided Mammoth Cave tour!
Your tour guide will be a national park ranger.
The important thing to know is that Mammoth Cave tours do sell out.
So planning may be required!
So the best way to book your ticket for Mammoth Cave tours is through the official National Park Service reservation website.
There may be over 10 cave tours available for you to choose from!! 😱 How to choose?! More on that below!
If there is still availability of the cave tours, then you can also buy tickets to the Mammoth Cave tours when you show up at the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center.
In 2022, the only way to buy Mammoth Cave tickets to walk inside Mammoth Cave on your own is to show up at the Mammoth Cave visitor center.
But this 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 cave tours for the day is looking.
The listed phone number for the Mammoth Cave visitor center is 270-758-2180.
See more about the best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park: Best Mammoth cave tours
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. (map)
I navigated to Mammoth Cave Campground (which is near the visitor center), and it took me to the right place. (map)
Still, if you want the National Park Service directions for confirmation, these are the directions to get to Mammoth Cave National Park. This will be emailed to you if you book a cave tour.
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!
Well, the good news is that if you are not already in the central time zone, then if you mess up the time, it just means you will be an hour early for your tour! Better than being an hour late!
Some of Kentucky is in central time zone, and some of Kentucky is in eastern time zone.
More below about making a trip to Mammoth Cave!
More national park caves:
3+ best things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park
1. See the Mammoth Cave historic entrance from above
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.
From the visitor center, you will follow signs for the Historic Entrance Trail.
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 natural 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 your cave tour does not start from here, then you may want to come here on your own too.
2. Walk inside Mammoth Cave on your own from the historic entrance (Mammoth Cave self-guided Discovery Tour)
Now that you have seen the Mammoth Cave historic entrance from above, you can enter the cave!
Before you start the Historic Entrance Trail, you will want to buy a historic entrance cave ticket from the visitor center.
You will be buying a ticket for the Discovery Tour.
The Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour is the ticket you’ll buy if you want to walk inside Mammoth Cave on your own.
Now, this is called the Discovery “Tour” but it is something that you do on your own.
You will do a small bit of discovering Mammoth Cave on your own!
This is the minimum you can do if you want to go inside Mammoth Cave without a guided tour.
And if the self-guided discovery “tour” is the only thing you do in Mammoth Cave National Park, there’s a good chance you’ll leave happy about your experience!
This will give you a glimpse of what Mammoth Cave is about.
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.
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 that’s through a guided tour or on your own!
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!
In 2022, the cost of walking inside Mammoth Cave on your own is $8 per person, and you could only buy the tickets for the self-guided Discovery Tour in person. See current fees.
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 you are doing a cave tour that isn’t a historic tour, then you may want to do the Discover Tour to see a famous aspect of Mammoth Cave!
3. Hiking in Mammoth Cave National Park to River Styx Spring and to Green River
For a short activity above ground in Mammoth Cave National Park, you can continue walking along the Historic Entrance Trail past the historic cave entrance.
You will be hiking along the River Styx Spring Trail and this will lead to the River Styx Spring!
There’s also a trail that goes off to the right that will take you to views of the Green River and the Green River Bluffs Trail.
4. Walk through Mammoth Cave as part of a guided tour!
Now the big one!
Take a guided tour through Mammoth Cave!
The specific cave tours that are offered at Mammoth Cave when you are there will depend on when you go.
Which are the best Mammoth Cave tours?
Again, there may be over 10 Mammoth Cave National Park tours that you can choose from!
But there is some overlap of these cave tours, so they are not all 10 completely unique tours.
But it’s possible to take more than one cave tour without feeling like you are seeing the same thing you saw in a previous tour.
If you want to do more than one cave tour, you will just want to be sure to read the cave descriptions carefully, because they do note the overlap that there may be.
According to a Mammoth Cave park ranger, if you want a well-rounded Mammoth Cave experience, there are 4 types of tours you can do:
- Historic tour
- Geology tour
- Formations tour
- Lantern tour
So these are the kinds of things you can look out for as you read through the descriptions of the cave tours.
The meeting spot of the cave tours are shelters located right outside the visitor center.
I was at the shelter waiting for a later departing tour when the Historic Tour was gathering around.
The park ranger leading that tour said that the historic tour was his favorite and went on to say that you haven’t really been to Mammoth Cave if you haven’t been on a historic tour!
If anything, this says that you will at least want to go inside Mammoth Cave through the historic entrance, whether that’s through a tour or on your own!
Then, when my River Styx tour started gathering around, the park ranger leading my tour said that the River Styx tour was her favorite because of the geology aspect.
She is a geologist and likes talking about rocks and water, which is what the River Styx tour was about.
So no matter which Mammoth Cave tour you choose, you will likely get a tour guide with great passion for Mammoth Cave!
Now, to get you started on further how to choose, I’ll tell you about why I chose the cave tours that I did!
I did 2 cave tours:
I stayed at Mammoth Cave Campground for 3 nights, and I basically did a tour a day. (The day of arrival I did the Historic Entrance Trail and Discovery Tour.)
No, it is definitely not necessary to dedicate a whole day to each cave tour!
You can easily do 2 Mammoth Cave tours in one day. One in the morning and one in the afternoon.
But I was making it an easy-going time in Kentucky as I was on my way back up north shortly after nearly 6 weeks of camping in Florida! (See Florida road trip ideas for Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys!)
River Styx: Underground water in Mammoth Cave
This is described as a “geology” tour, with a focus on learning more about the geology of Mammoth Cave.
One of the highlights is also seeing an underground river in Mammoth Cave.
You also have a chance to see eyeless cave fish, although they didn’t show themselves during my tour.
After I knew the dates I wanted to be at Mammoth Cave, the first cave tour I booked was the River Styx cave tour.
One of the reasons I booked this tour is because the River Styx tour isn’t always offered.
So when I saw the tour was being offered when I would be at Mammoth Cave, I thought I should do it!
And, when I checked, there were only a few tickets left, so I decided that I needed to book sooner rather than later! So it was the first tour I booked.
When you are on the National Park Service tour reservations website for the individual tours, you can go to the calendar availability.
If you click on a certain date, it will tell you how many tickets are left for each tour time. So this can let you know how soon you should book.
Fat Man’s Misery of Mammoth Cave
The River Styx tour went through a section of Mammoth Cave called Fat Man’s Misery.
And while it is called this, the park ranger did indicate that a “fat man” can get through just fine.
No matter what size you are, you might be side stepping at times as you walk through this section of Mammoth Cave.
It was also noted that all the paths we went through were naturally made.
So even the Fat Man’s Misery section, while it may seem like it was carved out, it was all naturally formed.
Frozen Niagara of Mammoth Cave: Cave formations in Mammoth Cave
One of the most popular underground sections of Mammoth Cave is an area called the Frozen Niagara.
While most of Mammoth Cave is wide open passageways (which is why you should experience the cave from the historic entrance!), the section of the cave called the Frozen Niagara is where you can go to see more classic cave formations that you learn about in school. (aka stalagmites and stalactites.)
There are several Mammoth Cave tours that pass through the Frozen Niagara area:
- Frozen Niagara Tour (1 hour 15 minutes, 0.25 miles, 12 steps, easy)
- Domes and Dripstones Tour (2 hours, 0.75 miles, 500 steps, moderate)
- Grand Avenue Tour (4 hours, 4 miles, 1313 steps, difficult)
The Frozen Niagara Tour is the shortest and easiest way to see the “Frozen Niagara” of the Mammoth Cave.
The Domes and Dripstones Tour starts off by going down down down the stairs!
There are a lot of stairs to go down as soon as you enter the cave.
This part is fun!
There are parts where you’ll be going down narrow stairs with the cave walls literally right next to you.
And then you continue walking along a cave trail, and towards the end is where you’ll see the Frozen Niagara.
Camping in Mammoth Cave National Park
You can go camping in Mammoth Cave National Park!
The best campground in Mammoth Cave National Park if you will be doing cave tours is the Mammoth Cave campground.
This is located near the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center where the cave tours start.
You make Mammoth Cave campground reservations through the official National Park Service reservation website.
There are also more campgrounds in Mammoth Cave National Park if you want to explore a different area of the park.
Modern camper tip
While there is wifi at the visitor center, there is almost no service throughout Mammoth Cave National Park.
But I did get good t-mobile service at the Doyel Valley Overlook where there’s an opening in the trees.
It was good enough that I could watch TV shows online. 😂
The Doyel Valley Overlook is located a few minutes drive from Mammoth Cave Campground.
There is a small roadside parking area, and the overlook itself is not much of an overlook, although the significance is that you will be looking towards the western edge of the Appalachian mountain range.
So everyone just comes and goes, if they stop at all.
Cost to visit Mammoth Cave National Park
In 2022, the cost to enter Mammoth Cave National Park was free, but there are fees to go into the cave.
You can see the Mammoth Cave historic entrance for free since you can go to that on your own. (Again, you cannot go inside without a ticket, but you can SEE the entrance from the top.)
You can also do the hiking trails in Mammoth Cave National Park for free. (If you walk past the historic cave entrance, it’s a short hike to the River Styx Spring and Green River.)
If you have a regular annual national park pass, it won’t do you any good at Mammoth Cave National Park, as it gives you no discount on the cave tours and since there is free entry to the park itself. If you have a senior pass or access pass, then this seems to give you a discount.
How much do the Mammoth Cave tours cost?
The cost of a Mammoth Cave tour will depend on which tour you decide on. The cost of tickets for the regular Mammoth Cave tours is around $20 per person.
The adult prices are listed below, and there is a discounted rate for kids.
Number of reviews are at the time I created this list, also indicating the most popular tours.
Mammoth Cave National Park tours based on popularity:
- The Historic Tour is $20 per person. (2 hours, 2 miles, 540 steps, moderate, 1,034 reviews)
- The Extended Historic Tour is $23 per person. (2 hours 15 minutes, 2.25 miles, 540 steps, moderate, 987 reviews)
- The Domes and Dripstones Tour is $21 per person. (2 hours, 0.75 miles, 500 steps, moderate, 774 reviews)
- The Frozen Niagara Tour is $18 per person. (1 hour 15 minutes, 0.25 miles, 12 steps, easy, 330 reviews)
- The Grand Avenue Tour is $35 per person. (4 hours, 4 miles, 1313 steps, difficult, 197 reviews)
- The River Styx Tour is $22 per person. (2.5 hours, 2.5 miles, 574 steps, moderate, 159 reviews)
- The Mammoth Passage Tour is $11 per person. (1 hour 15 minutes, 0.75 miles, 125 steps, easy, 157 reviews)
- The Gothic Avenue Tour is $19 per person. (2 hours, 1 mile, 160 steps, moderate, 142 reviews)
- The Violet City Lantern Tour is $25 per person. (3 hours, 3 miles, 160 steps, difficult, 66 reviews)
- The Cleaveland Avenue Tour is $22 per person. (2.5 hours, 2 miles, 400 steps, moderate, 55 reviews)
- The Great Onyx Lantern Tour is $23 per person. (2 hours 15 minutes, 1 mile, 82 steps, moderate, 53 reviews)
- The Star Chamber Tour is $25 per person. (evening “experience” lantern tour, 2.5 hours, 1.5 miles 160 steps, moderate, 12 reviews)
What to wear to Mammoth Cave National Park
It is said that inside Mammoth Cave is consistently in the mid-50s.
So, you will likely want to wear a sweatshirt or light jacket inside Mammoth Cave.
Also because you will be walking a lot, you will want to wear good walking shoes inside Mammoth Cave.
Also while we are talking about what to wear, we will also talk about what not to wear on your next cave trip after Mammoth Cave!
Take a full-body picture of yourself when you are inside Mammoth Cave!
This way, you will know what NOT to wear the next time you go inside a cave!
There’s a disease that’s deadly to bats that is known to exist in Mammoth Cave National Park called white-nose syndrome. (This doesn’t affect humans at all.)
White-nose syndrome is thought to have been mostly spread from cave to cave by humans who have entered a cave with the fungus and then tracked it into another cave.
This is why it’s best not to wear the same shoes (or even clothes) that you wore into Mammoth Cave into any other cave in the world.
So, by taking a picture of yourself, you’ll know what you wore into Mammoth Cave so you’ll know what not to wear to another cave!
Save the bats!
And that’s a little bit about a trip to Mammoth Cave!
If you’ll be driving through Kentucky, how about a detour to drive through the best of Tennessee too?!
- Best scenic drives in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Where to next after Mammoth Cave?!
- Miami to Key West
- Everglades National Park FL
- Florida Caverns State Park FL
- Upper Peninsula road trip
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore MI
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore MI
- Wind Cave National Park SD
- Jewel Cave National Monument SD
- Craters of the Moon National Monument caves ID
- Cave of the Winds NY (not a real cave 😜)
HAPPY WALKING AROUND MAMMOTH CAVE INSIDE AND ABOVE GROUND!