When we travel the first things I look for near our destination are bike rentals and National Parks, while the first thing Danielle looks for is a pool. On our recent trip to Nashville, I was successful in one of the two and realized Mammoth Caves National Park (MCNP) was a short one and half hour drive away. PERFECT! I started to think this will be awesome, time to go spelunking. But then it dawned on me that it wasn’t just Danielle I had to convince, the whole reason we were headed to Nashville was to have an extended weekend vacation with friends we hadn’t seen in a while. So the logistics of making a trip to MCNP suddenly became a little more complicated. My thoughts quickly transitioned from exploring the depths of the earth to how will we get everyone there? Will everyone even want to go? What activities should we plan? And many more.
Thankfully our friends are awesome. While I wouldn’t lump the group into the outdoors fanatics category, they do enjoy camping from time to time along with fishing and other outdoor activities. I sent an email to the group about this once in a lifetime opportunity to explore the longest cave in the world. While my salesmanship may have been lacking, the response was roughly “sounds fun”, not a resounding yes, but enough interest to build some hope on. It was time to start planning and looking at activities.
Normally I would pick one of the more epic things to do in the park. In this case that appeared to be the Wild Cave Tour. An eight-hour cave expedition into the depths of the cave. But there was one “small” problem with that, a two-year-old would be joining us on the trip. Don’t get me wrong I was excited to spend some time with our friends and their daughter (who became my best friend on the trip), but realistically there is no way an eight-hour cave expedition is going to happen with a toddler. Not having any kids or really knowing what a two-year-old is capable of I put together a list of shorter, diverse activities within the park. Thankfully this park has a lot more than just cave tours. There are a lot of hikes ranging from short nature trails to longer day hikes. There is also a river that runs through the park that you can float down in a canoe or kayak.
As the trip grew closer the itinerary was getting finalized and MCNP was scheduled for Sunday. I sent out my list of potential activities and a shorter cave tour and/or floating the river seemed to be the group’s choice. A week before our departure, one of us called to get more details on the float trip and it turns out they had been getting a lot of rain making the river too high to float. That made our decision a little easier, now it was down to which cave tour to go on. Some of the tours allow reservations, while others are first come first served. Procrastination got the better of me and by the time we checked (three days out) most of the tours that allowed reservations were already full. Uh-oh.
Sunday finally arrived and we loaded up and got out the door. We had two cars so getting there was easy, but the big question was “will there be a tour opening for us?” We stopped and took the mandatory picture with the park entrance sign and then proceeded onto the visitor center. Wahoo, there were still openings for two of the tours: the Historic tour and the Domes and Dripstones tour. Both tours were the same duration of two hours, but the distances were different; two miles for the Historic tour and only three-quarters of a mile for the Domes and Dripstones tour. The group decided on the Historic tour for the slightly longer distance. We had about an hour and a half wait before our tour departed so some of the group hung around the visitor center, while a few of us did a very short hike to a sink hole. Well, the sink hole was a bit of a letdown. It was more of a small depression in the ground rather than a hole, but nonetheless the hike through a heavily wooded forest was enjoyable.
We all met back up and joined the others going on the tour and descended into the cave. It was immediately clear that I should have brought a jacket. I know that caves are cold, but when packing it slipped my mind and I didn’t pack one. Oh well, it was only two hours. Luckily, I was only cold for the first half hour and then my body adjusted – it was actually a pleasant change from the hot and humid temperatures outside. The tour itself was a lot of fun. It was easy enough for our friends and their two-year-old (who was strapped in a backpack the whole time), but there were also sections where you had to squeeze through narrow passages, like “Fat Mans Misery”. The tour took a few breaks while the rangers provided some history of the cave, from its early days when Native Americans used it, to later when the cave was used for mining operations and finally the history of the cave as a national park. At one point in the tour the ranger turned off all the lights and we got to experience complete darkness which was quite impressive. I’ve never experienced that before and I am impressed that people were brave enough to come down here with lanterns and torches. It would be almost impossible to get out of the cave if your lantern ran out of gas.
After the tour everyone agreed that it was a lot of fun and everyone was happy we made the drive to do it. Phew, what a relief. The toddler in our group did extremely well too, which made her parents happy. Later they told me they were a bit apprehensive about it almost to the point of waiting in the visitor’s center. In the end everything worked out and we all got to experience the longest cave in the world – well at least two miles of it. All my worries during the planning stages weren’t a big deal after all. The biggest challenge of the day was deciding where we wanted to eat dinner.
Besides all the things I learned on the tour, I realized the importance of setting realistic expectations and being flexible when traveling with a large group. I am really happy that the trip worked out and that Danielle and I got to share our love for the parks with our friends. Mammoth Cave NP was very enjoyable and is a great park for a short day trip or weekend trip.
Oh and by the way Danielle did find a pool in Nashville.
(The pictures aren’t as good as I hoped. There weren’t many opportunities to set up my little gorilla pod for long exposures so some are a bit blurry. If photography is your hobby there is a tour catered towards photographers where they allow tripods and plenty of time for photos.)