Exploring the largest cave system in the world and the park above it
This summer, we had the great privilege of escaping the sweltering Florida heat and spending five weeks on the road, photographing most of the national parks east of the Mississippi, as well as a half dozen or so other National Park Service monuments, memorials and battlefields along the way. Our first stop was Mammoth Cave National Park.
As you would imagine from its name, the major attraction of Mammoth Cave National Park is the cave system itself. Human history in the cave by Native Americans and then Europeans dates back at least 3,000 years – in fact there is evidence that the indigenous peoples of the area explored miles into the cave with nothing more than cane torches and their bare feet. In modern times, people would continue to both explore and employ the cave, using its unique environment to mine saltpeter, provide respite to patients dying of consumption, and for well over 100 years, provide a unique experience for tourists from around the world. Today, over 400 miles of passages have been discovered, making Mammoth the largest known cave system in the world.
When we booked our early-July cave tour about a month before our trip, there were only a few tours still open, but thankfully the extended historic tour was available and was right up our alley. The weather at the visitor’s center was warm and humid, but as soon as we turned the corner and walked into the ravine that led to the cave, we could feel a distinctly cool breeze at our feet. By the time we arrived outside the gaping maw of Mammoth Cave, a few hundred yards down the path, their was a distinct chill in the air. The temperature inside the cave was a brisk 54°F.
We were blessed with two gifted park rangers to lead our tour, Rangers Jim Jarvis and Shannon Hurley. They brought the history of the caves alive and their passion for the preservation of Mammoth Cave and its ecosystem were more than contagious. In all, the tour lasted about two and a half hours and covered a distance of a little over 2 miles, including 540 steps. Though most of the tour was spent in broad and expansive parts of Mammoth Cave, there were a few sections that were a bit tight – aptly named Fat Man’s and Tall Man’s Misery, though even for this rather fat man, it wasn’t bad.
But if all you do is explore the cave, you have missed much of the wealth that is Mammoth Cave National Park. The Green River has cut its meandering way through the park, bisecting the 52,000 acres above the surface. Prior to becoming a national park, several mountain communities eked out a modest living on the lands and made a way of life for themselves along the fertile banks of the river. Though most of the buildings are lost to time, two modest churches from the 19th century have been preserved by the park, providing a glimpse of a simpler time. Another staple of the region was the river ferry. At one time, the Green River had 9 ferry crossings in the area, providing a crucial resource to the rural population. Today, the Parks Service maintains one such ferry, Dennison Ferry, as the only means of crossing the Green River in the park. Its a wonderfully unique experience and the best way to access and explore the northwestern portions of the park when its operating.
Be sure to click the link below to see our full collection of fine art photography from Mammoth Cave. And for all you photographers our there, wanting to photograph in the cave, here’s a couple of tips: bring in your widest angle, biggest aperture lens and take lots of each photo. We brought in our 14mm F1.4 lens and I still had to shoot at ISO 3200+ with a shutter speed of a 10th of a second or longer. They do not allow tripods on the tours either, so it’s all handheld. Needless to say, we had about 5 blurry shots for every one crisp image.
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