Mammoth Cave National Park: Kentucky's Major Attraction

Name: Mammoth Cave National Park (United States of America).
Location: in the state of Kentucky, 124 miles northeast of Nashville.
Area: 50,736 acres.

Mammoth Cave National Park

The hidden openings in the prairie lead to the large Mammoth cave, the world's largest known cavern in the terrestrial crust. The recent story of this network of galleries, wells and underground rivers started in 1798, when a trapper who was chasing a group of cubs, lost suddenly their trace in the now called "Historic Entrance".

Years later, began the touristic exploitation of the cavern, which counted with the visits of famous diplomats such as the Brazil Emperor or the Grand Duke of Russia. At the end of the 19th century, two experienced speleologists, a French and an American, decided to unveil some of the mysteries of the large cave. Their explorations confirmed the existence of 75 miles of galleries, which justified the name of Mammoth Cave, name that the cave already had.

It has been calculated that the rocks in Mammoth Cave are around 300 million years old. At that time, the current American prairie was still a marine extension above which took place an intense accumulation of sedimentary materials. The caves, on the other hand, are 100 million years old and they are the result of an uninterrupted action of the underground waters on a relatively soluble material like the karstic limestone. Karstification is the process through which the calcium carbonate substitutes its calcium atoms by others of magnesium. The new formed rock now possesses a higher water solubility, triggering different eroding processes inside the large rock package. The particular disposition of the stratums, in horizontal layers, as well as the fissures of rocks which communicate some sedimentary layers with others, facilitates the circulation of the water and, as a consequence, the creation of galleries and underground hollows. The wells with a width of 30 inches or more and with a minimum depth of 100 feet are very abundant in Mammoth Cave.

Visiting Mammoth Cave

Since 1941, date when it was created the Mammoth Cave National Park, the number of visitors has been growing constantly, surpassing the 500,000 annual visitors mark. The spectacular dimensions of the cave allow experts to create 6 different itineraries, adapted to the physical shape and motivation of the explorer. The most tortuous itinerary starts in the Carmichael entry and traces a 4.5 mile underground trail that leads to Cleveland gallery (where the visitor can see particular formations of plaster and calcite) and the zone of Crystal Lake, where the guide will narrate the tragic story of Floyd Collins. In 1925, this fearless explorer was stuck for weeks because of a prior collapse, until appearing without any breath of life. To pay tribute to this explorer, his remains were buried in this place. The tour ends near the Frozen Niagara, an important wall of 70 feet high by 50 feet width.

For the lovers of speleology is recommended the itinerary "Wild Tour" which consists of 5 miles of relatively narrow corridors and rooms full of stalactites and stalagmites. Despite the remote possibility of getting lost, the guide will always scare the audience a bit, telling them the story of Charles Harvey, a young man who in 1830 stayed alone and in complete darkness for 2 days in these landscapes. Finally, he was rescued and told the authorities that what made him more scared was not the darkness, but the cold feeling of absolute silence.

No other cave complex in the world encloses such a diverse collection of minerals rich in sulphates, as Mammoth Cave does. This fact explains the wide range of hues in the walls, where the ochre, yellow and green hues are the most prevailing. The plaster salts, located always in high and dry places, introduce a range of whites, of different hues depending on the impurities that these contain.

Life in the Depths

In 1842, a German naturalist described the blind fish of Kentucky (Amblyopsis spelaea) in Mammoth Cave.

The discovery lightened a vivid controversy about the limits of life, as it was the first time that a caveman vertebrate was described, with the exception of bats. This fish presents rudimentary eyes covered by skin and also a lack of pigmentation which makes the livery acquire a mild pink hue.

There was again place for investigation after discovering two new species of fish (Typhlichtys subterraneous and Chologaster agassizi), between which it doesn't seem to exist an excessive competence.

The caveman invertebrates are incredibly well represented in Mammoth Cave, containing near 200 species. Among these, stand out endemic forms of pseudoscorpions (g. Kieptochonius), centipedes (g. Austriadesmus), beetles (g. Pseudoanophtalmus), as well as the blind shrimp (Paleomonias ganteri), which thanks to a highly developed sensorial mechanism detects the water vibrations, capturing the microscopic protozoa, their main source of food.

Mammoth Cave has also allowed to make important anthropological discoveries, as the warm shelter of the cave was used since prehistoric times by the man. 50 Pre-Columbian deposits, belonging to 4 different phases, have remains of mummies, clothes and tools of significant importance. Special mention deserve the abundant human excrements, which have allowed scientists to establish accurately the alimentary diet of the old inhabitants of the Kentucky prairies.

Every place is adequate to fall into the profound reflections that Shakespeare's works inspire. But, is there any place that reflects better the lights and shadows of the soliloquy in Hammlet than the largest limestone cave on Earth? Edwin Booth and the public who had the fortune to attend his declaration in Mammoth Cave can give a comprehensive answer to this question.

Source: Mammoth Cave

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