Named in honor of Parker Cleaveland, Professor of Mineral Geology at Harvard, the Cleaveland Avenue Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park is a must-do for history buffs and geology lovers. The tour showcases some of the most extraordinary natural mineral formations in Mammoth Cave, offers visitors a glimpse into early cave exploration, and an opportunity to learn about perhaps the most fantastic section of cave in the entire park, Cleaveland's Cabinet.
Bathrooms at the end
Stairs 400 descending
Duration 2-2.5 hours
The tour kicks off with a brief 5-minute park shuttle from the visitor center to the Carmichael Entrance. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a lengthy staircase, consisting of 400 steps, descending roughly 300 below the surface, leading to a well-trodden dirt trail. After a brief walk, a spacious cave section unfolds, followed by another leisurely walk down a gentle slope.
Upon reaching the base of the slope, visitors will have a fantastic view of a large pile of breakdown known as Rocky Mountain. Park rangers typically pause here to provide insights into the cave's history, including the passage's discovery in 1840 by enslaved cave guide Stephen Bishop.
Following a turn in the trail, the next section of the cave emerges, resembling a low-hanging, oblong lava tube, well-lit every few hundred feet.
Just a short distance into this section of the cave, rangers will point out striking gypsum formations often resembling lilies or snowballs on the ceiling and walls, a feature consistently seen throughout Cleaveland Avenue.
The rangers will also highlight instances of cave graffiti, created by using charcoal pencils and smoke, remnants left behind by miners and cave explorers over the past two centuries.
The cave boasts an average width exceeding 50 feet, with an average ceiling height of roughly 10 feet. The park ranger featured in the photo below provides an indication of the scale visitors can anticipate.
Except for the initial descent into the cave and the spacious room near the start of the tour, the entire excursion will look very much the same. Throughout, rangers occasionally pause to highlight abandoned mining equipment from years past, discuss the numerous contributions of Stephen Bishop, and point out openings at ground level that connect to other sections of Mammoth Cave used during the Wild Cave Tour.
Shortly before the tour's conclusion, rangers point out the entrance to Cleaveland's Cabinet, a cavern spanning nearly two miles adorned with stunning gypsum and alabaster flower-shaped formations, some larger than the average human. Despite visitors being prohibited from entering one of Mammoth Cave's most otherworldly features (not even park rangers are permitted), it's said that every square foot of Cleaveland's Cabinet is filled with breathtaking formations in the shapes of roses, dahlias, tulips, carnations, and most abundantly, lilies, all in brilliant white.
In Guide Book to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky (Hovey, 1887), the author describes Cleaveland's Cabinet as follows:
"...a Paradise where all the flowers are fair and crystalline, and which, in the opinion of some of the guides, is the most beautiful place in the whole cave...a treasure-house of alabaster brilliants known as Cleveland's Cabinet. What words can picture forth its beauty? Imagine symmetrical arches, of 50 feet span, where the fancy is at once enlivened and bewildered by a mimicry of every flower that grows in the garden, forest, or prairie, from the modest daisy to the flaunting helianthus...as if in a dream of Elysium - not for a few hundred yards, or rods, but for one or two miles! All virgin white, except here and there a little patch of gray limestone...Midway is a great floral cross overhead, formed by the natural grouping of stone rosettes. Floral clusters, bouquets, wreaths, garlands, embellish nearly every foot of the ceiling and walls; and the very soil sparkles with trodden jewels..."
The discovery occurred in August 1841 as the renowned guide Stephen Bishop guided two men along Cleaveland Avenue. The Sunbury American, among the many newspapers nationwide, reported on the extraordinary find.
A little more than a year following the revelation of Cleaveland's Cabinet, Edwin Oscar Perrin, an Ohio lawyer and politician, explored the cave with Stephen Bishop and became enthralled with its wonders. His comments were featured in the Cleveland Herald and later circulated nationwide through republication.
A year after Perrin's expedition, the Louisville Daily Courier printed the narrative of a different cave explorer, who also expressed admiration towards the cave feature.
After a short stroll, the path reaches the Snowball Room, a former kitchen and dining hall. Here, visitors will find numerous cave signatures dating back to the mid-1800s on the walls and ceiling. A noteworthy inscription to seek out is positioned along the right wall, roughly chest high. The inscription reads, "To Nick The Guide," and pays homage to Nick Bransford. In 1838, Bransford, an enslaved man, was leased to cave owner John Croghan and subsequently trained by Stephen Bishop to serve as a tour guide. In 1863, Bransford purchased his own freedom with the tips he earned as a cave guide as well as the savings he accrued from selling eyeless cave fish to tourists. Remarkably, he served as a guide in Mammoth Cave for five decades, continuing this role even after gaining his freedom. The inscription stands as the sole documented dedication to an enslaved guide in Mammoth Cave, written by a visitor of the cave.
Another interesting piece of historical graffiti on that same wall bears the inscription, "Hoofland's Tonic, 1869, July 28, O. Mill, Richmond, VA." This particular marking points to a panacea-like medicine that purported to remedy a wide range of ailments, including jaundice, constipation, nausea, heartburn, depression, and more. The painted inscription is known as the most prominent commercial advertisement within the confines of Mammoth Cave.
Upon concluding the tour at this point, an elevator returns visitors 267 feet back to the surface. In the event that the elevator is non-operational, an occasional occurrence, the only way back to the top is retracing your steps, adding another mile and 400 stairs to the adventure.