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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Extended Historic Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park

Journey through the depths of history with the Extended Historic Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park. This immersive experience takes you through a series of mesmerizing caverns, each revealing the secrets of an ancient underground world. From the grandeur of Mammoth Dome, the largest known dome in the cave system, to the echoes of the past in passages like Broadway Avenue, Fat Man's Misery, and abandoned tuberculosis huts, this tour offers a glimpse into the geological wonders and cultural significance of Mammoth Cave.

Bathrooms No

Water No

Stairs 230 descending, 210 ascending

Duration 2.5 hours

The tour begins with a quarter-mile stroll along the paved Historic Entrance Trail, starting at the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center. The path descends through a steep valley to reach the Historic Entrance, the largest natural opening into Mammoth Cave, serving as a passage for exploration for nearly 3,000 years.

Historic Entrance Mammoth Cave

After a short descent into the cave and a brief walk through the dimly lit passage known as Houchins Narrows, the tour arrives at the Rotunda, one of Mammoth Cave's most well-known cave rooms. The expansive chamber spans roughly one quarter acre and features a circular-shaped ceiling that towers nearly 40 feet above.

Mammoth Cave Rotunda

Here, in Mammoth Cave's sixth-largest cave room, three intersecting passages - Houchins Narrows, Broadway, and Audubon Avenue - converge. The tour progresses along Broadway Avenue, where visitors will encounter numerous wooden pipes on the left side of the cave, remnants of saltpetre mining from the early 1800s.

Broadway Avenue Mammoth Cave

After a few hundred yards, Broadway Avenue descends into a large canyon room named Methodist Church. In the 1830s, Reverend George Slaughter Gatewood conducted church services here, occasionally taking parishioners' lanterns upon their arrival to ensure they remained throughout his sermons. He preached from a formation referred to as The Pulpit, which can be found along the left side of the trail, near the bottom of the Methodist Church room.

Methodist Church Mammoth Cave

Rangers frequently pause at this point to delve into the cave's history. If you're lucky, they may showcase one of the instances of ancient Native American rock art within Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave petroglyph

Near the edge of one of the enormous limestone slabs along the trail, there is a petroglyph resembling a checkerboard pattern. The true intention of the ancient artist remains unknown, however, similar depictions have been discovered both in the local area and across the country.

Mammoth Cave petroglyph

Proceeding from Methodist Church, the tour advances along Broadway Avenue, passing more leaching vats akin to those in the Rotunda, until reaching a junction known as Booth's Amphitheater. The large canyon passage, named after 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, guides visitors to Gothic Avenue. Those who later opt for the Gothic Avenue Tour would turn right and ascend a short staircase, while those on the Historic or Extended Historic Tours continue straight.

Broadway Avenue Mammoth Cave

Beyond Booth's Amphitheater, the Extended Historic Tour continues along the gentle rolling contour of Broadway Avenue, venturing deeper into the cave.

Mammoth Cave Historic Tour.

Upon reaching The Giant's Coffin, a colossal 1,000-ton boulder measuring 48 feet in length and 20 feet in height, embellished with numerous historical signatures, park rangers pause to elaborate on the area and address any questions that visitors may have.

Giant's Coffin Mammoth Cave

One of the more intriguing historical signatures left on Giant's Coffin belongs to Joseph Nash McDowell (1805-1868), one of the most well-known and respected physicians of his time west of the Mississippi. The controversial doctor is most remembered for his grave-digging practices, where he illegally exhumed corpses in order to study human anatomy. McDowell visited the cave in 1839, when he left his signature "J N McDowell, MD 1839" along the center/left side where a large section of the slab's face had fallen off.

Following his visit to Mammoth Cave, the doctor purchased McDowell Cave in Hannibal, Missouri and used it as his laboratory for medical research on human corpses. It was here that he performed perhaps his most controversial experiment.

A deeply religious man, his conviction that traditional burial stifled the soul of the dead and that an alternative form of interment would facilitate communication between the living and the dead. This belief led him to place his recently deceased 14-year-old daughter, Amanda, in an alcohol-filled copper coffin within the cave, believing that it would allow him to communicate with her after death.

This event inspired literary giant Mark Twain, a personal friend of McDowell, to write about it in his book "Life on the Mississippi." It was the second time McDowell had inspired Twain. In the author's legendary "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," the character Dr. Robinson was based on the life and practices of the eccentric doctor. Today, Hannibal's McDowell Cave goes by the name Mark Twain Cave.

More on Giant's Coffin. The initial moniker bestowed upon the landmark was "Steamboat," but as the 1840s unfolded, visitors collectively envisioned it as a colossal coffin fit for a giant. Guides began crafting narratives about an ancient race of giants that once traversed this terrain. Among them, a young giant named Cozad made daily excursions into the depths of a cave, discovering a realm untouched by sunlight, inhabited by peculiar creatures thriving in darkness. Cozad formed a bond with these beings, pledging to safeguard them and their abode.

Local tribes, acknowledging Cozad's benevolence, made daily offerings at the cave entrance. Despite the passage of time, the offerings vanished each night, fostering a harmonious relationship between the tribes and Cozad. The entrance to the underworld remained accessible, contingent on the preservation of the cave and its inhabitants.

One fateful night, a tribal warrior patrolling the entrance noticed the offerings remained untouched. Concerned tribal leaders feared they had offended the giant, prompting them to dispatch their finest warriors and scholars on a pilgrimage. Illuminated by torchlight, the group ventured into the depths, witnessing shadows dancing in the amber glow against ashen stone walls. Deep within the silence, they discovered the aged gentle giant peacefully slumbering on the stone floor.

Despite numerous attempts to awaken him, the giant remained undisturbed. In response, the tribe constructed the stone coffin that now safeguards him. Legend foretells that when his cave companions require his assistance, the giant will awaken and traverse these passages once more.

Following Giant's Coffin, the tour makes a brief stop at two stone huts nearby. These huts were constructed in the early 1840s under the direction of John Croghan, the cave owner at the time. Croghan, believing that the cave's environment had healing properties based on reports from visitors and miners who felt rejuvenated after spending time there, built these huts to conduct an experiment aimed at treating tuberculosis patients. In the winter of 1842, he invited 16 tuberculosis patients to live in the huts. Unfortunately, the cave's dark and conditions worsened their health, leading to the death of five patients and the eventual abandonment of the experiment. It's worth noting that the stop at the huts is the only distinction in the route between the Historic Tour and the Extended Historic Tour.

After this, the tour retraces its path and heads behind Giant's Coffin and through Dante's Gateway, a narrow passage guiding visitors from the expansive upper sections to the lower areas of the cave. This snug passageway is named after Dante Alighieri's Inferno, where Dante's Gateway is depicted as the entrance to the Underworld.

Mammoth Cave Steps of TIme

Following the descent of Dante's Gateway, the tour continues through the Wooden Bowl Room, so named after an ancient Native American wooden bowl was discovered at one point in time. The bowl is now in the possession of the Mammoth Cave National Park Curatorial Department in climate controlled storage.

Mammoth Cave Historic Tour

The tour then passes through Black Snake Avenue where historical graffiti can be found in all directions.

The path continues down the Steps of Time, over Side Saddle Pit, and right after that, it traverses the Bottomless Pit—a storied feature of Mammoth Cave, plunging 105 feet deep.

Bottomless Pit Mammoth Cave

A steel bridge with grated flooring stretches across both pits, but those with a healthy fear of heights may want to avoid looking down.

Prior to 1838, the Bottomless Pit remained unconquered. The very idea of attempting to cross it was considered insane. There were no bridges spanning it and no ledges to walk along to pass it. In the early days of Mammoth Cave, explorers would test the pit's depth by tossing torches into it, labeling it "bottomless" when the light became invisible. Stories of the treacherous pit became widespread, and in February 1838, various newspapers circulated reports about the pit, suggesting its profound depth might extend throughout the entire diameter of the earth.

Bottomless Pit newspaper article

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the Bottomless Pit, Stephen Bishop, an enslaved cave guide and the greatest spelunker to ever explore Mammoth Cave, remained undeterred. In the autumn of 1838, he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first person to traverse it. The narrative unfolds with Hiram C Stevenson, a native of Kentucky, tempting Bishop with a "fistful of money" to guide him to uncharted territory within the cave—a place no visitor had ever set foot. Undaunted, Bishop led Stevenson to the Bottomless Pit, improvising a precarious wooden ladder to bridge the gap. With Bishop navigating while gripping his lantern between his teeth and Stevenson securing the ladder at one end, he crawled to the opposite side. Stevenson soon followed, and once they returned from their expedition, he rewarded Bishop with a gold piece. A brief mention of Bishop's accomplishment was published in the Vermont Watchman and State Journal.

Stephen Bishop Bottomless Pit discovery

The Raleigh Register provided a more extensive account, detailing several additional contributions made by Bishop to Mammoth Cave.

Bottomless Pit newspaper article

Following the Bottomless Pit, the route progresses through more low-hanging passages, eventually leading to Fat Man's Misery. Discovered by Stephen Bishop, Fat Man's Misery, formerly named Winding Way, is a keyhole-shaped passage spanning approximately 100 feet in length and slightly wider than hip-width. Toward the end of the passage, visitors navigate through Tall Man's Misery, a section with low clearance that reduces to a height of only three feet.

Fat Man's Misery Mammoth Cave

After navigating through Fat Man's Misery, the tour arrives at Great Relief Hall, where rangers commonly take a break to answer visitors' questions and provide insights into the upcoming cave features. About 200 feet from the beginning of Great Relief Hall, an intriguing piece of graffiti appears, bearing the inscription "Landram's Saxhorn Band, 1855." Although it is believed to be the handiwork of a musical group that explored Mammoth Cave a few years before the Civil War, there is no documented record of the band in park registers, shrouding the identity of the band in mystery to the present day.

Mammoth Cave

After visiting Great Relief Hall, the tour continues to River Hall, a spacious cave room where rangers usually pause to share more about the cave's history. River Hall is notable as the location where Stephen Bishop discovered a passageway leading to the cave's underground river system. Following his discovery, Bishop returned to the surface, gathered wood and tools, and used the same route featured in this tour to construct a boat for navigating the waterways. During the explorations of these waterways, Bishop was the first to discover Kentucky cave shrimp, eyeless fish, and other strange creatures found in few, if any, places on Earth.

Moving forward, the tour advances through Sparks Avenue, eventually reaching a major highlight of the excursion—the remarkable Mammoth Dome. This remarkable 190-foot-tall vertical shaft comprises Crevice Pit at its base and Mammoth Dome at its apex, earning the title of the largest known dome in the cave system. The Mammoth Dome Tower acts as a bridge linking the lower Historic Trail to the upper Historic Trail, ascending over 200 feet above the cave floor via nearly 140 stairs.

Mammoth Dome Tower

Before ascending the tower, visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view of Mammoth Dome overhead.

Mammoth Dome

While climbing the tower, visitors can enjoy incredible views from above, capturing the splendid beauty of both Mammoth Dome and Crevice Pit.

Crevice Pit Mammoth Cave

Upon reaching the top of the tower, the tour continues along Little Bat Avenue, a former residence for scores of bats. Although the passage is now devoid of bats, observant visitors may still notice stains on the ceiling left by the bats' feet when they used to roost there.

Little Bat Avenue Mammoth Cave

Little Bat Avenue terminates at Audubon Avenue, which circles back to the Rotunda, creating a loop. From the Rotunda, visitors are led back to the Historical Entrance, where the tour comes to its conclusion.


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