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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Violet City Lantern Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park

The Violet City Lantern Tour, arguably one of the most intriguing experiences at Mammoth Cave National Park, guides visitors through some of the largest cave rooms in the entire cave system. Visitors can expect to view ancient Native American rock art and relics, towering underground waterfalls, and traverse rolling terrain rich with 5,000 years of history, all illuminated solely by the light of oil-fueled lanterns. One of the park's premier offerings, the Violet City Lantern Tour, leaves a lasting impression, particularly for history enthusiasts and those fascinated by the earliest explorers of Mammoth Cave.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Bathrooms No

Water No

Stairs 63 descending, 147 ascending

Duration 3 hours



Like all cave tours, the Violet City Lantern Tour starts at the shelter area of the Visitor Center. During tour orientation, guides hand out lanterns, which serve as the only source of light throughout the tour. About one in three visitors will carry a lantern.


Violet City Lantern Tour

After a brief walk to the Historic Entrance, the tour proceeds through Houchins Narrows and into the Rotunda, before turning left into Broadway Avenue. As visitors navigate the dimly lit passageway, their eyes gradually adjust before reaching Methodist Church, a large cave room where, in the 1830s, local preacher Reverend George Slaughter Gatewood delivered sermons from a ledge above.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Known for his notoriously long sermons, Gatewood would collect his followers' lanterns and place them on the ledge he preached from, high above his followers, ensuring they couldn't leave the otherwise pitch black cave. A careful eye can spot Reverend Gatewood's cave signature, "GSG," along the left side of the cave near the ledge from which he preached.


Violet City Lantern Tour

As the tour moves beyond Methodist Church, it reaches 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, eventually leads to Gothic Avenue. Along the way, visitors will encounter saltpetre vats used for gunpowder production during the War of 1812.


A short distance later, the tour reaches Giant's Coffin, a massive 1,000-ton rock slab steeped in legend and covered in historical graffiti. Although the lanterns do not provide enough light to see Giant's Coffin, guides will discuss the area and its significance. Those who later opt for the Historic Tour will have the chance to view Giant's Coffin fully illuminated and look for the signature of Joseph Nash McDowell, one of the more intriguing visitors to Mammoth Cave in the 1830s.


Violet City Lantern Tour

After passing Giant's Coffin, the tour proceeds beyond two tuberculosis huts built in the 1830s by cave owner John Croghan (pronounced "Kron"). Those interested in learning more about the huts should consider the Extended Historic Tour, where significantly more time is spent discussing the failed experiment.


Shortly after, the tour arrives at Star Chamber, a spacious room where guides collect lanterns and delve into more of the cave's early history. Star Chamber gets its name from its ceiling, where tiny white limestone specks contrast with soot-soaked gypsum, creating the illusion of a starry sky. Impossible to photograph, but certainly worth experiencing.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Inspired by an 1850 visit to Star Chamber, author Ralph Waldo Emerson penned the following in his letter "Illusions":


"On arriving at what is called the "Star-Chamber," our lamps were taken from us by the guide, and extinguished or put aside, and, on looking upwards, I saw or seemed to see the night heaven thick with stars glimmering more or less brightly over our heads, and even what seemed a comet flaming among them. All the party were touched with astonishment and pleasure. Our musical friends sung with much feeling a pretty song, "The stars are in the quiet sky," and I sat down on the rocky floor to enjoy the serene picture. Some crystal specks in the black ceiling high overhead, reflecting the light of a half-hid lamp, yielded this magnificent effect."


Shortly after leaving Star Chamber, guides often point out a boulder on the right side of the trail adorned with ancient Native American relics. Among these are a gourd bowl and the remnants of hundreds of cane reed torches, evidence of the cave's earliest explorers.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Further along, the tour pauses at a rock slab known as Devil's Looking Glass. At first glance, it resembles any other rock in the cave, but on the backside, guides reveal ancient Native American pictographs.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Although the exact meaning of the ancient cave paintings remains uncertain, the images are thought to depict an anthropomorphic (humanlike) figure on the left and a zoomorphic (animal-like) figure on the right. These were presumably created using the burnt cane reed torches the artists used to navigate the cave. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the paintings were made thousands of years ago, likely by the Archaic or Early Woodland peoples who mined the cave for various minerals.


Violet City Lantern Tour

After pausing at Devil's Looking Glass, the tour proceeds through S-Bend and eventually arrives at Wright's Rotunda, a colossal T-shaped cave chamber named after Professor C.A. Wright, M.D. In an effort to capitalize on the cave's tourism potential, early cave owner John Croghan envisioned constructing an underground hotel in Wright's Rotunda. However, his vision never materialized.


Continuing from Wright's Rotunda, the tour reaches Cataracts, where a sizable waterfall cascades from a large hole in the cave's ceiling. Although challenging to photograph due to poor lighting, both locations are remarkable stops along the tour.


Following Cataracts, the tour continues through a series of steep ascents and descents known as Monument Hills. At the onset of this section, guides might highlight another large rock slab adorned with another panel of ancient Native American pictographs, likely depicting zoomorphic figures.


Violet City Lantern Tour

At nearly 2 miles into the cave, the next stop is Chief City, the largest cave chamber showcased on tours at Mammoth Cave. Spanning 2.5 acres, this room is five times the size of the Rotunda encountered near the Historic Here, guides will pause to discuss more of the cave's fascinating history, including Dr. Robert Bird's 1837 exploration of Chief City, which uncovered cartloads of ancient Native American relics. These included thousands of partially burnt cane torches, fragments of woven moccasins, and various other artifacts dating back thousands of years. Due to its massive enormous size, photographing Chief City on the Violet City Lantern Tour proves challenging, but remains one of the key stopping points along the tour.


Following Chief City, the tour progresses through sections known as Rocky Pass, and The Gorge before arriving at Salts Room. Here, further evidence of Native American exploration is revealed. Guides draw attention to a ladder on the right, which was once utilized by natives to access higher cave regions for gypsum mining. The ladder, likely thousands of years old, has endured due to the cave's stable temperature and low humidity.


Violet City Lantern Tour

In the same room, behind an oddly positioned rock slab to the left, guides point out several thousand-year-old human feces. The discovery allowed scientists to better understand the diets of the earliest cave explorers, valuable information in understanding their everyday lives. Additionally, a careful eye will notice stone grinding marks on the wall behind the human waste, providing evidence that ancient natives used tools inside the cave.


Violet City Lantern Tour

As the tour advances, visitors are guided along rolling terrain, below massive domes, and through large passageways.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Not far from Salts Room, the tour arrives at the site of a remarkable yet poignant discovery made in 1935. While searching for a new path through the cave, cave guides Lyman Cutliff and Grover Campbell stumbled upon the dessicated body of an ancient Native American. The individual, later identified as a male and given the name Lost John, had been pinned down by a large boulder that dislodged and trapped him while mining for gypsum thousands of years ago. At the site, guides pause to point out the massive boulder that trapped Lost John, and discuss the discovery, including efforts to recover his remains.


Those interested in the full story of Lost John, including newspaper articles and photographs of his discovery, might consider reading The Mummies of Mammoth Cave, which details not only Lost John, but other mummies that were once displayed within Mammoth Cave.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Following the Lost John site, the tour proceeds through a low-hanging passageway and then to Ultima Thule, which was long thought to mark the end of Mammoth Cave.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Thanks to the efforts of Max Kemper and guide Ed Bishop, the two were able to break through Ultima Thule in the early 1900s and discover even more cave beyond. One of the more significant finds beyond Ultima Thule, is Elizabeth's Dome, shown below.


Violet City Lantern Tour

Here, a towering cascade flows down from a gaping hole in the ceiling. Guides will often turn on a show light in the cave to highlight the waterfall for a brief moment before moving on. After ascending an old, rudimentary staircase known as Albert's Stairway, the tour arrives at its namesake cave room, Violet City. The massive room, too large to properly photograph in such dimly lit conditions, features scores of stalactites. Named after Violet Blair Janin, the wife of Albert Janin, once trustee and owner of one third of the Mammoth Cave estate, the room's special features include formations known as Blair Castle, Marble Temple, Beer Mug, Ripe Tomato, and the Chimes, a row of stalactites of varying length that emit musical tones when struck by knuckles.


Following a brief stop at Violet City, the tour advances up more stairs and eventually the Carmichael Entrance where a bus shuttles visitors back to the Visitor Center.

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