Mammoth Cave National Park Violet City Lantern Tour
Where to Stay:
Between Sophie’s track meets and my work schedule, we had a few open days over spring break so we decided to drive down to a National Park we had yet to visit- Mammoth Cave. Only 3 hours away from our home in Cincinnati, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. Currently Mammoth Cave has 400 miles of mapped passageways and continues to grow as more areas are discovered and mapped. We arrived in Cave City, Kentucky late in the afternoon in the middle of the week and checked in at the Best Western Kentucky Inn which is a small motel a few miles from the park entrance. Since spring in our neck of the woods can bring widely varied weather we chose to stay in the motel instead of camp so we wouldn’t have to change our plans if the weather was especially bad. We ended up being happy with this decision since it rained a bit during our stay and temps at night were in the 30’s while we stayed warm and cozy in our room.
After checking in, we drove into the park to explore for a little while before the Visitor Center closed at 6:15. This gave us enough time to pick up Junior Ranger packets and talk to the park rangers about how best to explore the park. We already had cave tour tickets for the next day, the 2:30 pm Violet City Lantern Tour so we asked about good hikes to take above ground. They gave us a map and we wandered the Visitor Center for a while before returning to our hotel to relax. Garrett and Dave went out to a field near the hotel and played catch before we worked on the kids’ Junior Ranger books.
The next morning we woke up early so we would have plenty of time to explore the park. Sophie and I went on a run around and around the motel parking lot before we all ate at the motel continental breakfast. The Visitor Center opened at 8:15 and we arrived shortly after that. We spent an hour meandering through the exhibits and watching the park video before taking part in the ranger led program about slavery and Mammoth Cave. The program involved a short ranger led hike on the paved Heritage Trail highlighting the history of slavery in the caves. Telling us how slaves were used to map the caves, the walk ended at the gravesite of Stephen Bishop in the “Old Guide’s Cemetary.” Bishop was a slave who became famous for his cave exploration and expertise and we learned about his role as a cave guide which led to his freedom. As usual, the ranger program was informative and added another dimension to our visit. Take advantage of ranger programs when at National Parks! I have found that they are always worth doing.
Following the ranger program we had several hours until our 2:30 pm Violet City Lantern cave tour, so after the kids earned their Junior Ranger badges we got in the car to drive to several short hikes which showcase the area. Our first stop was the 0.1 mile Sand Cave trailhead. This short trail leads to the entrance to Sand Cave which was the infamous site of Floyd Collin’s death in 1925. Floyd Collins was a local man who died after becoming trapped when part of the cave he was exploring collapsed. Even with an intense rescue operation, Floyd died from exposure before he could be freed. His entrapment was a media sensation and the area surrounding Sand Cave was the site of a gathering of 20,000 spectators who came to watch the rescue operation. The present Sand Cave trail is a paved trail leading to Sand Cave with signs throughout which tell the story of Floyd Collins. It felt eerie to know that a man had died here trapped in the cave.
Cedar Sink Trail:
After eating a picnic lunch we drove to the Cedar Sink Trailhead to hike the two mile loop trail which meanders through the woods and showcases parts of the cave-forming river where it pops up above ground. The somewhat hilly trail is well maintained and also has several areas of long metal stairs to get you to the top of the ridge for a cool view of the river. It was interesting to see the river from this perspective to prepare us for our upcoming cave tour.
Violet City Lantern Tour:
When we finished our hike we drove back to the Visitor Center to get ready for our Violet City Lantern tour. If you are planning a trip to Mammoth Cave, make sure you get online (click here) prior to your visit to choose and book a cave tour. There are several tours to choose from and most can be booked in advance. We saw several groups arriving to the Visitor Center planning to purchase tickets but were turned away since all tours were already sold out. Booking early ensures that you can take the tour you want. It would be a shame to visit Mammoth Cave and not even get to see inside of it!
Our family chose to take the 3 hour Violet City Lantern Tour, a 3 mile guided tour by lantern light designed to reenact what a 19th century tour would be like. The tour costs $15 per adult and $11 per child ages 6-12. To begin the Violet City Lantern tour, a park ranger first talked with us in the covered meeting area about rules inside the cave which mainly are don’t take anything, don’t touch anything and no flash photography. Lanterns were passed out to adults who wanted them so Dave picked one up. Two rangers then guided our group down the steep trail to the large cave entrance.
Once we entered the cave, the park rangers stopped us at various points to talk to us about the history of the area. Highlights of the tour included the ruins of an experimental tuberculosis hospital, the site where the mummified corpse of the trapped Native American “Lost John” were found, and the countless smoke signatures graffiti of early visitors, including the smoke signature of the famous early slave guide Stephen Bishop. It was fascinating and I would definitely recommend the Violet City Lantern tour. Listed as a difficult hike, the tour is not physically strenuous but it does take a long time (3 hours) so take that into account if planning this tour with young children. There are also no bathrooms in the cave so plan accordingly. Sophie sometimes gets claustrophobic so I was worried she would hate the tour, but Mammoth Cave is huge so she never felt overly confined. Having only previously visited one other cave, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really loved it! The cave is not especially beautiful but it is immense and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I wish I had better pictures to share but we were unable to use flash photography and the cave is dark so I only captured a few images.
Once we emerged from the cave we climbed the hill to a waiting bus which took us back to the Visitor Center. We all chatted about the various parts of the Violet City Lantern tour we found the most interesting. Climbing into the car we realized we were famished. Restaurant choices are limited in Cave City, so we headed to the Cracker Barrel in town and filled up on comfort food before heading back to the hotel. Mammoth Cave National Park was a great spring break destination and we all enjoyed our visit. Can’t wait for our next National Park adventure!