Friday, August 6, 2010

Mammoth Caves National Park - part 2

I had quickly looked through the different tours on the national park website before we left home, and printed off the descriptions of the ones that sounded most interesting.  There were a couple of "extreme" cave tours that I immediately crossed off the list - no crawling on my belly or handclimbing up walls or squeezing through tiny spaces for me. I figured the "extremely strenuous" tour wasn't a good idea at my age and level of fitness either.  But I did think we could handle more than the "nice and easy" walk through the cave.  So I underlined the Moderate hikes, and noticed that some tours included parts of other tours. For instance, the New Entrance Tour included the Frozen Niagara Tour and more, so no need to do both of those. 

Our second tour was the Snowball Tour. In 100 degree heat, just the name sounded quite appealing! The temperature inside the caves is about 54 degrees year round, and although we all brought sweatshirts, I had mine tied around my waist most of the time.  It felt WONDERFUL in there. Of course my hubby was freezing - we are the couple that has him wrapped up in a quilt while I'm lying on top of the blankets with the ceiling fan going full blast. But I digress. 

The Snowball Tour entered the caves at the Carmichael Entrance, a different location than the New Entrance. The almost 200 stairs at this entrance went straight down underground, like walking down the steps of city hall, rather than winding in a spiral down a shaft.  This was a wider, flatter, more open cavern which led us for 1.5 miles through places like "Clevelands Avenue", to the Snowball Dining Room, about 250 feet below the surface.  

 We learned the names of every single kind of rock inside the caves....

Limestone. Limestone.... and limestone. 

The Snowball Tour gets its name from calcium carbonate deposits growing on the ceiling and walls. It looks like snow!  

Only clear water bottles are allowed in the cave - no bags, backpacks,camera bags... but on this tour you are allowed to bring lunch in a mesh bag or clear ziploc bag.  I packed sandwiches, cheese & crackers, and granola bars in a mesh beach bag for our picnic way down under. Box lunches were available, as well as vending machine fare. The dining room had a number of picnic tables, as well as rest rooms, which were a welcome amenity.  

We were fortunate to have fairly small groups of 40 or less on all 3 tours, and the guides were very personable and informative. They stopped and shared lots of interesting facts about the history of the caves, its exploration, its geology.  Jason wanted to be right up front to hear everything that the ranger had to say! 

One of the things we learned about was the early tour guides, when the caves were privately owned, back in the mid-late 1800s. These young men, many of them African-American slaves or former slaves, explored miles and miles of cave, and led groups of curious people through the passageways. One way that they earned tips was to write the name of the person on the ceiling, using a candle attached to a long pole.  This was called smoke writing. Some names were carved, some were painted.  After the land was bought by the federal government, the practice of writing on the walls and ceilings was halted. But there is a lot of fascinating history in those names and dates. 

Our final tour was the evening Star Chamber tour, which was conducted by gas lantern light. 

This was very cool, as we entered through the historic natural entrance and heard about some  historical uses of the cave - the saltpeter mine, the tuberculosis huts, the church where a congregations actually held services. Then there was the "giant's coffin", and the "star chamber", in which the ceiling, darkened by smoke from years of lantern light, was chipped by enterprising young guides who threw stones to expose flecks of white stone, thus creating a "star" for a grateful customer.

looking back at the light ... it is DARK in the cave

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