Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mammoth Cave: SO Mammoth!

Morning of Day 4: We're packing up our Mammoth Cave motel room and heading to Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but James is taking a few minutes to catch up on swim school emails, so I'm going to try to catch up on blogging. Shockingly, the cell service in the middle of a National Park is not the best, so I haven't been able to do my usual late night wrap-up-blogging. Instead I've drunk wine from a paper coffee cup while we threaten the children with dismemberment if they talk again in bed. Sweet dreams for all!

Let's go back to Day 2. We woke up in Little Rock, Arkansas and ate a tasty hotel breakfast before piling in the car for a 6.5 hour drive to Mammoth Cave, with stops planned along the way. We usually NEVER stop once we're in the car, so the "drive 2 hours and stop" itinerary was disconcerting for all of us (my kids have a car ride mode; once they're in, we can drive forever, which is exactly what we usually do), but we wanted to see some new cities and eat delicious foods. Cora insisted on wearing her Hot Springs ranger badge, and paired it with a large tiara I didn't even notice she was wearing until after I looked at our lunch pictures. It's really just another Monday outfit.

We got to Memphis around 11, drove around a bit, decided we weren't up for any of the music tours, but asked the internet where should we have lunch. It answered resoundingly that Central BBQ and so it was. It was charming and local and DELICIOUS.

I'm not usually a big bbq person or a big pork person, but the Food Network told me to eat their BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich and it was amazing. I might have also ordered a large and very unnecessary bbq pulled pork nachos. I have no regrets.

We loved every bite, stopped at a park by the amazing-looking zoo we wished we had time for to let the kids run around, and then piled back in the car for a 3 hour drive to Nashville. In Nashville we found parking downtown and wandered around Broadway, walking past the Country Music Hall of Fame, one million bars playing live music (and we'd thought Austin had a lot of that!), and many other famous music-related buildings. It was great to stretch our legs and hear some music. We were still full of pulled pork, so we continued on to Mammoth Cave another 90 minutes away.


Along the way we decided we'd just stop somewhere for a salad to-go (thank you Yelp, Google Maps, and Saladworks in Bowling Green for making that happen) for James and I and then feed the kids the easy mac I'd packed in the car once we got to our cabin at Mammoth Cave. Except when got to our room - a very tiny motel room and not the roomy, new two-bedroom cabin we were supposed to have, the cabin that started this whole itinerary because I was so excited about a cabin INSIDE a national park and decided it was calling for us to stay there, because a pipe burst and all the cabins flooded a couple weeks before we left - and discovered we did not have a microwave. It was now 8 p.m., we'd been in the car off and on since 8 a.m. and we were NOT GOING BACK IN. We made a picnic dinner on the floor with leftover healthy car snacks, granola bars, and a few packets of peanut butter. The kids thought it was the greatest thing ever.

And once I got James to yank out my wine cork through brute force, I did too. I also immediately ordered a new travel wine opener. That was almost an emergency.

This should really be my new profile picture

We woke up on Day 3 to chilly temps and views of the national park around us. It had been pitch black and snowy when we'd arrived the night before so we really had no idea what it looked like. We walked to the Lodge for a tasty breakfast and then to the Visitor's Center to pick up our tour tickets (so glad I booked online a few weeks ago; both of our tours were sold out when we arrived) and get the kids' Junior Ranger packets!

We toured the Visitor's Center, wandering through the museum, watching the movie (narrated by Mike Rowe, which made me laugh), and filling out their Ranger packets. At 9:55 it was time to line up for our first tour! Mammoth Cave offers a lot of tours with varying lengths and difficulties. I highly recommend the two tours we did: Domes & Dripstones and the Historical Tour. Both were 2 hours long (D&D was about 3/4 mile of walking; Historical was 2 miles), both showed very different parts of the cave with very different stories, history, and facts surrounding them, and the kids handled both of them beautifully.

Domes and Dripstones requires a 10 minute bus ride from the Visitor's Center to get to the entrance. It's a man-made entrance built from a sinkhole in the ground. You feel like you're walking into a bunker when you go in, and it's immediately clear that if you're claustrophobic, this is not for you.

We walked down one million stairs to get to a large opening where we all sat on benches to wait for the full group to gather and the rangers to talk. The rangers were all great- full of facts and stories and seemed to be able to answer any question thrown at them. I'd wondered how the tour could accommodate 100 people at once, but you basically just amble along in a single file line, bending and stooping and pausing for pictures as needed, and then stop at 2-3 large gathering places, usually with installed benches, along the way to learn about what you're going to see next. It worked great and let you move at your own pace while also not missing anything the ranger said.

Claire was always ready to point me the way

We learned so much! Did you know the cave only had 44 miles mapped when it was dedicated as a national park in 1941 and now it has more than 412 miles mapped as of last year? And the cave explorers still haven't found the end so every year it gets bigger. It's the longest cave in the world by more than double and its rock is 100 million years older than the dinosaurs (which is why any fossils found inside are of prehistoric ocean animals and not dinosaurs; they got stuck in that rock long before North America existed).

Towards the end of the tour we got to the really incredible formations. They're in a newer, higher, and more active part of the cave where water is currently dripping.

We descended a bunch of tiny stairs to get to Frozen Niagara, admired it, took a picture, and climbed all the way back up. As Cora exclaimed throughout the day, "This is SO NEAT MAMA!!"

We climbed a bunch of more steps to get out, now in a totally new location from where we started, and a bus was there to pick us up and take us back to the Visitor's Center where the kids turned in their now completed Ranger packets and got their next badge. It was great. I didn't even cry this time! Mostly because I was distracted a Cave Research Foundation exhibit on the wall.

It was now lunchtime, so we walked back to our room and ate a chilly picnic lunch on the tables outside the motel rooms.

(For those who like logistics: I knew we wouldn't have access to a kitchen at any of our stops on this trip, so we'd have to eat out more than we prefer (both because we're very expensive at restaurants and also because we just get so sick of them; I hate eating and paying for food I'm not excited about). To avoid doing that too much, I just packed a bunch of lunch type stuff to keep in the car: bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, cheese sticks, carrot sticks, sliced cucumber, sliced apples, cutie oranges, and individual bags of chips to keep in a big car cooler to pull out when needed. I've made sandwiches while we drive and we've had them on our picnics. It's worked great and meant we can really enjoy a big hot meal somewhere yummy for dinner each night. Except Day 2 night when we had lunch for dinner on the hotel floor because we weren't driving anywhere, though we did eat out lunch that day.)

Our little trooper, walked all the miles in all the caves, and made everyone smile while doing it.

We planned to do some topside hiking before our next tour at 3:30, though we probably should have made everyone lay down. I think the giggling finally stopped at 10 p.m. the night before and we were all up at 7. But when I glanced at our bed I found that James was the only one worn out.

So I took the kids, still FULL of energy, out to explore the trails that ran by our room. Kentucky, even post-winter, is lovely.

James roused himself and we all did some exploring on the trails, finding Dixon Cave and other points of interest. Eventually is was time to get to the Visitor's Center for our 3:30 Historic Tour.

And it was AMAZING. Highly highly recommend. I'm so glad we also did Domes & Dripstones because it was awesome to see the formations and how different different areas of the cave could be, but the Historic Tour was definitely more fun and adventurous. It was quite a bit longer- 2 miles instead of the 3/4 mile - and you were able to just walk to the Natural Entrance from the Visitor's Center instead of taking a bus. This is the only natural entrance to the whole 400+ mile cave system.

This tour was much darker, so I didn't bother attempting many pictures, but it was really wonderful. Because this is the natural entrance, it has all the history of human's discovery and use of the cave. Native American symbols and scratchings from at least 5,000 years ago. The salt petre mining operations from more than 200 years ago (did you know 1 in every 7 bullets in the War of 1812 was made from Mammoth Cave Salt Petre? We do now!). We learned so much about the early explorers and mappers. The ranger even turned off the guiding lights so we could see the pitch black and incredible silence deep in the cave. She lit a small gas lantern that the early mappers would have used and you could see how INSANE it was that the cave was mapped at all.

We continued on until the path got narrower and the ceiling got lower and we entered Fat Man's Misery. This was by far our favorite part - tiny winding paths with tall sides you had to contort yourself around to get through. The kids loved it.

Then Tall Man's Misery where even Cora had to hunch a little and James and I were basically bent in half. It was SO fun. I was beaming. Exploring things makes me SO HAPPY. I realized later I was still proudly wearing Landon's junior ranger badge (he didn't want to put a whole in his favorite shirt) and that felt appropriate.

You exit into a large cavern again where you can stretch and then climb 260 stairs up a tall, winding tower to get out. "Intermediate" level tour indeed.

It was the best. We got in our car to drive to the nearest restaurant for dinner- a very cute but expectedly mediocre Mexican place in Cave City. It was snowing as we drove back to the park to get back in our room. We got everyone showered and brushed and changed and instituted "quite time" with kindles and headphones and movies for all. It was lovely. James and I lay on our bed, feeling like we should be productive, but just scanning the news on our phones and talking about the PA-18 race instead. (Woot!) Cora made sure her unicorn was as cozy as could be and it cracked me up every time I caught a glimpse of him all wrapped up.

Going to sleep went mildly better, but when you have 5 people in less than 200 square feet of space, it's never going to be great. I think they were all asleep around 9:30? I've flagrantly violated my "no sleeping with my children" rule, but it was supposed to be a cabin and for National Parks I can endure. Our hotel room tonight in Gatlinburg is a suite and it will be very nice to have a little more space.

And maybe a more inspiring shower? The yellow was adorable but I haven't washed my hair since we woke up in Fort Worth. Shh, don't tell anyone.

And now we're 30 miles out from Gatlinburg, Park #3 here we come!


  1. Such a fun trip so far!

    I very much appreciate you sharing the logistics of your trip. I too cannot stand to eat/or pay for food I am not excited about, so I will make a note of your lunch strategy.

    I also recently had my third child and was wondering how the hotel room logistics would work on our future vacations. I suppose we will just have to wait until we can save enough for suites. Ha!

    I must admit that I have never really been interested in national parks or caves, but you have motivated me to re-think that stance. I think my kids and husband would adore a trip like this once they are a little older.

    Safe travels!

    1. We are a family of 6, with kids from 10yo down to 2yo. We stay in hotel rooms if it is only a single night. The adults sleep on one queen bed, the baby has been in a crib, and the other three share a bed OR we make a bed for one on the floor with blankets we bring anyways.
      If it is more than a might we prefer VRBOs for similar reasons as LagLiv. But they aren't always available. In those cases we look for 1-2 bedroom suites. Homewood had some nice ones for a reasonable price, as does other brands. If it is a one bedroom, two kids sleep on the hide a bed and then we make needs on the floor for the others in the living kitchen areas. The cushions from the hide a bed make a good bed if you bring a bottom sheet and some blankets.

      We have also stayed in "suites" without a separate bedroom. They aren't terrible, but we really do prefer a separate room!

    2. Hi Rachael! 3rd babies are the greatest- congratulations on yours! We traveled a ton when Cora was a baby (they're so portable then!) and it was great because hotels always had a crib or pack 'n play. Or, as Unknown noted, we almost always rent airbnb or vrbo condos or houses when we travel. We need space and going that route is cheaper than 2 hotel rooms and SO MUCH nicer, roomier, and more fun. Now that the kids are big and all real people, we still go the vrbo route whenever possible, but if we have to do a hotel, I just try to get a mini suite with a couch (usually not much more expensive and Landon loves a couch bed) or at the very least make sure the hotel can add a roll-away. Some hotels have the couch as a default (like Homewood) which is nice. It's still not my favorite and usually we only go the single hotel room route if it's one night (like breaking up a drive or connecting parts of an otherwise awesome and spaciously sleeping vacation). But it's also fine. As the kids have gotten older they also sleep a little harder and a little (a very little!) less sensitive to sleep variations. And we work them pretty hard during the day on our very active trips :).

      And YES on the National Park trips! They're so wonderful and they're our legacy, protected and passed down from generations before. Each one is so unique and wonderful and they are super inexpensive (often free!) family fun!

  2. How fun! I also love that you are sharing logistics. My kids are younger than yours—5, 3, and coming in August—but we’d love to do trips like this when they are older. And yes to central bbq—it’s the best!!

  3. We have 3 boys who are teenagers now so it’s like we try to stuff 5 adults into a hotel room when we have those single nights on the road and two hotel rooms are too pricey for the 8 hours we will spend asleep there. We bought an aero bed and travel with that now. It helps when you have a room with two double or queen beds and a pullout sofa. We inflate the aerobed and each boy has his own sleeping space. So. Much. Nicer. And the aerobed is pretty comfy. The real problem comes from 5 people sharing one bathroom. We try very hard now to plan vacations that allow full vrbo or condo accommodations. Our family of 5 can still make the single hotel room work in a pinch but it is not relaxing b

  4. Yay, so much fun and so much fun to read! That is so close to us and we have never been, will have to check it out! If you ever head back gatlinburg way you should check out the Lost Sea. Not a park and kitschier but it has its own charm (perhaps because it’s one of the first field trips I remember, but it’s a lost sea in a cave and you can ride it in a boat!) also I need to remember these things more when it is 95 degrees outside, so nice and cool. Have fun in gatlinburg. I hope their tourism is back up and great that you are supporting it!

  5. I'm saving these posts for when I visit the US with my family. Sounds like you're having a great time.

  6. Do you have a link for the cabin you were going to stay in? I don’t see anything re: park lodging with that much space that’s open during the spring. Mammoth would only be a 12 hour drive for us and your post has me intrigued!