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The Underground

In my nomading over the last few years, I've crawled through a number of caves in West Virginia, Arizona, Oregon, and California. And in the Dominican Republic in March and my huge caving trip to Vietnam four months ago, but those international ones weren't crawling-type caving adventures. Like kayaking, caving has become an activity I seek out, though I don't actually do it that often. But getting underground was the number one reason I planned my current stay in Kentucky.

Many caves I've gone through were unguided and some were privately owned, but Mammoth Cave National Park was the first time I've done a caving tour run by the US government. I wasn't even sure the Wild Cave Tour was going to be an option. They started running them at the end of this past March for the first time since COVID started, and at the time I booked mine, they were only releasing tickets for one weekend in advance at a time. It was pure luck that I checked the site and saw tickets available. And wow...I'm so glad I did! 

It was less expensive than the privately owned tours I've gone on yet twice as long. We had one main guide and and two assistants for a group of twelve, though one person bailed out after the first two hours. All gear is provided (you're actually not allowed to wear your own because of white nose syndrome) though you do need to bring your own lunch. And you should bring food because the tour is very physical.

You start off on the Cleveland Avenue Tour, on a paved and lighted walkway. You get to see these cool floral formations and old-time graffiti made with candle smoke. Soon enough, the Wild Tour veers off into crawling territory and the fun begins.

The Bear Hole is the tightest squeeze in the tour and you're going upward, so it can be a bit tricky to find your footing to boost yourself up and through. There are lots of other squeezes after that one, but none are as tight, so if you get through that, you'll be fine. There are some options for going around the tight squeezes, like going back to Cleveland Avenue and walking the long way around, but what's the fun in that? 

The wild tour also involves some stemming and splaying canyoneering moves. Yes, you can get really injured on this tour if you aren't careful. But the guides will help you as much as you need, pointing out places for your feet, even pressing your boot into the rock face to make sure you don't slip. But also, if you're like me and want to be left to your skill, they'll leave you alone. They don't force help on you.

There is a decent amount of belly crawling, although exactly how much depends on how tall your hips are or how long your femurs are. There was some places where I could stay on hands and knees, while taller men had to get down on their bellies. There was also one place where some people chose to barrel roll while others like me stuck to the belly crawl. No matter what you choose, you will wish you had elbow pads, which they don't give out. They do give out knee and shin pads, but you will leave this tour fairly bruised up.

There is one small scramble, which was also wet and slippery, and one actual bouldering section, the "Sunshine Cheese Grater". On both of these again, the guides will help you as much as you want, a boost from the bottom or a hand on the top. I was really proud of myself for muscling up both of these unassisted.

The last really big and unique section of Mammoth we saw was the Cathedral Dome, which has its own organ. We saw quite a few domes and pits, but this one had a rope hanging down that clearly some people have repelled from. Over 400 miles of Mammoth have been explored, so it should come as no surprise that there are many different passages and options. I would love to go explore more. 

All the options mean that the route can change from year to year. When I went, we were on a non-standard route because of some trail construction happening in the park, so we went through a very wet section at the end. We could stem and splay over a little bit of it, but there was no point trying to keep our feet dry because eventually we went through unavoidable water up to your knees. But the tour was almost over and I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt beneath the park coveralls. 

Back at the ranger dorms, we shed our gear and disinfected our boots to help prevent the spread of the white nose fungus. Save the bats! And while national park rangers can't accepts tips, if you had a wonderful time - which you will - you can always donate to the park system.