PARK RESOURCES AND THEIR USE
Mammoth Cave National Park is located mostly in Edmonson County with small portions in Barren and Hart Counties. Within the park are the most extensive caverns and some of the finest examples of karst topography in the world, fascinating landscapes, luxuriant vegetation, an abundance of animal life, and artifacts illustrating the life of ancient people.
On the bluffs, coves, and steeper slopes throughout the park are beautiful groves of trees with little understory and a wealth of associated wildflowers. The park's checklist includes 84 species of trees, 28 kinds of shrubs and vines, 29 types of ferns, and 209 wildflowers.
Common mammals are deer, raccoon, opossum, grey squirrel, rabbit, woodchuck, muskrat, bats, and red fox. In all, 41 species have been observed. There are 203 species of birds, 18 kinds of reptiles including the timber rattlesnake and copperhead which are poisonous, and 15 amphibians.
Three of the five physiographic divisions of the central Kentucky karst are represented in the park: Mammoth Cave Plateau, Green River Valley and the Hilly Country. No part of the Dripping Spring Escarpment or the Sinkhole Plain is included within the present boundary.
Most of the cave passages are dry, because of the sandstone caprock, yet the deepest are flooded by streams and lakes. There are domepits up to 200 feet in height carved by water which pours in from the surface in wet weather.
Fauna of the caves comprise some 200 species. Those which spend their entire lifetime in the cave (troglobites) have remained isolated from others of their kind for about a million years. They thrive in an environment of total darkness, high humidity, and at a constant temperature of 54 degrees F. Troglobites derive their nourishment from nutrients washed into the cave by water.
Among the animals inhabiting the underground streams are cavefish, first discovered in Mammoth Cave. Ranges of two different kinds of "blind" fish overlap in the park.
There are many springs on Flint Ridge and their water flows into caves beneath. The 50 inches of annual rainfall goes underground quickly through cracks and crevices in rocks. Surface streams flow only during the rainy season and for short distances before disappearing in swallow-holes.
The Green River Valley bisects the park from east to west. Near the west boundary, a 6-mile segment of the Nolin River forms a major tributary from the north. Both of these streams flow in entrenched meanders. River banks are steep-sided because of alluvial deposits and valleys are often bordered by bluffs 150-300 feet high. In places, out-croppings of limestone and sandstone produce cliffs.
The scenery is enhanced by dense forests. Sycamore, elm, and ash trees line the river banks and canebrakes are common. On limestone bluffs there are mixed mesophytic forests composed of beech, sugar maples, oaks, ashes, and yellow-poplar. In the river are many forested islands. Deer, beaver, muskrats, turtles, ducks, wild turkeys, and songbirds are common. A total of 107 species of fish have been collected from the Green River, but the principal gamefish are catfish, bass, muskellunge, and carp.
One of the most scenic portions of the Green River and of great interest geologically is Turnhole Bend, a classic example of an entrenched meander. It was named because packet boats used to turn around in the discharge pool of a big spring. Several such springs drain the caves and the water enters the Green River from springs along the south bank or in the bed of the river. Hence no surface streams enter the river from the south bank east of Turnhole Bend; their former courses are represented by hanging valleys.
On the Green River, at the west boundary of the park, is Dam 6 and a navigational lock built by the Corps of Engineers in 1906-7. The pool above Dam 6 extends for 17 miles on the Green River and for the entire 6-mile length of the Nolin River in the park. The remaining 9 miles of the Green River, from Mile 199 above Floating Mill Island to the east park boundary, is free flowing.
There is a reservoir on Nolin River just north of the park and another on the Green River about 100 miles upstream from the park. Even though these dams and reservoirs were built for flood control, Green River may crest at fifty feet, according to the Corps of Engineers. High water comes during periods of drawdown at the reservoirs, during seasonal runoff, and may occur suddenly because of local torrential rains.
The Hilly Country, the third physiographic feature of the park, is north of the Green River and west of Turnhole Bend south of the river. Here there are few caves and those which exist are short in length and shallow in depth. No extensive cave system is possible because of the dip of the limestone; anciently the Green River served as an interceptor, as it does today for drainage from the Sinkhole Plain.
Unlike Mammoth Cave Plateau, the Hilly Country contains several surface streams. The largest and most spectacular in Nolin River. Buffalo and Ugly Creeks, and Cub Run also drain into the Green River from the north. Valleys of all of these streams are forested and contain much wildlife.
The Mammoth Cave Plateau is that portion of the park south of the Green River and eastward from Turnhole Bend. Beneath it over 130 miles of cave passages have been explored. They contain minerals such as dripstone, gypsum and mirabilite, prehistoric Indian artifacts, fossils, and about 300 kinds of living animals and plants.
The Mammoth Cave Plateau is an erosional remnant consisting of three northwest trending ridges Joppa, Mammoth Cave, and Flint separated by solutional valleys 200-300 feet deep formed when cave ceilings collapsed along the beds of ancient streams. Ridges are capped by an impermeable sandstone layer about 100 feet thick which has protected the caves in the limestone beneath. In cross section, the limestone is honeycombed with passages. Solution of the limestone and flowing water have both contributed to the development of the cave passages which vary in form from tubes to canyons and low-ceilinged crawlways. Some sections are up to a hundred feet in width and height and 400 feet long; other passages may constrict to cracks which allow only water and air to seep through.
Under Flint Ridge, over 82 miles of cave passages have been mapped the longest known linear cave system. Within the Mammoth Cave System, 45 miles have been mapped making this the third longest, though more passageways are known which haven't been surveyed. Recently discovered beneath Joppa Ridge near Elko is a third major system of unknown extent.
Fine views of Nolin River may be obtained from Whistle Mountain and from an overlook near Temple Hill Cemetery. Scenic portions of interest in Nolin River Valley include 5-acre First Creek Lake on the floodplain and red sandstone conglomerate cliffs notable for their height and vegetative cover. These are at the mouth of Cubby Cove and Bylew Creek. Most of Bylew Creek watershed is not now in the park but much of its vegetation is of uncommon interest because it is reminiscent of conditions which prevailed in the region of the park during the Ice Age. Of particular interest are the eastern hemlock and butternut which grow more profusely in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Magnolia trees and mountain laurel thickets are colorful when in blossom along the Wet Prong of Buffalo Creek. Collie Ridge is clothed by a fine hardwood forest. When the forest matures, good views of the surrounding woodland and the Green River will open up from the top of Goblin Knob.
Big Woods is the only extensive stand (about 300 acres) of mature hardwoods in the park. It is probably the remnant of a virgin forest; at least it has not been logged in the memory of the oldest residents except to remove windfalls.
Parklands are rich in cultural resources, too. Pre-Columbian Indians went into the cave passages to chip gypsum and mirabilite off the walls and ceilings, but their purpose in doing so is not clear. Chip marks, blackened ceilings from smoke of reed torches, sandals and other articles of clothing, and mummified remains of Indians have all been found in Mammoth and Salts Caves and in other cave passages in the park. Indians also occupied cave entrances and rock shelters while engaged in agriculture and hunting.
Sometime prior to September 1798, Mammoth Cave is reputed to have been discovered by a hunter, named Houchens, who pursued a wounded bear into the entrance. Later, someone noted that the fine, dry cave dirt contained saltpeter and this valuable nitrate was leached from the dirt and shipped to gunpowder factories at Philadelphia from 1809-19. Remains of vats and pipes may still be seen in Mammoth Cave.
In 1843 an experimental tuberculosis hospital was established in Mammoth Cave, but it was not successful. Two roofless stone cottages are still standing.
Visitors have toured the cave since 1816. Exploration was conducted and new routes were added from time to time. Exploring wild caves requires great physical stamina and uncommon courage, for tortuous passages and stygian blackness constitute an environment inhospitable to man. This has given rise to legends surrounding exploits of early guides, many of whom were Negro slaves.
As the fame of Mammoth Cave grew (it was heralded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world), overnight accommodations for visitors had to be provided. Log cabins near the Historic Entrance used by saltpeter miners were the nucleus of a hotel which became famous as the years went by. The structure burned in 1916 and was replaced in 1919. Other facilities were added in 1925 and again in 1930. The new brick hotel was opened in 1965 with its associated lobby, souvenir shop, dining room, and coffee shop.
Even though Mammoth Cave was the best known, other caves had been discovered and developed for public use including several on Flint Ridge. Some cave owners also operated their own hotels. Trails were constructed in Crystal, Great Onyx, Colossal, Proctor and Long Caves. These and Floyd Collins' home and ticket office at Crystal Cave and some of Collins' tools are the only physical evidences remaining today of the period of private cave operation.
In early days, travelers came to Mammoth Cave by stagecoach. An 8.7 mile railroad spur was built from Glasgow Junction (now Park City) to Mammoth Cave and it operated from 1886 until 1931. From forty to fifty thousand visitors came annually.
With completion of a series of dams and locks on Green River in 1907, built by the Corps of Engineers, steamboats brought travelers to Mammoth Cave. A popular excursion trip was the 10-hour run from Bowling Green to Mammoth Cave on the River followed by a return trip by rail. The steamboat era ended in 1917. Shipping on the Green and Nolin Rivers had practically come to an end when a disastrous flood washed out Dam and Lock 4 in 1951. These have not been rebuilt and Lock 6 at the west park boundary was deactivated.
Prior to establishment of the park in 1940, about 45 percent of the land area was cultivated or grazed. Tobacco and corn were principal crops. Farmlands were connected to one another and to market by primitive wagon roads and several private ferries crossed the Green River. Most of the farms were located on river floodplains and on ridge tops. Soil had eroded badly in some places. Slopes of valleys and bluffs were too steep for cultivation; they remained forested and were logged. Areas formerly cultivated have returned or are returning to forest. Today, it is difficult in many places and virtually impossible elsewhere for former residents to locate places once familiar to them. Natural revegetation was assisted by plantings set out by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the period from May 1933 to July 1942 when four camps were operated in the park. The enrollees also did soil conservation work, built roads and trails, and made improvements in the caves.
Adjacent to the park are small farms averaging 100 acres in size. Many people earn their living from growing crops, dairying and raising livestock, but others are employed in industry (tourism and light manufacturing) and use farming to supplement their outside income. Farm populations have been declining since 1950.
Visitors proceed by private automobile or charter bus to park headquarters located adjoining the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. Here is a large parking lot and from here all cave trips originate. At park headquarters, there is a visitor center and museum, a 145-site campground, and post office. Park administrative offices are located in a building adjoining the visitor center. National Park Concessions, Inc., provides 154 lodging units ranging from simple cottages to modern hotel rooms plus food services, and curio sales; operates a gasoline service station, a bus system to cave entrances, and a store, laundry and shower building next to the campground.
The passages of Mammoth Cave have a constant temperature of 54 degrees and visitors come all year. During the summer, a semi self-guiding cave tour is available on which the visitor may proceed at his leisure. On this tour, the cave remains lighted, the route is clearly marked, significant features are labelled, and interpretive personnel are stationed along the route. Of the guided trips offered, the visitor can choose between a 1-1/2-hour trip, a 4-1/2-hour trip with an underground lunch stop, and a special, lantern-carrying trip of 3-hours' duration. Another popular park feature is the 1-hour sightseeing boat trip on Green River. Surface trails link all of these features and all visitor facilities are within reasonable walking distance of each other.
Green River is also used extensively by fishermen who provide their own boats and launch them at old Dennison Ferry site, at Mammoth Cave Ferry, or at Houchins Ferry. Ferries at the latter two locations are operated without fee by the National Park Service. They are used mostly by local commuters.
Hiking trails lead to Green River near the Historic Entrance, to First Creek Lake, Turnhole Bend and Cedar Sink, and there is a motor nature trail on Joppa Ridge.
Scientists and explorers, under permit from the National Park Service, are conducting studies and surveys on parklands and in the cave systems.
Most people come to the park expressly to visit Mammoth Cave, remaining in the park four hours or less. The campground serves 17% of the cave visitors and it is filled to capacity each night during the summer. Of the campers, 88% stay one night. Lodging units accommodate 11% of the cave visitors and 76% of these remain one night. June accounts for 15%, July for 26%, and August for 28% of the yearly total. These three months combined the summer vacation period bring nearly 70% of the yearly total of visitors.
Thus, in summer, the number of visitors to Mammoth Cave is frequently greater than the level of facilities and services which have been provided to accommodate them. Cars overflow parking lots, the visitor center is overcrowded, and size of parties on cave trips is greater than is desirable. Use of water from springs on Flint Ridge is increasing, thus diverting more water from the caves. The possibility that polluted water may enter the park from outside is a continuing threat to park resources.
Hence, a full-scale review of park operations has been undertaken and a plan for the future has been developed. This plan appears on subsequent pages of this report.
Last Updated: 15-May-2007