Journey to Mammoth Cave

A black and white photo of a large group of people wearing early twentieth century clothing standing in front of two train cars with painted text “Mammoth Cave R. R. CO.” along their sides.
Early twentieth century visitors arrive after a train ride through the countryside.

Image from Mammoth Cave National Park Collection

For millennia, Mammoth Cave has sparked people’s curiosity. It has tempted them to leave behind a familiar sunlit world and explore its dark and mysterious passages. The first people who came to the area and discovered this natural wonder about 5,000 years ago did so on foot. Since then, people have traveled to the cave in many ways, but all continue to seek their own adventure when they get here.


For early visitors, traveling by horseback on dirt “roads” was certainly better than walking through the wilderness on foot. By the time Mammoth Cave became a world-famous tourist attraction, the stagecoach was the main way for visitors to reach the cave. Three stagecoach lines operated, bringing visitors from nearby towns, and despite the risks and often unpleasant riding conditions, horses and stagecoaches were the primary means of travel to Mammoth Cave from the 1830s to the 1880s.

The karst landscape of Mammoth Cave is full of sinkholes and made one visitor say, “…if the traveler should be so unfortunate as to possess a timid disposition…he might be apprehensive of a sudden disappearance of the stagecoach into the bowels of the earth.”

While no such incidents were reported, other stories about the stagecoach abound. One account describes a visitor’s journey from Cave City, “…for much of the time the hubs of the hack-wheels rode on the mud, and it took us three hours and a half to make the nine miles.”

If the terrain was not enough for travelers to worry about, other dangers still lurked. One of the most terrifying stories involved a stagecoach being robbed near Little Hope Church in 1880 by two masked thieves. Evidence has suggested these thieves were the notorious James brothers – Frank and Jesse.

Visitors can view a recently restored Mammoth Cave stagecoach in the lobby of the Lodge at Mammoth Cave. The coach is owned by the Mammoth Cave National Park Association, who have loaned it to the park for display.

Visit our keyboard shortcuts docs for details
2 minutes, 47 seconds

A fully restored, horse-drawn stagecoach that originally carried early visitors from the 1800s returned to Mammoth Cave on a rainy day in August 2023. The coach is owned and restored by the Mammoth Cave National Park Association (MCNPA), and is on loan to the park for public display in the main lobby of The Lodge at Mammoth Cave.

A black and white photo of a large steamboat with steam.
An early steamboat travels on the Green River.

Image from Mammoth Cave National Park Collection


If horses or being jostled around on bumpy roads was not your thing, there were other options. Steamboat travel was another popular way for visitors to reach Mammoth Cave in the 19th century. Steamboats operated on the Green River, which flows near the cave entrance. Visitors could board the steamboats at various towns along the river, such as Bowling Green, Brownsville, and Munfordville. The steamboats offered a comfortable and scenic ride, with views of the riverbanks, cliffs, and wildlife.

Steamboat travel was not without its challenges, though. The Green River was often shallow, especially during dry seasons, and the steamboats could get stuck on sandbars or snags. Sometimes, the passengers had to get off and help push the boat or lighten the load. Once at their destination, there were no direct routes to Mammoth Cave. Visitors had to unload along the route and board a carriage or train to complete their journey.

Construction of a series of locks and dams along the Green River alleviated much of these issues as water levels were raised to accommodate steamboat travel. In 1906, construction on Lock and Dam No. 6 was completed and open for river traffic. The Chaperon was the first steamboat to make the run from Evansville, Indiana to Mammoth Cave entirely by boat.
A black and white photo of two men standing on or near a small train engine with “Hercules” written on its side and passenger car. Text written along the photo states “The Dinkey Train to Mammoth Cave Ky”.
The small steam engines that that transported people to Mammoth Cave were called “dummy” because they looked like passenger streetcars.

Image from Mammoth Cave National Park Collection


Between the mid-1860s and 1880, approximately 40,000 – 50,000 people traveled to Mammoth Cave by taking the L&N Railroad to Glasgow Junction, now known as Park City, and then boarding the stagecoach. In 1874, a local stagecoach operator leased the railroad rights to Mammoth Cave from Glasgow Junction and replaced the horse and buggy with a new mode of travel – the “iron horse”.

Construction of a nine-mile track that stretched from Glasgow Junction to Mammoth Cave began in 1880. On November 8, 1886, the first passenger, W.F. Richardson, bought his ticket to Mammoth Cave for $3.00.

The railroad used small steam engines that were called “dummy” because they looked like passenger streetcars. The railroad also used wooden passenger coaches and combination coaches and baggage cars for the journey. The railroad made several stops along the way, such as Diamond Caverns, Chaumont Post Office, Proctor’s Hotel, and Sloan’s Crossing. For the next 45 years, this spur line transported people to Mammoth Cave. Its last run was in 1931.

Today, visitors can still walk or bike on the rail path, which was converted to the Mammoth Cave Bike and Hike Trail in 2004, and view the “Hercules” engine and Coach #2. By then, another mode of travel, which people could own themselves, had dramatically changed the travel landscape.

Black and white photograph of a car driving on a dirt road filled with deep ruts and large rocks.
Early vehicle travel to Mammoth Cave was challenging as roads were often rocky and muddy.

Image from Mammoth Cave National Park Collection


On October 7th, 1904, the world of tourism changed forever at Mammoth Cave when the first automobile arrived. It belonged to a dentist who had traveled from Indianapolis, Indiana. The car drew attention not for only being the first, but for also getting stuck in the mud near the arched entrance sign of the Mammoth Cave Estate. Visiting bystanders tried to help the dentist free the vehicle, but to no avail. Fortunately, the Mammoth Cave Hotel manager came to the rescue with a pair of mules.

The roads in the early days of automobile travel were often dirt and very rough. Traveling during dry weather was challenging enough, but rainy times made it much harder for travelers to avoid getting stuck. Even with these difficulties, tourism flourished as more and more people owned their own automobile and had the freedom to travel longer distances at their own pace.

Thankfully, automobile travel has improved a lot since then. Today, tens of thousands of vehicles of all shapes and sizes visit Mammoth Cave each year. Some are on short vacations, while others spend days on the road to reach the park. Fortunately, we now have a paved parking lot to welcome visitors and getting stuck in the mud is no longer an issue.

A Worldwide Destination

The ways people have traveled to Mammoth Cave over the course of thousands of years has evolved greatly. Journeys that once took days or perhaps even weeks, can now take only a few hours. Today, people can travel half-way around the world in a matter of hours. As travel becomes easier, so does the opportunity for people to experience the beauty of this world-renowned karst landscape. People from countries all over continue to journey in seeking out their own Mammoth Cave adventure.

No matter how you arrive to the park, or what future technological advances will alter our travel, one thing remains certain: Mammoth Cave will continue to beckon those curious of its portals and invite them to immerse themselves into the dark depths of the unknown. Visit Directions and Transportation to plan your journey to Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Last updated: April 5, 2024