Lesson Plan

Mammoth Cave: Its Explorers, Miners, Archeologists, and Visitors

Entrance to Mammoth Cave

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 1A: The student understands the international context and consequences of the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and the Monroe Doctrine.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies.


1. To describe how Mammoth Cave was formed and how it remains dependent on water;
2. To compare the experiences of travelers who visited the cave over several time periods;
3. To list and describe several ways the cave’s resources have been used;
4. To discover a site in their local community that should be considered for protection.


Time Period: Pre-Colonial through Modern America
Topics: This lesson could be used in U.S. history course units on the development of the national parks or the expansion of tourism in the 1920s and 1930s, and in ecology, geology, or other science courses that deal with natural phenomena.


Along the banks of the winding Green River, newly fallen leaves rustle as a man walks from his camp toward the high bluffs. Pausing to gaze back into the deep river valley and then upward into the sunlight sparkling on the crimson and golden leaves still clinging to their summer hosts, he thinks about the great darkness that lies just ahead beneath the forest floor. He has journeyed there many times since he was a young man. Around campfires he often listened to the stories of the old people who journeyed into the darkness. Now he himself is old. Perhaps this winter he will tell his own tales about the great cave that opens directly beneath his feet.

The mysterious darkness of Mammoth Cave in southwestern Kentucky has both lured travelers to enter and warned them to stay away. Some entered and never returned. Most entered and came back to tell of their experiences in the dark, silent, and mysterious cave. From the dawn of time visitors have been awestruck by the cave’s size and its rugged beauty.

Lesson Hook/Preview

Mammoth Cave enjoys the distinction of being the longest cave in the world, with more than 345 miles of explored passageways. In 1981 the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized it as a World Heritage Site and in 1990 as an International Biosphere Reserve. The cave is particularly interesting because the processes that formed it in the first place are continuing. Passageways are being carved out today in the same way as they have been for more than a million years.

Mammoth Cave National Park’s surface area of 52,830 acres is characterized by rugged forested hills, high rocky bluffs, and two major rivers, the Green and the Nolin. This serene and largely unpopulated natural setting in Kentucky belies the long and colorful history of the area. Mammoth Cave is the centerpiece of one of the greatest cave regions in the world. The Mammoth Cave area includes numerous deep cracks, sinkholes, underground streams, and layers of limestone rock. These rock layers are eroded and dissolved by underground water. The water drains underground through vertical cracks and horizontally between layers of limestone and eventually forms sinkholes and caves. The resulting landscape, created by the action of water, is known as a karst landscape. Underground water has carved out Mammoth Cave in long, horizontal passageways over the past several million years. The upper passages, dry today, were hollowed out millions of years ago; the lower passages are still being enlarged by the flowing waters of Echo River and several other underground streams. Mammoth Cave’s huge vertical shafts, called pits and domes, have been created by groundwater seeping downward through sinkholes or cracks located beyond the edge of the protective hard layer of sandstone that overlies much of the cave.

Water also has been essential in decorating parts of the cave with gypsum formations, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies and flowstone. The delicate gypsum formations occur in some of the cave’s drier chambers; the rest of the formations appear in some of the wetter chambers.

Water is also vital to the unusual biota, or animal and plant life, of the region. Above ground and in the cave there are approximately 1,000 kinds of plants and about 500 types of animals. The cave itself abounds with unusual fish, shrimp, crayfish, crickets, spiders, beetles, molds, and mushrooms that live within its cool darkness. Many cave animals, like the blindfish and certain crickets, are blind. Some do not even have eyes. Other animal and plant life lack skin pigments and appear to be entirely white. Both the sightless and the colorless creatures would be unable to survive in the surface environment. They depend on the clean water of unpolluted underground streams to carry their food to them.

Geologists, zoologists, ecologists, archeologists, historians, spelunkers, and ordinary citizens are amazed and thrilled by the size, complexity of history, and environment of Mammoth Cave.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Karst landscape

Additional Resources

Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's website to take an 1844 tour of the park, view images of the cave, read about different aspects of the park such as its history, archeology, geology, and much more. Also included on the site is information about the parks designation as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

Stephen Bishop and Black History at Mammoth Cave
Read the National Park Service’s article on Black History at Mammoth Cave to learn about the contributions of black Americans to the development and growth of the nation. Included on the site is information about Stephen Bishop, an African American cave explorer.

Park Geology
The Park Geology web pages provide information on the National Park Service's programs in geology and minerals management. Click on the "Park Geology Tour" link to find information on caves, fossils, sand dunes, glaciers, and much more. Under "Caves" you will find a link to further information regarding Mammoth Cave National Park.

Library of Congress
Search the Digital Collections for resources on Mammoth Cave National Park. Most interesting is the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record's documentation on Mammoth Cave Saltpeter Works. There are drawings, photos, and pages of documentation in this collection.

The National Speleological Society (NSS)
Explore the NSS web pages to learn about this organization that is dedicated to the purpose of advancing the study, conservation, exploration, and knowledge of caves. Click on "Learn About Caves" for detailed information on science topics, a vocabulary/definition list, links to other organizations, and laws dealing with cave protection. Also included on the site are several virtual cave tours.

U.S. Geological Survey
The USGS web pages offer an on-line publication titled, "Geologic Time." The publication has essays on Geologic Time, Relative Time Scale, Radiometric Time Scale, and the Age of the Earth. It also provides time lines on Major Divisions of Geologic Time and a Fossils Index.

UNESCO's World Heritage Program
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the World Heritage program in 1972 in an effort to ensure that future generations can inherit the natural and cultural treasures of the past. Mammoth Cave is among the hundreds of World Heritage Sites designated thus far. Visit the program's web pages to learn more about these sites.

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Last updated: October 12, 2018