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From cave expeditions to local history, here are our top 10 things to do near Mammoth Cave National Park in southwestern Kentucky!
By: Alisha Trenalone
Are you planning a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park and wondering how to fill out your itinerary?
This national park is in rural southwestern Kentucky, with the cities of Bowling Green and Glasgow being upwards of half an hour away. But there are small towns to explore closer by — and, of course, plenty of outdoorsy activities!
Here are our suggestions for the top 10 things to do near Mammoth Cave.
1. Take the Bike and Hike Trail
Did you know there was once a railroad with service to Mammoth Cave? Its last run was in 1931, but part of the route now serves as a hiking and biking trail. You can access it within the park, or at its southern end at Park City.
This gravel trail is about nine miles long and has scenic overlooks and historic sites to stop and enjoy along the way. If you’re biking, know that there are a few challenging, steep areas.
There are other trails around the visitor center as well as dozens of backcountry trails for the adventurous.
2. Explore the City of Horse Cave
Of all the small towns near the national park, Horse Cave is (in my opinion) the most charming.
Located about 15 minutes east of the park, this town has its own spelunking history, with Hidden River Cave located in the heart of its downtown.
The main street in town is also home to a caving museum, a historic antebellum house, and a few local cafes and shops. It all makes for a nice little stroll!
3. Take a Historical Audio Tour
The city of Horse Cave has introduced a nifty self-guided tour you can take with your cell phone in hand.
Each stop has a “below-ground” and an “above-ground” story. Simply call the number on your phone. Scan the QR code for even more information.
4. Go Kayaking
Inside the park, Green River and Nolin River can be navigated by canoe or kayak.
For rentals and route ideas (including overnight ones), try Green River Canoeing or Caveland Kayak & Canoe. They provide shuttle service at specified drop-off and pick-up points.
Are you a first-timer at boating? Our handy guide to kayaking gear for beginners will help you shop for essentials like waterproof dry bags and water shoes.
5. Take a National Park Cave Tour
This one may be a bit of a no-brainer, but if you’ve never been to Mammoth Cave before, a tour should definitely be on your list.
Tours range from one to four hours, with varying levels of difficulty.
Summer tours tend to book up well in advance, so be sure to make your reservation online. You might have a little more leeway after Labor Day, but the number and type of tours offered will start to taper off towards the close of the year.
Can you take a self-guided tour? During the summer season, yes! But you have to get a ticket at the visitor center. You’ll be able to explore about three-quarters of a mile past the Historic Entrance on your own.
6. Tour a Non-Park Cave
The thing about Kentucky is that there are caves all over.
So even outside of the park, there are more caves to explore.
The above-mentioned Hidden River Cave in the city of Horse Cave is a good place to start. It boasts “the world’s longest underground swinging bridge,” which leads to the 150-foot wide Sunset Dome.
You can get a guided tour starting from the cave museum on Main Street.
John Muir once visited Hidden River Cave. He called it “a noble gateway to the birthplace of springs and fountains and the dark treasuries of the mineral kingdom.”
I mean, with a testimonial like that, who wouldn’t want to visit?
Crystal Onyx Cave in Cave City is another popular tour outside the park. Tours here don’t run during the winter, except by appointment.
For these tours, you probably don’t need to make advance reservations (but you can if you want to).
7. Visit Local Shops + Restaurants
Let’s get this fact out into the open: The area around Mammoth Cave is not exactly brimming over with tons of foodie destinations.
(That being said, it’s also true that you’re not that far from Kentucky’s world-famous Bourbon Trail, and it’s worth a day trip! Check out our guide to the original trail distilleries as well as newer entries like Bardstown Bourbon Company and Lux Row!)
So, yes, it’s pretty rural around Mammoth Cave.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find some yummy eats and drinks if you search around a bit.
Case in point: Cave City Creamery, pictured below, sells an array of ice creams and coffee drinks.
Just a couple minutes away, I had an excellent meal at El Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant with a lovely big patio.
And if you’re looking for a cute little boutique to browse, The Market KY in Cave City has fun food, clothes, and accessories.
8. Go Zip Lining
Adventures of Mammoth Cave offers a zip line canopy tour and an aerial challenge course, among other activities available seasonally.
With two separate courses, sky bridges, and – for a bit of adrenaline – a “drop tower” with a fabulous view, it’s an entirely unique way to see the terrain.
9. Stay Late for Stargazing
After several years of redesigning its outdoor lighting situation, Mammoth Cave was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021.
Since true dark sky areas are so rare for most of us, this is an attraction not to be missed.
So, especially if you’re camping or lodging inside the park, make sure to check out the night sky after the sun goes down!
You can also check the park’s schedule for ranger-led programs with telescopes.
10. Visit Kentucky Down Under
Kentucky Down Under, an “adventure zoo” offers views of outback animals like kangaroos and dingoes, a bird garden, a petting zoo, and tours of its own on-site cave.
Located just off Interstate 65, it’s kind of the gateway to Mammoth Cave country if you’re traveling from the north.
It’s a popular spot for families.
Are there any great experiences near Mammoth Cave that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!
About Alisha Trenalone
I’m Alisha and I live in eastern Kentucky. Discovering good food is one of my joys in life, but you will also find me doing lots of reading and dreaming of travel. Having worked at a local newspaper for several years, I’m avidly interested in the written word and the art of sharing stories. Now I help Sarah out in various ways here at Champagne Tastes!
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