Deep under the soil of Edmonson County, Kentucky, a behemoth sprawls. Covering an area of approximately 52,800 acres and with passageways spanning a length of 400 miles, Mammoth Cave is the largest know cave in the world. Anthropologists believe that humans began utilizing the cave for shelter and natural resources 4,000 years ago. Scientists have even found ancient Native American mummies in the cave, suggesting the cavern was used as a sacred burial site by native peoples. However, the cave was seemingly abandoned by Native Americans around 2,000 years ago for reasons still unknown. The cave was not explored by European settlers until 1791.
Following the cave’s rediscovery, adventurous minds set out to map its winding passageways. Stephen Bishop, a slave at the beginning of the expedition, is largely credited for exploring and recording the cave’s anatomy. Even after receiving his freedom, Bishop continued to work in the cave, leading research expeditions and acting as a tour guide to curious visitors. Bishop and several members of his family are buried outside Mammoth Cave in the Old Guide’s Cemetery. Also buried in the cemetery are several tuberculosis patients sent to the cave with the notion that the unique climate of the cavern would have a healing effect on their lungs.
During the War of 1812, the American military found themselves in desperate need of saltpeter to make gunpowder. Fortunately, Mammoth Cave houses rich deposits of the material, and enough saltpeter was mined to ensure an American victory.
Not only is Mammoth Cave rich in human history, but the cavern also hosts a wealth of rare wildlife. In fact, Mammoth Cave was named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990, protecting the cave’s inhabitants for years to come. Some species calling the cave home include the endangered Indiana bat and gray bat, the Kentucky cave shrimp, and the southern cave fish. Several species housed in the cave, interestingly enough, lack eyes, like the Kentucky eyeless cave shrimp and the Indiana eyeless crayfish.
Today, Mammoth Cave is the second-most visited attraction in the United States, with Niagara Falls being the only American tourist destination able to draw more visitors. Parts of the cave have yet to be explored, and experts state with certainty that the cave has not been mapped out in its entirety. Mammoth Cave National Park offers a variety of different tours through the cavern, and the woods and waters surrounding Mammoth Cave offer opportunities for fishing, camping, and canoeing. Feeling adventurous? Come see this subterranean spectacle visited by over 450,000 people each year!
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