A Traveler’s Guide to Caves in Kentucky

The caves in Kentucky are some of the most spectacular in the whole world, believe it or not. And with short, road-side tours as well as long, National park- scale explorations, there are options for all levels and interests. Caves have shaped the history, economy, and ecology of Kentucky, and thus they are a must for any traveler to the state who is comfortable with their depths.

Sobre los Digests de Español Pequeño

En esta blog, trato incluir secciones cortos en Español. Lo siento para mi gramática muy horrible!

Pero, deseo que este blog es un inspiración para tus viajes. Las cuevas de Kentucky son muy especiales y hermosas. En todo el mundo, estas cuevas son algunas mas únicas.

Why You’ve Got to See the Caves in Kentucky

kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

If you are a hiker, kayker, or just general nature-nut, the caves in Kentucky should be on your bucketlist. These exceptional underground worlds shaped the history and economy of the state of Kentucky that we know today. They teach us about the geologic nature of the land, and harbor strange and unique creatures.

I have been to caves all over the world. As of 2022, this includes caves in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Arkansas, Belgium, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. All of them have captured my imagination, and all of them are beautiful. But none of them was as awe-inspiring as Mammoth Caves. I have never been in such a large cave system before (the longest in the world with over 400 miles mapped). And it felt massive. The tour that we went on walked for almost 2 hours, up and down stairs, and through long passage ways. And this was just one of several tour options that explore completely different parts of the cave, never crossing paths.

Outside of Mammoth, Kentucky is dotted with caves and underground rivers (some man-made). Riding on a boat through a cave is always something that I get giddy about, like a kid. And there were several opportunities to do this in Kentucky – including kayaking!

Furthermore, when you are hiking in this state, you will notice that water has shaped the land everywhere in powerful ways, suggesting the nature of the relationship between water and the geology here. Kentucky has deep gorges, sweeping arches, and rolling hills of forests with water criss-crossing its way to unknown destinations. 

Mammoth Caves National Park

kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

As I mentioned above, Mammoth Caves National Park was one of the most exceptional caves that I have ever seen. It is also the crowning jewel of the caves in Kentucky. It is home to the world’s longest cave system, with over 400 miles of mapped cave. I would love to go back some day and spend 1-2 more days just taking other tours and hiking through the forests.

Domes and Dripstones Tour

kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

Tours cost: $21.00 USD (2022)

When I had the opportunity to visit in 2022, my friend and I took the Domes and Dripstones tour. It seems like a great digest option for caves in Kentucky as it saw a nice slice of the cave. However, my friend was a little concerned about the difficulty of the 2 hour tour. And when I heard the warning from the rangers before we got started, I could see why.

They warned about the 500 steps we would be traversing, and the length of the trek. This really isn’t a tour for everyone. You have to be pretty physically fit for the elevation gain and speed of the walking and be open to squeezing through the cave in a few sections (although nothing too scary). That all being said, an older gentleman with a cane made it through, so it is clear that it can cater to various skill levels with some determination and strength, the tour is very fun.

On the Tour
kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

For this tour, we started by being bused up to the entrance. From there, we followed our massive tour group down through a small door, and into the stairwell that we followed down and down into the depths. I really enjoyed this descent. The stairs weaved their way through various chasms and tunnels. Here and there, you would have to turn to pass through narrow passageways. And at times, you can look under your feet and see nothing but deep blackness.

After that, we sat down for a short lecture and then began walking through some of the more level sections of the cave. Much of it was long, tunnel-like structures formed by flowing water. But towards the end of the tour, you will be brought to a huge room full of formations and complete with the cave waterfall.

You will exit a different way than you came in, making each part of the trail unique.

Many Other Options

kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

Although the Domes and Dripstones tour is said to take you through some of the most beautiful sections of Mammoth Cave, there are loads of other options. This includes an accessible tour with an elevator. And longer tours complete with bathrooms.

On the top side, Mammoth Cave National Park, has a large visitor center with a museum that explores the history, ecology, and geology of the cave system. And there are many trails to be enjoyed as well.

Digest de Español Pequeño

El parque nacional Mammoth Caves es el lograr de la sistema de cuevas mas largas en todo el mundo. Hay 643 kms de esta Cueva que tiene una mapa. Con el parque, hay muchas excursiones en la cueva, y todos son hermosos. Pero, yo se Domes and Dripstones. Este es perfecto para un día en el parque.

Creo que todos de los viajes es en ingles. Pregunte los rangers si hay recursos en Español.

Lost River Cave + Other Small Operator Caves

kentucky caves

Lost River Cave (c) ABR 2022

There are many caves in Kentucky outside of Mammoth National Park. In fact, when you are driving through the central part of the state, you will see signs for different caves all over the place. Depending on the experience that you want to have, these smaller cave tour operations are also a great option for the travelers among you.

For me, I always love to ride a boat through a cave. There were a couple options that I found for this right away. The first was Lost River Cave and the Gorge Underground. Due to our route, we picked Lost River Cave. Also, it is worth noting that the Gorge Underground tour is via kayaks and through a man-made network of caverns. The Lost River Cave, on the other hand, uses motorized boats. Their tour takes you on a little float through a natural river that flows under the ground.

Some things to consider when picking a small operator cave tour: (1) location, (2) length of tour, (3) characteristics of the tour, and (4) protection of the cave system.

Lost River Cave

kentucky caves

Lost River Cave (c) ABR 2022

Lost River Cave is a historic cave park with tours, trails, and more. The tours here aren’t quite as substantial as those at Mammoth Caves National Park, and they are a little bit more expensive at $22.95 (2022). That being said, I think that the experience of these smaller operator caves is different by nature. They don’t have the resources of the national park. And in the case of Lost River Cave, they are run by a non-profit. I do like supporting smaller non-profits along with national parks when I can.

In any case, this tour has two parts – a short walk and the boat ride. The walk is through the woods of the park and stops at the historic dance floor at the mouth of the cave. Here you will learn about the history of how the cave was used and the struggle that resulted from a misunderstanding of how water flowed through the cave over time in the early days of European colonialism in the area. The history of tourism here, in conjunction with the dance floor and bar is also very cool. When you approach the cave mouth, you will feel the flow of cool air, and understand why folks in those olden days thought partying here was great.

kentucky caves

Lost River Cave (c) ABR 2022

After you have the chance to explore the story of the cave, you will hop in the boat and slip under the narrow entrance. Once inside, you will power through a short section of the cave. You will explore the beautiful formations at the front of the cave. And your guide will walk you through some of the stories connected with Lost River Cave. These include stories about charging people for magic water, stories of wanted men hiding in the cave, and the impact of highway development on cave systems.

Besides the boat element of this tour, I think it is very cool to compare the more remote Mammoth Cave system with this cave in the middle of a developed area.

Digest de Español Pequeño

Lost River Cave es un cueva con un rio y con viajes en un barco. Es muy tranquilo y interesante porque la historia de este cueva es muy largo. Para un corto escape en un rio subterráneo, este es perfecto.

A Short History of Caving in Kentucky

kentucky caves

Mammoth Caves (c) ABR 2022

It might not be too much of a surprise, but caves in Kentucky have shaped many elements of the state that we know today.

In terms of Kentucky’s geology and ecology, the characteristics of the state that allow for such extensive formation of caves impacts many elements of the landscape. Water flows readily across the land and under the land and it shapes both. There are beautiful canyons and gorges in Kentucky. And many of the caves here are formed by flowing waters and decorated by dripping water. All of these things create unique environments for all kinds of plants, animals, and small creatures from insects to microbes.

In terms of history, one of the first people to thoroughly explore Kentucky’s caves after the arrival of European colonists were enslaved men including Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford, and Nick Bransford. With just rudimentary tools, they delved into the depths of the earth and led some of the earliest tours of Mammoth.

After the civil war, exploration of caves continued in Kentucky, and in the early 1900s, folks were making a living on tours of the caves that they found. This led to intense competition and in some cases, violence. It also caused some explorers to take risks, exploring hard to reach places where they got stuck and lost their life. The most famous of these losses was Floyd Collins, who died in Sand Cave while exploring and getting trapped. You can still visit the cave where he died today at Mammoth Caves National Park.

Land Acknowledgement

The land that we now call Kentucky is the ancestral home of the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Osage peoples. They have and continue to steward and shape this land for thousands of years, and it is thanks to their wisdom, knowledge, and love for their home that we can now experience this magical place.

More Kentucky Exploration

If you are a nature buff considering a visit to Kentucky, I also have a post on Kentucky hiking trails. You will be shocked and delighted by everything that Kentucky has to offer.

Want to save this for later? Consider pinning it!


A Traveler’s Guide: Finding Kentucky Hiking Trails When You Only Have a Few Days


A Traveler’s Guide to Exploring Kentucky History


  1. Ann Street

    Such an interesting article, I’d love to see these caves someday!

    • waitingforrain28

      Oh my gosh, you guys would just love it there. You could spend multiple days doing tours and camping there.

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