Mammoth Cave National Park Is Home To The World’s Longest Cave System

Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is bursting at the seams with natural delights. From rolling hills and deep river valleys to the world’s longest known cave system and a surprising number of sharks, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has much to offer.

Located in south-central Kentucky, the park spans over 52,000 acres (21,000 hectares), primarily in Edmonson County. Perhaps its most famous feature is the colossal cave system that extends for hundreds of miles beneath the woodlands – it’s not named Mammoth Cave for nothing.

The five-level cave system is the longest in the world, with 686 kilometers (426 miles) explored so far, and new caves continually being discovered. 

Stalactites and stalagmites inside Mammoth Cave.
Image credit: NPS image, Public Domain

Nearly every type of cave formation is known within the site, which shows off 100 million years of cave-forming action. The complex network of caverns and passages features huge chambers, vertical shafts, stalagmites and stalactites, stunning gypsum flowers, delicate gypsum needles, and rare mirabilite flowers. No other cave system in the world is known to offer such a variety of sulfate minerals.

The caves are carved out of limestone, topped with a layer of sandstone and shale. As the sandstone layer leaks, surface water seeps into the limestone, eroding it and creating a labyrinthine network of caves.

The historic entrance to Mammoth Cave has been used by people for 5,000 years.
Image credit: NPS image, Public Domain

They are home to a rich array of cave-dwelling flora and fauna, with more than 130 species found within them. This includes, believe it or not, ancient sharks – over 100 individual shark specimens have been found within the caves.

Sharks lived in the area around 330 million years ago, when much of the Mississippi River valley was submerged underwater. Thanks to the protection the caves offer from the elements, fossils, such as those of sharks, tend to be well preserved.

As well as the cave system, the national park is home to part of the Green River Valley, and the rolling hills of south-central Kentucky. Visitors can get stuck into all kinds of activities, including hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, fishing, and kayaking. You can even explore up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) of the caves as part of a tour.

Officially dedicated as a national park in 1941, Mammoth Cave became a World Heritage Site in 1981 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.

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