Mammoth Cave National Park is located in Southern Kentucky just across the border from Tennessee. It makes for a great day trip if you are visiting Nashville or a nice stop to stretch your legs on a road trip. In my opinion, the best Mammoth Cave tour for families is the Domes and Dripstones tour. Entrance to the park is free; however, to enter the cave, you will need a guide and a tour. There are a variety of tour options available for families, even those with younger kids. Check out why I feel this is the best option and compare other tours at the park.
Getting to Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is the world’s largest cave system and is a very underrated national park. The closest major airport to the park is in Nashville, which is a little over an hour’s drive south. According to the National Park site, visitors should not follow the GPS directions.
If traveling from the North: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 53 (Cave City Exit). Turn right onto KY-70. Follow 70/255 as it becomes the Mammoth Cave Parkway in the park. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center. If you are traveling from the South: Take Interstate 65 to Exit 48 (Park City Exit). Turn left onto KY-255 and follow 255 as it becomes the Park City Road into the park. Follow Park City Road until it joins the Mammoth Cave Parkway; turn left. Follow the Mammoth Cave Parkway to the Visitor Center.
Mammoth Cave National Park: The Basics
It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981 and has about 400 miles of underground pathways. It is the longest cave system in the world and is called mammoth due to its’ size (not because of a mammoth fossil discovery). Read more facts about Mammoth Cave National Park here.
Domes and Dripstones Tour Details
The Domes and Dripstones Tour is one of the most popular options at Mammoth Cave National Park. I believe it is the best Mammoth Cave tour for families because it gives you the “most bang for your buck” in terms of length and depth of information. An adult ticket costs $17, while a youth ticket is $12.
We booked the Domes and Dripstones tour about 3 weeks in advance of our anticipated trip. January is usually a pretty slow time for visitors;
The Domes and Dripstones tour is about 2 hours long. You are expected to be able to hike a mile, but should be in good physical condition because there are about 500 steps total (some with quite an incline). It is rated moderate for physical activity.
I would recommend this tour for most people and even families with
Here is the description taken from the NPS site: Wind down through deep pits and high domes via a 280 step staircase. Vertical cave gives way to large canyons and underground hill climbs. Visit the Frozen Niagara formation, then pass through one of the caves most decorative dripstone areas. A ten-minute bus ride to and from the entrances is included.
Our Experience on the Domes and Dripstones Tour
The tour begins at the Visitors Center. You grab your ticket and board a bus towards the entrance of the cave. The bus ride is a quick
Be aware that the temperature inside the cave remains relatively cool (50’s- low 60’s). So don’t forget to dress appropriately and bring a jacket if you are visiting in the summer months. Once you enter the cave you instantly walk down some steep steps and are transported into the underground world of limestone chambers.
The kids did not have any problems going down these steps (7 and 10 at the time), but just in case, my husband walked first, then the two kids, then me. My 7-year-old was a little nervous going down and up some of the steep sections, but she thought it was “very cool”. This is part of the reason I feel that the Domes and Dripstones tour is the best Mammoth Cave tour for families – the “cool factor”.
Walking underneath the Earth’s surface was pretty amazing! The rock formations created by the Green River were stunning. The park ranger was very knowledgeable and explained the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, and discussed how we should not touch the cave walls to limit our trace.
This was also a nice time for relaxing and just catching up on some of the unique features we saw on the first half of the tour. The second half of the tour was probably better than the first as there were even more narrow walkways and a variety of formations on the cave walls.
I am a little claustrophobic, yet I was fine the entire time down here. There were many areas of open space, yet it did have its’ share of tight spaces. I actually found it exciting when we had to squeeze through a narrow area or duck due to a low ceiling. Check out this video of my husband (who is 6’3) ducking through an opening.
The tour ends with the Frozen Niagara section. To get here, we had to walk down another 50 steps to see a gorgeous room with formations all around us. It was a fantastic way to end the tour.
Other Mammoth Cave National Park Tours
Here is a brief summary of the tours offered in Mammoth Cave National Park. Check out the NPS site for more specifics as well as to purchase tickets and reserve times in advance.
- Mammoth Passage Tour: $6-8
This is a short introductory tour to Mammoth Cave. Visit the Rotunda, one of the largest rooms in the cave, and explore a vast canyon passageway. Learn about prehistoric Native American explorers, mining operations, and basic cave geology.
- Frozen Niagara Tour: $10-14
The Frozen Niagara Entrance provides easy access to this decorative area of the cave. Visitors will walk through formations to learn how dripstone is formed. An optional 49 step staircase takes visitors under the Frozen Niagara formation. This easy trip is ideal for people who want a short introduction to Mammoth Cave.
- Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour: $4-6
Learn about prehistoric explorers, saltpeter mining, early owners, and basic cave geology on this self-guiding tour (rangers are on hand for questions). Visit one of the largest rooms in the cave and explore a vast canyon passageway.
- Historic Tour: $12-17
Feel the same excitement that intrigued our earliest explorers and visitors. On this tour, guests will leave the initial large passages behind to descend into deeper levels.
- Grand Avenue Tour: $23-30
This physically demanding trip gives you an excellent perspective of the size and complexity of the Mammoth Cave system. Learn the natural and cultural history of the cave as you journey through some of the cave’s most dramatic passages.
- Cleaveland Avenue Tour: $14-20
Take a one-mile stroll through the beautifully elliptical Cleaveland Avenue encrusted with gypsum formations in various crystalline shapes and sizes.
- Violet City Lantern Tour: $15-20
Walk through miles of large passages by lantern light.
- Great Onyx Tour: $15-20
A great cave activity for returning visitors, this trip includes a bus ride through a forested valley to another historically toured cave within the national park. Coleman lanterns illuminate a series of beautifully sculpted decorative rooms and passageways.
- River Styx Cave Tour: $13-18
Want a glimpse of the underground rivers at the cave’s deepest levels? This geologic journey includes the complete Historic Tour route, plus a short visit down to the Dead Sea, the River Styx, and Lake Lethe.
- Gothic Avenue Tour: $10-15
Gothic Avenue features hundreds of candle-smoked signatures and monuments of stacked limestone dating back through the cave’s early years of tourism.
- Star Chamber Tour: $15-20
Leave daylight behind as you enter the Historic Entrance by lantern light. See the cave as it was seen by early tourists.
- Trog: $20.00
A kids-only adventure! Hike through the forest and find out how the surface and subsurface are connected. Learn how cavers safely explore today. Discover a new world as you hike, crawl, and belly-slide through the cave. (Children 8-12 years only)
- Introduction to Caving: $24-30
A wild caving challenge for new cavers or families! Designed for both adults and kids 10 years and up. Learn the rules and techniques of safe caving, and an appreciation of this special environment. This tour is similar to the Wild Cave Tour, but shorter and less difficult.
- Wild Cave Tour: $60.00
Venture into miles of undeveloped passageways no other tour sees. Be prepared for free-climbing, lengthy crawls, wet areas, and tight openings. Good physical condition is required and participants must be at least 16 years of age and accompanied by an adult 18 or over.
Tips for Bringing Kids to Mammoth Cave National Park
- Be sure to bring a light jacket as the temperature is about 56F year-round.
- Read carefully about the tour options, length, and degree of difficulty to make sure your kids will enjoy it.
- Give your family time to stop at the Visitor’s Center beforehand to get a general idea of the cave system they are about to explore (as well as use the bathroom and have a snack/water).
- Ask your kids if they would like to become National Park Junior Rangers or Junior Cave Scientists. Our kids have received badges on many of our national parks vacations around the country and love completing the activity books. You can get more information about the program at the Visitor’s Center.
All in all, this day trip to Mammoth Cave National Park ended up being one of the highlights of our weekend in Nashville. It was a nice break from the busy city and a fun couple of hours of exploration to visit these caves in Kentucky. Since we have a family bucket list goal of visiting all 50 states, it was a nice way to get two states in one short trip.
Check out: Nashville Two Day Itinerary
If you are planning a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park in the near future, consider taking one the Domes and Dripstones tour to get a comprehensive overview and a solid 2-hour tour for under $20 a person. It is the best Mammoth Cave Tour for families with school-age children, although there are many other tour options if it happens to be sold out.
This was the first time our whole family had ever been inside of a cave and it was so much fun! I know there are even hiking and biking trails too above the cave. If you are planning on spending more time in the area, then consider camping at the Mammoth Cave National Park campgrounds and taking a look at this trail map for more ideas on where to explore.
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To check out our other adventures in nearby Tennessee, click on my posts – Smoky Mountain Hikes and Visiting Pigeon Forge with Kids. If you are looking for other caves to visit, check out Magnificent Caves around the Americas.
Interested in reading about other national parks we have visited? Check out these posts:
- 10 Best National Park Vacations for Families
- National Parks Road Trip: Cross Country
- Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks
- North Dakota National Parks
- Glacier National Park with kids
- Acadia National Park
- Delicate Arch: What to Expect
- Hiking in Southern Utah