Mammoth Cave: Watch out for that dinosaur

It’s the day after Thanksgiving and a Tyrannosaurus Rex the color of Cheetos is threatening to pluck our Honda CRV right off the highway and throw it over the fence that surrounds Dinosaur World. This is how we know we’ve reached Cave City, a town half way between Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. We speed past the plastic brontosaurus and teradafcyls and safely make our way to Mammoth Cave which, we are informed, does not actually house live mammoths. We buy tickets anyway and descend into the dark, cool cave.

My brother moved to Louisville a few years ago after a post-Katrina stint at the Grand Canyon. He and his partner work at the best restaurant in Louisville; Chris is the kitchen manager, Ruben is the dining room manager. We started a tradition of Thanksgiving at their house (hello, professional chef) and now we make the drive up there every year. This year, after a deliciously languorous six course meal, hours spent watching The Goldbergs and RuPaul’s Drag Race and eight bottles of wine split between four people (don’t judge…okay judge), we opted for a little post-Turkey Day outdoor activity and made the hour and a half drive to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system with over 400 miles explored and counting. In its colorful history it was a salt mine, a tourist attraction with slave-guided tours, a short lived tuberculosis hospital and in the 1920s the locals incited a cave war for tourist dollars. Mammoth Cave was deemed a national park in 1941 and today there are a slew of tours ranging from a casual stroll to serious spelunking.

Since our underground escapades were spur of the moment, we were only able to book the self-guided tour, which took about 30 minutes. Interpretative rangers were stationed throughout the cave to answer questions and make sure visitors didn’t stray off the paved pathway. Aboveground, there are several miles of nature trails and a visitor center with an interactive cave museum that touches on both the natural and human history of Mammoth Cave. I wish we could have seen Frozen Niagra or the Ruins of Karnak but all of the tours were sold out.

Cave City itself is a curious place. There are lots of roadside attractions including kayaking, putt putt and other caves, however most of the amusement parks were shuttered when we went. Some looked closed for the season, others looked abandoned. Guntown Mountain is supposedly slated for a comeback, so hopefully it will be open next year; I’m particularly interested in the Haunted Hotel. Regardless, I’m looking forward to exploring this area more next Thanksgiving, with or without a hard hat.