MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, Ky. — Blasts of cool air offered a welcome reprieve from the scorching summer as a tour group descended into the depths of the world's longest known cave. Some visitors donned light jackets for the long hike past panoramic scenes of subterranean wonders.
Heading underground at Mammoth Cave National Park is a sure way to escape the dog days of summer. The celebrated cave that has lured the curious for thousands of years remains a temperate 54 degrees year-round.
"It's the first time I've been cool in I don't know how long," said Sarah Hyatt, who traveled from Maryland to marvel at the limestone formations with her parents and her 8-year-old daughter.
Each year, about 700,000 people take the short trip off Interstate 65 to visit Mammoth Cave, the peak time in summer. In winter, the cave's temperate climate gives it a balmy feel, said park spokeswoman Vickie Carson.
Tours cater to a range of visitors, from hardy adventurers to those looking for less strenuous outings. One tour suited for children, elderly people and others who can't walk long distances covers a quarter-mile and includes just a dozen stairs. Other tours cover 4 to 5 miles and put participants through vigorous workouts.
On the popular "Historic Tour," visitors take a winding 2-mile hike that leads them 310 feet below the surface.
It's not a stroll in the park. Participants have to chug up and down 440 stairs. Wide walkways leading into expansive "rooms" give way to belly-scraping paths that take a serpentine route through the rock.
Adults must stoop to maneuver past low rock ceilings and squeeze sideways through a narrow passage in part of the cave known as "Fat Man's Misery." They climb a stairway at a majestic part of the cave known as Mammoth Dome.
Silent and dark
Dim lighting woven along points in the cave revealed a fascinating look at the tapestry of rock formations during the two-hour excursion.
At one point, tour guide Nick Asher let visitors experience the cave in its purest form.
He told them that on the count of three, they would be enveloped in darkness. On count one, they should close their eyes, he coached them. On count two, he would cut off his lantern. On count three, they should open their eyes.
"And if you're afraid of the dark, just skip count three," Asher advised.
"This is total and complete darkness we're feeling down here," Asher said. "And the cave is one of the only places on Earth where you can experience total silence."
After a few moments, he flicked a small lighter that illuminated the walls and ceiling.
The experience was a highlight for Cameron Moreland, who fulfilled his boyhood dream with his visit to Mammoth Cave.
"That's exactly the kind of experience we wanted to get out of it," said Moreland, who took the tour with his wife and their three children from Green Bay, Wis.
The excursion was a big hit with his children — including the youngest, 6-year-old Cole.
"It was like a little boy's dream come true," the boy's father said.
Above and beyond
While the underground tours are the main attraction, there's plenty to do on the surface as well. The park offers boating, fishing, horseback riding, camping and walking trails amid the scenic rolling hills of south-central Kentucky.
The park is about 90 miles from both Louisville, Ky., and Nashville. There are nearly 400 caves underneath the park, but Mammoth Cave is by far the best known and longest — some 392 miles of passageways have been mapped and surveyed.
Besides the underground sights, a visit reveals a fascinating look at the layers of human history in a place that Asher calls a "time capsule," thanks to the temperate conditions that help keep things preserved.
"All the artifacts we're seeing are the originals," he said. "There are no reproductions down here."
History down under
Evidence indicates that the area's indigenous peoples ventured into the cave as far back as 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, apparently to scrape gypsum and other minerals off walls, said Carson, the park spokeswoman.
It wasn't until the 1790s that Mammoth Cave was found by white settlers. For a time, the cave served as a valuable source of saltpeter, an ingredient for gunpowder. Mammoth Cave played a key role in supplying saltpeter for the young nation's military during the War of 1812.
The first tours started in 1816, as the cave attracted wealthy visitors from the eastern United States and Europe. Nearly two centuries later, the cave still fascinates throngs of sightseers.