Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Fall Equinox at Mammoth Cave

Sunday September 22, 2014
Mammoth Cave National Park Campground
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky



Today is our last day at Mammoth Cave and it is Fall Equinox. 


I really like to mark these quarter days in the round of the sun in some ritual way.  That was easy to do when I lived in Virginia and had friends who also celebrated these occasions and lots of ritual gear to do it with.  I haven’t figured out how to do this on the road as well as I used to.  The best I could do for this day of balance was to openly recognize it by planning an under and over day of balance for both of us.

We’re starting our Equinox day with the Violet Lantern Tour underground.  Before we head out to the shelter next to the Visitor Center we again spend a little time in the center with their unendingly interesting exhibits.  There are just endless interesting things I could show from there but I am trying to be reasonable.  DO spend time in this Visitor Center it really is wonderful.

This time I have a rather poor picture of a great 1908 map of Mammoth Cave.  Particularly I want to draw your attention to the top side of the lower right hand corner.  A red arrow points to it.




Getting a map of even this early small part of the 400 miles of explored cave to show up clearly on this post wasn’t possible so here are some close ups.


Way out there, Carrie’s Pass trails off into the unknown. 

How exciting!  Who was this 1908 Carrie?  Surely they have gone beyond Carrie’s Pass by now.  I wasn’t able to easily find a current cave map so I don’t know if we might have gone that way at some point.   My Great Aunt Carrie, my daughter’s name sake, who died at the age of 103 in 1991, was only 20 years old when this map was made.   





One more tidbit from the Visitor Center,  Mammoth Cave’s importance was recognized, in 1981, when the United Nations designated it a World Heritage Site, on the same list with the Egyptian Pyramids and the Grand Canyon, and in 1990 UNESCO classified it as an International Biosphere Reserve.  There was a screen show of pictures of the World Heritage Sites from all over the world. There are over 1000 sites in total and 22 in the U.S.


On to the tour.



We meet our guide John at the shelter outside the Visitor Center.  He tells us the Violet City Lantern Tour is a 3 hour 3 miles tour that is labeled strenuous.  We walk down to the Historic Entrance. We again use coal-oil lanterns, though I didn’t ask if there was electricity in this section of the cave.  I hope not.

The first 1/2 mile of the tour follows the Historic Tour Route so we go by the saltpeter mining operation.  But we continue on into the section of the cave we had not been in before.



In the dark, I almost don’t see the stone building on our path.


In earlier posts I mentioned that the cave and its famous guide Stephen Bishop were purchased by Nicholas Croghan, for $10,000 in 1839.  His brother John was a physician specializing in “pulmonary consumption” (tuberculosis).  Dr. John read, in the journals of the day, accounts of the preservative qualities of the cave – how the timbers from the old nitre mine, now more than 30 years old, had not even begun to rot; how the bodies of dead bats, and even the bodies of Indians which had been found in the cave, remained perfectly intact and undecayed.  He assumed all this was due to the cave air.


Thank goodness there was no stage coach in Mammoth Cave.

Dr. Croghan had 16 patients in his care in the winter of 1842-1843. He sent slaves into the cave to construct a series of buildings, two of stone and eight of wood, to function as a sanitarium. One of these stone buildings remains.  The wooden ones were removed prior to the creation of the park.  I was amazed to hear that tours continued during the time of the hospital and visitors would pass this strange situation of coughing patients in dressing-gowns moving weakly along the passageway, slipping in and out of shadowed huts.  Anticipating success, Dr. Croghan began to draw up plans for a hotel to be built inside the cave to house all those who were bound to come when the word spread.  There was also to be a stagecoach route into the cave to bring them inside in comfort.

Croghan thought the cave air would be restorative, but his patients actually grew worse, due to smoke from torches and cooking fires in the cave. They died within a year, and Croghan, who'd lived with them, later died of the disease himself in 1849.  Two of the patients are buried in the Old Guide Cemetary which you can read about in yesterday’s post.



We come to an area where some of the many artifacts of Native Americans found in the cave have been left rather than removed.



Native Americans presence in the cave was documented from 4000 to 2000 years ago.  After that, there was no evidence of human use until its rediscovery in the late 1700’s.  Several sets of Native American remains have been recovered from Mammoth Cave.   Most mummies found represent examples of intentional burial, with ample evidence of pre-Columbian funerary practice.

An exception to purposeful burial was found when in 1935 the remains of an adult male were discovered under a large boulder. The boulder had shifted and settled onto the victim, a 2000 year old pre-Columbian miner, who had disturbed the rubble supporting it. The body still had skin, hair, clothing that had basically been mummified because of the dryness.  The remains of the ancient victim were named "Lost John" and exhibited to the public into the 1970s, when they were interred in a secret location in Mammoth Cave for reasons of preservation as well as emerging political sensitivities with respect to the public display of Native American remains.  Thank goodness.  How awful that it was allowed to go on until the 70’s. 




Other early 19th century visitors found the cave's tunnels littered with discarded moccasins, pottery and reed torches used to light the cave.  Eventually archaeologists determined these artifacts were up to 4,000 years old; the cool, dry cave air had preserved them.  The remnants of stick torches were lodged in the cave's rocky ceiling.  Wood is durable, as long as it is dry.  When lit, the pole torches, made of cane reed from the nearby Green River,  would give light for 30 to 60 minutes.



The Violet City tour also includes a look at the petroglyphs. These charcoal drawings were left on an immense, flat stone slab called Devil's Looking Glass, which appears to have been placed at a prominent angle on a tunnel path, as if the ancient artists wanted maximum visibility for their work. One drawing looks like a snake, or a lightning bolt; another resembles a human form, with two arms and two legs, but it might also have been a crude map of four nearby passages leading to a natural rotunda. Getting pictures of these was almost impossible as you can see especially with the more recent graffiti over top of them and John’s flashlight making an intensely bright light in one spot..



Not sure why the moccasins are called slippers here.

These are some pictures of artifacts we saw in the VC before this trip so that you can see what they actually look like.  We saw cane torches inside the cave but it was too dark to get photographs of them.  There are interesting descriptive labels above the artifacts.  Click the pictures to enlarge and read them.







I’m not able to get any pictures of the Violet City Area. 


violet city entrance

We arrive in Chief City, the single largest room to date in the cave system and learn how the cave explorers pushed through to Kamper Hall which opens into Elizabeth Dome and the stalactites and stalagmites that make a flashy ending in Violet City.   But it’s too dark for pictures of the beauty.  I took some but they just don’t show what it looks like.

The tour leaves the cave via the man made Violet City entrance which is 3.5 miles from the Visitor Center.  We carry our lanterns up the hill where a bus returns us to the hotel where we again disinfect our feet to keep from carrying White Nose Syndrome anywhere.  This is another great tour that I’d recommend you take if you come to Mammoth Cave National park.




The cabins look just like they did 23 years ago.



On our way back for lunch we walk by the cabins that we stayed in on our 1991 trip with the girls.  These are not as old as the ones that my family stayed in in the 50’s which I showed in a previous post .  There were only 6 or 8 of those in a semi circle facing out.  These are numerous and in a cute little village type arrangement.  The one we stayed in had two bedrooms and the back wall was shared with another cabin with its entrance on the other end.   I would much rather stay in either these cute groups of cabins than in the ugly hotel personally.   But best of all, I like staying in Winnona and she’s way less expensive.  $8.50 a night, no hook ups, senior rate.IMG_8657



It’s time to do the final map update for a while. 



When we return to Winnona we put up the stickers for the last 3 states we have visited, Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky.  We have added 10 states to our map this summer in our quest to visit all 50.  We have the far west yet to visit and two stragglers, Louisiana and Connecticut, that we passed through but didn’t spend the night in. Getting Louisiana will be easy once we can FINALLY get to Betty’s but I’m not sure we will ever make it to Connecticut for more than a quick drive through.  Way too developed and we’ve been advised to avoid I-84.  So we may have a white hole permanently shaped like Connecticut since our criteria for inclusion is that Winnona must camp there not just drive through.




We have some on lookers making sure we do it all correctly.


Our day is only half over.  To create a day of balance on the Fall Equinox, we’ll spend our final afternoon above ground.  I’ll get to hike the top half of that map from a previous post.


  1. With this tour, you really feel the sense of the human connection to the cave. Strange that anyone would think housing the ill in there was a good idea.

  2. Your posts have so emphasized how much we missed on a previous trip to Mammoth Cave. Likely due to lack of time as it was during our working days, but we sure would like to return. As for Connecticut, we've managed to find a couple of quiet places as it always seems to fall in to a needed stop over area as we head further north. You make a good point however....the quiet peaceful places may be there, but getting to them is quite another story.

  3. I much prefer the western side of Connecticut, and with a little figuring, could get there without having to drive on I-95 in the vicinity of NY. I'm not sure what major roads are in Western CT because I usually look for the little winding byways, but I'm sure you could find suitable roads.

    I'm so glad I took my kids to Mammoth Cave several times during the 1970's. I appreciate what has been added, featured, and amended, but I loved it in the old days and I don't think I would love all the changes. Any way you look at it you see an incredible place though.

  4. There is an interesting area in CT that we've visited, Gillette Castle. There is also some hiking if I remember around there, and we did a scenic drive along the Connecticut River. Mystic Seaport is interesting as I remember, if you enjoyed Williamsburg its similar just a lot smaller. I have not found a really awesome campground though, but haven't looked very hard :-).

  5. You are lucky to not be married to a claustraphobic :) I would have to drag Rick down there and he wouldn't stay long.
    We are going to try to do the NE this summer and hope to find something decent in CT. Will let you know if it was worth it :)

  6. Another great tour you've taken us along with. Very nice it was done by lantern to add to the historic feeling of the cave's history. And I'm with you, CT isn't worth staying in. If you think I-84 is bad, try I-95. I can't get through that state fast enough. Marti has relatives in RI and MA so we have to travel through at least annually.

  7. We have only 8 states on our empty list, including Connecticut. I was amazed at how beautiful Vermont was when I visited this month. More to come on that on the blog when I get to it, but you know how that goes! I so want to go to White Flower Farm in Connecticut, and surely there is somewhere around there to park. That catalog was my introduction to perennial gardening three decades past. I had never even heard of Mammoth Cave until your posts, so thanks for that wonderful information and photography.

  8. Haven't been to Connecticut in more than half of a century (there are certain phrases that say, "You're old" :)). I doubt I'll ever get there, but most of my favorite states with the exception of Idaho, Montana, and Colorado are still on your bucket list. Maybe some day for me. :)

  9. Another great tour underground! Must have been quite a surprise to see the building down there.

    Glad that are going to see a little of the above ground, as well:)

  10. The map is looking good. You put a good dent in it this summer.

  11. We actually traveled Rt 1 all the way through Connecticut when we were traveling in the Van. We stopped in New Haven to see Yale and Mystic Connecticut. However, I will avoid it with a big rig today!!! You certainly had a wonderful time at Mammoth Caves!!! I believe you were underground most of the time;o)) Hope you both are doing well!!!

  12. I remember the moon at the Equinox - it was amazing here :-) Thanks to their inclusion in your posts I am looking forward to exploring the VCs at all these great stops - seeing the items up close in the light at this one before going into the dark cave is so smart! I've never even heard of World Heritage Sites - will have to check out the 22 we have :-) I guess the doctor didn't take into account that wood beams don't have lungs.....you'd think his experience in the cave would have highlighted the impact of human-produced pollution back then! The number of states I've visited is about the same as those you haven't....can't wait to change that :-)

  13. You've done a good job adding states this summer. I'm so far behind blog reading, but I guess I'll catch up when we get back to Tampa.

    Love the caves.

  14. I remember thinking, wondering what you'd do to celebrate the Equinox. Don't know if we'll ever do CT, crazy drivers definitely and we've done I84 numerous times between the NY border and Hartford and gritted our teeth every time and that was in a car. Thinking of going to Betty's in the spring on our way out of TX in the spring.

  15. Interesting tour with some bizarre history -- I can't imagine anyone EVER thinking that cooping sick people up underground would be a good idea! You're way ahead of us in coloring in the U.S. map -- most of our travels have been in the part you haven't colored in yet. :-)

  16. I am really glad we took the time to hang around Mammoth Cave long enough to see so many different parts of the park. It is all so interesting - especially that enormous cave with so many interesting stories from the past. No ideas about CT, but Mystic was one of my mother's favorite places to visit so I was there in my youth. Probably too developed since then.

  17. What interesting stories! Carrie's Pass...nice! The history of all that was in the cave and preserved is really quite impressive. I remember those cabins. Kate and I had a blast :)

  18. Yet another interesting tour. So many to choose from seems you could spend at least a week.


Your comments are the best part of this blog for me.
I LOVE hearing from you!