Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest known cave system. Although more than 400 miles of the limestone labyrinth have been explored, park officials estimate there could be another 600 miles in the cave system.
If you’re planning a trip to Mammoth Cave, the National Park Service (NPS) wants to help. In fact, the NPS recently released its “Top Ten Tips for Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park” as part of its “Plan Your Vacation Like a Park Ranger” series. The tips are even written by the rangers who work at Mammoth Cave, so you know they’ll be insightful.
“Planning a visit to Mammoth Cave?” the rangers ask. “Great! Here are some tips that will help you have a fun and memorable visit to the longest cave system in the world.”
So, let’s get right to it. Here’s what the rangers want you to know before you visit Mammoth Cave National Park.
1. Make Reservations
“Cave tours are our most popular activity and they often sell out,” rangers explain. Purchasing cave tour tickets in advance “will ensure you can get the tour you want, on the day you want, at the time you want. It’s is a win-win-win!”
While you’re planning your trip, rangers explain that they also know you “don’t want to miss your chance to roast s’mores around the campfire.” That’s why they also recommend making campsite reservations.
You can learn more about the park’s three campgrounds here and make reservations here.
2. Pick The Right Tour
Mammoth Cave offers a variety of cave tours for visitors of all abilities and interests. “This allows you to select the adventure that best fits your group’s needs,” rangers explain. “From a 2.5-mile, 2.5-hour dirt trail hike to see an underground river, to a 0.25-mile, 1.25-hour walk to see hundreds of dripstone formations, there’s a tour that’s right for everyone.”
You can learn about all of the different tours here. When you’re ready, you can purchase tickets for cave tours here.
3. Visit The “Sunny Side” Of The Park
Mammoth Cave is known for its extensive labyrinth of underground cave passages, but the park also has more than 85 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. “Get out on the trails early in the day to view wildlife, wildflowers, and the park’s scenic views along the forested rolling hills before the rest of the world has even rolled out of bed,” rangers suggest.
You can learn about hiking at Mammoth Cave here, biking here, and horseback riding here.
4. Hang Out With A Ranger
“If you’re looking for something to do other than visit a dark hole in the ground, join one of our guides for a free ranger-led program,” the rangers suggest. “The programs are the perfect activity to complement your cave tour.”
You can learn more about ranger-led programs — including evening programs — here.
5. Paddle Away On A Weekday
Many people don’t know it, but Mammoth Cave National Park is also home to more than 30 miles of the Green and Nolin Rivers, which are perfect for paddling or fishing, the rangers explain.
Keep in mind that the river can get very busy during weekends. To avoid the crowds at river access points, rangers recommend planning your canoeing, kayaking, and fishing for weekdays.
You can learn more about canoeing, kayaking, and boating on the Green and Nolin Rivers here.
Pro Tip: Don’t worry if you don’t have a canoe or kayak. Several private canoe and kayak rental businesses operate inside the park. You can learn more about those outfitters here.
6. Remember Your Jacket
In the summer, it can be humid and the temperature can be 90 degrees or hotter outside the cave. Deep inside the cave, however, the temperature is always 54 degrees.
Rangers recommend being prepared for your cave tour by bringing extra clothing or a light jacket so you stay comfortable inside the cave.
7. Be Safe
“Mammoth Cave is a place for fun, not folly!” rangers explain. “At the end of the day, we want both you and the park to be in a better condition than when you first found each other.”
Rangers explain that following concepts such as keeping a safe distance from wildlife, never feeding wildlife, staying on boardwalks and trails, and never parking in the road or blocking traffic will help you avoid the most common accidents. Also, by following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, you’ll help protect the park as well, they continue.
You can learn how to “Protect Your Park, Protect Yourself” by staying safe here.
8. Watch The Clock
Mammoth Cave National Park sits on the far eastern side of the Central Time Zone. This can be confusing to visitors arriving from the north or from locations in the Eastern Time Zone, the rangers note.
It’s important to pay attention to local time so you don’t arrive too late — or too early — for your cave tour, rangers explain.
9. Don’t Let Technology Lead You Astray
Rangers warn visitors not to trust their vehicle’s navigation system or GPS units when traveling to Mammoth Cave because they can provide inaccurate information. Instead, rangers recommend checking your route and reviewing directions on the park’s website so you can avoid unintended delays. That’s especially important when you need to arrive at the park in time for your scheduled cave tour.
Pro Tip: Rangers also point out that while public Wi-Fi is available at the park visitor center, cell service throughout the park can be spotty.
10. Visit South-Central Kentucky
Rangers know that there’s a lot you can do at Mammoth Cave and the surrounding area.
“Feel like you’re cramming a lot of Mammoth Cave into a day trip?” they ask. “Stick around and avoid the rush! You might even check another National Park Service site off your list by visiting Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky — which is right up the road.”
The good news is that if you do want to stay, the park has three developed campgrounds and several backcountry campsites — in addition to the Lodge at Mammoth Cave. You can learn more about where you can spend the night here and make reservations for those places here.
You can also learn more about the nearby local communities and their attractions here.
In late January, Mammoth Mountain was hit with more than 100 inches of snow just as Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the latest stay-at-home order.
And, while the fresh powder beckoned cooped-up eager skiers and riders, it also was a pivotal lesson in how resort officials would navigate this year’s season amid tight COVID-19 restrictions while still providing a fun place to enjoy the outdoor winter wonderland in the High Sierra. The resort opened on Nov. 13, after the longest off-season in its history.
“It was quite a weekend,” said Stacey Cook, who heads up the mountain’s newly created COVID-19 Enforcement Team. “The storm kept building in the forecast and at the same time, we saw the stay-at-home order being lifted. It was the perfect storm.”
Mammoth Mountain just before a storm that dumped 100 inches in late January hit the High Sierra. (Photo by Peter Morning, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)
A view of The Minarets — a series of jagged peaks — visible from Chair 16 on Mammoth Mountain. (Photo by Erika Ritchie, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Boarders cruise groomed runs above Canyon Lodge. (Photo by Erika Ritchie, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Views from Lincoln Peak at Mammoth Mountain. (Photo by Erika Ritchie, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A lone skier hits some powder off Chair Five on Mammoth Mountain. (Photo by Erika Ritchie, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Skiers and boarders wait in lift lines near Canyon Lodge where COVID-19 restrictions are in place. (Photo by Erika Ritchie, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Mammoth Mountain basking in sunlight after a recent storm. (Photo by Christian Pondella, Mammoth Mountain)
Mammoth skier covered in snow on Mammoth Mountain. (Photo by Christian Pondella, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)
Fresh powder on an amazing day in late January. (Photo by Peter Morning, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)
Riders enjoy massive powder on Mammoth Mountain. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)
Crowds began forming at the few open lifts across the vast mountain and wait times stretched to as long as 55 minutes. Access to the mountain was limited to IKON pass holders and advance paid ticket sales. By that weekend, resort officials announced the mountain was “sold out.”
“Everyone showed up all at once,” Cook said. “We wanted to make sure we had safe operations and waited until ski patrol finished their avalanche blasts. I don’t know if any communication would have suppressed the guests’ stoke.”
Then, two weeks later, the mountain got some more fresh powder with about 18 more inches. Skiing conditions were much better and the mountain opened a lot sooner. The next fresh snowfall is expected Wednesday, March 10 and the mountain is expected to provide skiing and riding until at least Memorial Day. The summit now has received 224 inches and Main Lodge has 184 inches.
To keep its guests safe, Mammoth Mountain has invested $1 million in COVID-19-related resort enhancements. This includes new technologies and sanitization procedures to help with physical distancing and public health and to reduce contact points throughout the resort.
Skiing in the COVID era
That late January weekend was eye-opening as crowds began forming at the lift lines. Masks are required indoors, in lift lines and on lifts, in gondolas, shuttles, and when social distancing with others outside who are not part of your travel group.
Cook’s team members — dressed in orange vests — were on hand to make sure guests had their noses and mouths covered and that they kept a 6-foot distance. Bandanas and gaiters are already part of many riders’ gear, so that part wasn’t that difficult, officials said.
But, some who tried to grab a sip of a beverage or maybe cool down after an exhilarating run and pulled down their face coverings were quickly and politely addressed.
“A lot of it is observation and talking to guests,” Cook said. “How do we make them believe what we’re doing is necessary? We’re constantly battling the misconception of being outside without a mask is OK.”
Chris Dahl, a lift operator, brought an unusual amount of enthusiasm to the waiting lines at Chair 5. He’s found a way to make COVID-compliance fun by bringing a sort of entertainment to the crowd. A senior Mammoth Mountain official was at the lift observing the crowds and took a video of Dahl. Later, he was given an award for his efforts.
“It made us all laugh when we needed it,” Cook said.
For Dahl, it was a way to get compliance while bringing about group motivation.
“It’s almost a whole year into the pandemic and I can see a lot of people are pretty tired of it,” said Dahl, of Fullerton, who is working his first season on the mountain. “I take that attitude because it helps make my experience more fun. I think people gravitate towards it because they’re also excited about being on the mountain and they want someone to share the energy with.”
Since the first storm, Dahl said he gets a good level of compliance but sees better cooperation from California residents than from out-of-state visitors.
The lift lines are distanced. For skiers, that isn’t too hard; it means lining up tip-to-tail and, and for some, allowing an extra foot of separation.
“We do get some people who squeeze up tight,” Cook said.
The late January storm showed Cook and her team how to get ahead of the game. In some cases, that meant opening lifts earlier and getting ahead of any crowds forming by the beginning of the day.
“That weekend, we were never able to get people spaced out.”
The COVID team works with mountain hosts — part-time workers and local volunteers dressed in yellow jackets — to advise skiers and riders where to go on the mountain.
While the majority of guests comply with the COVID protocols, Cook said some balk. But, the mountain has a three-step plan for non-compliance. Many times the mistakes are innocent and people have either forgotten or aren’t aware.
“We correct the mistake and we’re nice about it,” Cook said. “The second time it happens, we educate them on why it’s important and how we’d like to keep the mountain open. The third time, corrective action is taken; it’s noted in their profile.”
Each guest has a profile whether they are an IKON Pass holder or not. A first warning is noted in the profile. The second time non-compliance happens, their ski pass is turned off for a week. If it happens a third time, the pass is revoked for the season.
Cook said a lot of notes have been made in profiles and more than a dozen passes have been revoked so far this season.
COVID protocols have also affected the Panorama gondola that travels to the summit. It no longer picks passengers up mid-mountain at McCoy Station. Riders must board at Main Lodge where capacity is limited to single households. The Village Gondola — which runs from Canyon Lodge to the Village at Mammoth — limits capacity to 25% with open windows, even in inclement weather. Seating is arranged to ensure a six-foot distance between people from different households.
If you want to get more proficient at making turns, ski and board lessons are private to ensure only people within a household are placed together.
Lodges and après-ski
And, with the restrictions on the mountain, there are similar safety measures being taken at all of the resort’s lodges.
Hand washing and sanitizing stations are placed throughout lodges at the resort. Places like railings, bathrooms, door handles, tables and chairs are being disinfected regularly.
Guests will miss some of the traditional ski getaway fun like eating hearty breakfasts and lunches inside lodges, having a place to warm up a shivering child with hot cocoa and the ever-popular and expected après-ski at some of the mountain’s bars and restaurants.
While the lodges aren’t open to gather, there is plenty of outdoor seating where visitors can enjoy takeout food and drinks. The mountain also has opportunities for advanced ordering and pickup options through the Mammoth Mobile App. There are also pop-ups on the mountain where guests can buy drinks and snacks.
At Canyon Lodge, for example, the ever-popular Canyon Beach has been a place to hang out, socially distanced, while relishing the pure joy of a bluebird ski day. At Main Lodge, there’s plenty of space on the sun decks outside with views to the mountain’s famed Unbound Terrain Parks.
“It’s not the same experience, but it’s still a good experience,” Cook said. “Have a plan to grocery shop or eat lunch in your car. Call and ask questions, look on our website and don’t come unprepared. Our employees don’t want to be the police. This is a place to be kind and enjoy life. Show up with an attitude of fun and patience.”
In Mammoth Lakes, restaurants are open for outdoor dining, takeout and delivery.
The best place for a fun après-ski is likely your lodging. If you need to stock up for groceries and want to avoid large groups and long lines, avoid times between 3 and 10 p.m., especially on Friday and Saturday.
While COVID may have changed some of the experience, Mammoth’s terrain remains amazing. The wide-open bowls, steep canyons and long groomers are there to welcome eager skiers and boarders back. Here are some of the best ski runs that just may make you feel “normal” again.
Hangman’s Hollow: Perched near the summit of Mammoth and accessed by the gondola, Hangman’s Hollow is an adrenaline junkie’s dream. Large rock faces and drops take you through the “hollow” and into a powdery landing. This run requires skill and bravery.
Climax: Towering just below the gondola, Climax is a steep, daunting run that provides some of the best turns on the mountain. Drop over the edge and get buttery turns. Funnel through a few chutes; then it’s back to wide, fun slashes to the bottom. Don’t fall because you’ll have an audience watching from the gondolas above.
Dropout Chutes: The Dropout Chutes, which take skiers right under Chair 23, are filled with some of the best snow on the mountain because they capture the Mammoth “wind buff.” Skiers and riders pass by large rock formations in a tight chute and then hit wide, long, grin-inducing turns that are hard to beat.
West Bowl: Some of the best “first tracks” on the mountain on a powder day. On an average day, it can be a technical mogul field. Accessed from Face Lift Express, West Bowl requires a slightly technical traverse to drop in; then it’s a wide-open bowl, usually all to yourself.
Paranoid Flats: The “Noids,” as locals call them, may not feature the rocky chutes of some other double black trails, but they are steep, fast and require a little finesse to access. Whether you choose 1, 2, 3 or 4, Paranoids give a run of a lifetime when they’re hit right.
Avalanche Chutes: Off Lincoln Mountain and Chair 22, the “Avy Chutes” are a ton of fun for advanced skiers or riders — especially after a storm. Chair 22 is an option when the top of the mountain is closed. You can get fresh, steep tracks while snow falls. The chutes collect a lot of snow, and a short hike takes you over to a choice of three.
Road Runner: Road Runner takes skiers and riders on a scenic 3-mile tour of the backside, all the way back to Main Lodge. The views of the Minaret Range will take your breath away, but don’t get too distracted — there’s a steep dropoff on your side.
Stump Alley: It’s a misleading name. Stump Alley is actually a wide treeless run with tons of space to work on turns. With just enough pitch to pick up some acceleration, you can carve down at full speed and treat yourself to some pulled pork nachos at The Mill at the bottom. This tame blue run has varying conditions and can be confidence-inspiring.
Solitude: Taking you from the top to the bottom of High Five Express, Solitude is fun and wide. If you’re feeling adventurous, the left of the run is lined with trees you can cut between and find hidden pockets of powder. Just make sure you don’t cut through the trees completely, or you’ll find yourself going down the more advanced Face of Five trail. Solitude is the perfect practice for making turns down steeper terrain or to get comfortable picking up downhill speed.
Gold Hill: Starts off at the top of Cloud Nine Express, which is known for having some of the best snow after a storm. Gold Hill definitely provides that for the intermediate skier or rider. It’s a long run with tons of fun side hits, tree runs and powder stashes.
White Bark Ridge: If you’re looking for a relaxed run off the backside of Mammoth, head over to Chair 12 or 13 and take some laps on White Bark Ridge. Shorter than Road Runner, White Bark Ridge provides amazing views and is less of a thigh burner.
Sesame Street: If you’re at Main Lodge, Sesame Street can be a good place to build confidence on the slopes. It’s an easy run with access to beginner freestyle terrain. Sesame Street has some of the best views of the top of the mountain to give you something to work toward.
School Yard: Out of Canyon Lodge, head to School Yard to learn your heel from your toe turns. School Yard is a long, easy beginner run that is a perfect place for all age levels.
Pumpkin: Out of Eagle Lodge, Pumpkin is a long, mellow run perfect for beginners to get comfortable on the snow. Often with fewer crowds than other beginner runs, Pumpkin has space to learn how to nail your turns.
Wonderland Playground: This is the perfect space to learn and get comfortable in the park, whether you’re new to freestyle terrain or just looking to have some fun. With small jumps, ride-on boxes and rails and an 11-foot halfpipe, this is the place to start your park progression to the big leagues.
St. Moritz: If you’re feeling comfortable on the beginner slopes but aren’t quite ready to make the jump to an intermediate run, check out St. Moritz. Take the Panorama Gondola to McCoy Station and make your way down the wide, mellow beginning of Stump Alley toward the top of Forest Trail. St. Moritz is an advanced beginner run that takes you back to Main Lodge and allows you to gain more confidence on the mountain before hitting intermediate runs.