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When it comes to America's national parks there are lots of superlatives, and Mammoth Cave in south central Kentucky has several to offer. For starters, it is the world's longest cave system (so far as is known), with more than 365 miles explored. It's so big, in fact, that if the second and third longest cave systems in the world were joined together, Mammoth Cave would still be the planet's longest and would have nearly 100 miles to spare. The park was established in 1941, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.

The park is not just the cave. Above ground, there are campgrounds and more than 30 miles of the Green and Nolin rivers, on which you can boat, canoe, or fish. There are some 52,800 acres in the park.

Highlights

Within the cave system itself, be sure to take one or more of the tours, and to see, if possible on the tours, the Frozen Niagara Room, the Rotunda, Grand Avenue, and The Narrows. The park is home to over 70 threatened, endangered or state listed species of wildlife -- more than 130 species are regular inhabitants within the cave system. Among inhabitants of the park itself are frogs, toads, titmice, turkeys, catfish, perch, and 45 species of mammals, including white-tailed deer and the opossum. There aren't many bats in the cave, but the authorities are trying to get them to come back, you'll be glad (perhaps?) to hear. Some types of cave fish do not grow eyes, as they would be unnecessary in the total darkness where they live. The cave is also home to the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp, a sightless albino creature.

Activities

In addition to visiting the cave, you can enjoy a wide variety of things to do, from camping to horseback riding (on 60 miles of trails), from hiking (24 different trails) to boating. Other activities including biking, taking a riverboat ride, fishing, watching films, attending lectures or guided hiking programs, and more. You can cross the Green River on one or both ferries, the Green River Ferry and the Houchins Ferry, two of the few operating rural ferries in the nation. Swimming is not recommended, due to the swift flow of the river.

Tours

Tours have been offered here since 1816, making this one of the oldest tourist attractions in North America. There are now13 tours, lasting from 75 minutes in length and covering ¾ of a mile (the Mammoth Passage Tour), up to the Wild Cave Tour, taking up to 6.5 hours and covering 5.5 miles, with several in between. Fees range from $5 to $48 for adults, less for seniors and young people (aged 6 to 12). There used to be boat rides down below on the Echo River, but they were discontinued more than ten years ago for environmental and other reasons.

The Mammoth Passage Tour ($5) is limited to 40 participants and is the easiest, but you still have to master 120 to 180 steps and there is one steep hill climb, to and from the cave entrance itself. You see the Narrows, the Rotunda, and either Audubon Avenue or Broadway Avenue, depending on the season.

The Wild Cave Tour ($48) is limited to 14 persons (reservations required), and the emphasis is on safe caving techniques, environmental concerns, cave exploration (past and present), and team building. It's very strenuous, with free-climbing cave walls, lengthy crawls through areas as tight as nine inches high, walking in a crouched position, hand and knee crawls over jagged rocks and dirt, and crawling through wet areas, among other challenges.

Nearby

Near Mammoth Cave National Park are several so-called "show caves," smaller holes in the ground that also attract visitors. Among them are Historic Diamond Caverns, Lost River Cave ("Kentucky's only underground boat tour"), Kentucky Caverns (onyx formations), the American Cave Museum & Hidden River Cave, Crystal Onyx Cave, Cub Run Cave, Outlaw Cave (with an alleged connection to Jesse James) and Onyx Cave.

Visitors

There were 597,934 visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park in 2006, the last date for which figures are available.

Fees

Most of the park's resources and facilities are free, but you will have to pay for cave tours, of which there are many different ones, from $5 up (less for seniors and young people 6-12). Campground fees start at $12 The cave is closed only on Christmas Day.

Contacts

The official website of the park is www.nps.gov/maca. The visitor information phone line is tel. 270/758-2180.

A good commercial site is www.mammoth.cave.national-park.com.