At first glance Mammoth Cave National Park doesn’t appear to be an optimal choice for wheelchair-users and slow walkers; however upon closer examination a number of recent access upgrades are revealed. Not only can people with mobility issues enjoy a few more accessible trails today, but wheelchair-users and slow walkers can now also explore the subterranean wonders of this Southwestern Kentucky national park.
The Wonder Down Under
The new wheelchair-accessible cave tours top the access upgrade list at Mammoth Cave. Previously there was elevator access to a portion of the cave, but service was discontinued in 2002 due to safety issues. Thanks to a recent $2.2 million repair project, the elevator is once again in service, and now everyone can tour the caverns.
The two-hour Accessible Cave Tour begins at the visitor center, where participants then drive their own vehicles to the elevator on Cave City Road. There’s accessible parking in the lot, and barrier-free access over to the elevator. The tour of this gypsum cave travels over level cement pathways and visits the Snowball Room; and includes portions of the Cleveland Avenue Tour and the Grand Avenue Tour. This accessible tour is an extremely manageable half-mile in length, and it can also accommodate large power wheelchairs and scooters.
Remember to get your tickets early to insure your spot on this popular tour. Tickets can be purchased online at www.recreation.gov, or by calling the National Park Reservation Service at (877) 444-6777. Half of the tickets are available for advance purchase, while the other half are sold on a first-come basis on the day of the tour.
Accessible River Trail
Another access improvement transformed a once rutted gravel footpath into a truly accessible trail. The newly refurbished Echo River Spring Trail was unveiled in 2018 at the culmination of a $1.1 million project, coordinated by the National Park Service as part of their diversity program. This nationwide effort, which was launched in 2015, aims to increase access to the parks for disabled visitors.
The trailhead is located near the end of Green River Road, just a short drive from the visitor center. Accessible parking is available near the trailhead, and there’s also an accessible porta-potty and an accessible picnic table near the parking lot. This one-mile trail begins as a wide cement walkway, before it transitions to a short boardwalk through the forest. At the .4-mile point it becomes a fairly level hard-packed dirt trail, before it ends at River Styx Spring.
It’s a pleasant stroll, and there are several overlooks with benches to sit back and enjoy the peaceful forest. It’s also worth mentioning that since the upgrades are so recent, the trail isn’t marked as accessible on the park map yet. As an added bonus, this trail is located is one of the least crowded areas of the park.
Heritage Trail Improvements
Last but not least, the National Park Service made some considerable improvements and lengthened the accessible Heritage Trail, which now offers wheelchair-users and slow walkers a longer stroll through the forest.
The Heritage Trail begins near The Lodge at Mammoth — just take a left as you exit the back door of the hotel, and you’ll be good to go. This three-quarter-mile trail begins as a wide level path, before it transitions to a newly redone boardwalk section that loops through the forest and offers good views of the park. Sunset Point, which is located mid-way along the trail, also offers some nice views.
There is also a short 300-foot trail out to the Old Guides Cemetery from the Heritage Trail. The level trail leads over to a abandoned graveyard, where Stephen Bishop — a guide who died in 1857 — was laid to rest. Even if you can’t do the entire trail, it’s still a pleasant stroll, and there are plenty of benches to stop and take a break and enjoy the view along the way.