Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
To my knowledge, there are just five cave systems within our 59 national parks, at least those that are open to the public. While other caverns are found in some national monuments, let’s stick to these big 5 for now.
Forming the nexus of their very own national parks, Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave and Carlsbad Caverns are certainly the best known. Besides these, Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park and Crystal Cave in Sequoia offer ranger-guided tours.
While all are spectacular sights in their own right, Mammoth and Carlsbad are the most hospitable and convenient for us photographers, since they allow some degree of self-guided meanderings in their largest areas. These are at our own pace and can allow the use of tripods. I feel very much at home in these semi-dark and friendly subterranean wonders. As a result, my wife long ago concluded that I must be descended from bats. But that is a story for another day.
Let’s focus on Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. This 53,000 acre national park is located just over an hour’s drive from both Louisville and Nashville airports and less than a day’s drive away from about one-third of the entire US population. These Kentucky caves have been formed over millions of years by water slowly percolating through the very porous indigenous limestone. This painfully slow process has created the longest known and perhaps the most complex cave system in the world at almost 400 miles and is honeycombed with countless individual chambers, each one unique.
Access to the caves and their easy trails is by ticket only, available at the visitor center.
With just one exception, all of the various tours are ranger guided. Tripods are prohibited in such group settings. However, when all groups are sold out, it is likely that individuals may be permitted to walk into the cave entrance just behind the visitor center on their own. That’s the time for your tripod!
That said, today’s crop of DSLRs with greatly improved high ISO and stabilization performance has the potential to set you free to shoot handheld, even in this semi-dark environment. If you have some fast glass (f/2.8 or better), you should be able to escape without an objectionable amount of noise in the shadows.
Even with all of that technology, it is still important to brace yourself, hold your breath and squeeze the shutter release gently in order to achieve the maximum sharpness possible whenever you must handhold your camera.
In my experience, the most desirable spots down here inside the Earth are Frozen Niagara, the Drapery Room and the Ruins of Karnak. If you can find a moment at these without people in your frame, you can come away with some great images. In any event, at Frozen Niagara you will most likely be shooting upward and well over everyone’s heads.
The temperature down in the caves at over 200 feet beneath the surface is a constant 53-58* F, so taking along a very light jacket or sweater can ensure your comfort.
Since the light within the caves never changes, you will not be dependent upon golden hour light to get great images. This may be your long-awaited opportunity to shoot at mid-day.
Besides the caves themselves, Mammoth Cave National Park also has several spots above ground that are well worth your time and attention. The same limestone so integral to cave formation also allows the creation of sinkholes of various sizes up here on the surface. These can be dangerous, so watch your step.
Walk some of the gentle trails through the forests. Look for hidden cave entrances. Take a look at the antiquated, but still charming Green River Ferry: take the scenic boat ride if time permits. And don’t miss a stroll around Sloan Crossing Pond, best around sunset.
Mammoth Cave National Park boasts a small but adequate hotel and some basic food choices.
In nearby Cave City you can find a selection of chain motels, but little gastronomic variety beyond the well-known fast food chains.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras. Ginsberg has been a National Park Service Artist in Residence in several National Parks.