Star Chamber Tour at Mammoth Cave National Park

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Star Chamber Tour at Mammoth Cave

Caves have seemingly become our thing. Each of our travel trips has started underground. This time, it was the longest known cave in the world.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Ranger Mills, with his wealth of knowledge and passion for the park, led our guided tour in Mammoth National Park on Sunday evening. His engaging storytelling and insightful commentary made the tour not just informative, but also a truly memorable experience.

Self-guided Discovery Tours run only from Memorial Day to Labor Day, peak season. Since we were there in mid-April, we selected from one of the guided tours required to visit the massive cave system.

Having “done the whole cave thing before,” we didn’t want the traditional experience at MCNP. We were considering doing the Frozen Niagra tour, which busses visitors from the central Visitor Center hub to an entrance to the most decorated section of Mammoth Cave. But we’ve seen that cave style before, so instead, we selected the final tour each day, led entirely by lantern light.

The Star Chamber tour includes 40 visitors, two ranger guides, and ten hurricane lanterns spread among the group. We entered through the Historical Entrance around 6 p.m. and did not emerge until two hours later.

Our time underground took us past the infamous stone TB huts where Dr. John Croghan sent five patients, hypothesizing the dry air of the cave would be the miracle cure for tuberculosis. None of his patients lived, but the huts and stories of their time remain.

We learned about the brave-hearted Stephen Bishop, an enslaved Black man who led many White, wealthy visitors through their six or twelve-hour-long expeditions through the cave system. His reputation as a guide was extraordinary and was often requested by visitors. He explored and memorized the cave system in the hours not spent leading guides. He built boats to sail the underground rivers and find new passages. He drew the very first map of Mammoth Cave entirely by memory.

Eventually, Stephen gained freedom for himself, his wife Charlotte, and his son. He stayed working as a guide, but now he is a paid worker for his whole life. He is buried in a cemetery within the park boundaries.

Star Chamber Tour at Mammoth Cave

We arrived at the namesake Star Chamber at the end of our path. In an 1857 essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of this area, I saw or seemed to see the thick with stars glimmering over our heads. All the party were touched with astonishment and pleasure.

The gypsum-lined cave ceiling sparkles under lantern light, giving the illusion of a beautiful star-filled night sky. 

What our eyes could see with our ten small light sources was truly unique compared to the modern-day well-lit cave.

Star Chamber Tour at Mammoth Cave

If you have experienced a cave tour and are seeking a different way to experience this National Park, I cannot recommend booking a Star Chamber Tour at Mammoth Cave.

As expected, this is not a photography-friendly tour. Our eyes are far more powerful in nearly zero-light situations than our camera sensors, but I was able to capture a few images. At the very end of the tour, Ranger Mills “broke the illusion” and turned on the lights, allowing us a more lit look at the cave we had just explored.

Above ground, we enjoyed a hike on the Cedar Sink trail, where we witnessed thousands of colorful butterflies fluttering around and near the small streams.

Mammoth Cave National Park was a wonderful experience. We wish we would have had more than one day/evening to explore.

If you have not visited, quickly add it to your list. This place is so special.