Ed Reinke, Associated Press
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, Ky. — Blasts of cool air offered a welcome reprieve from the scorching summer as a tour group descended into the depths of the world's longest-known cave. Some visitors donned light jackets for the long hike past panoramic scenes of subterranean wonders.
Heading underground at Mammoth Cave National Park is a sure way to escape the dog days of August. The celebrated cave that has lured the curious for thousands of years remains a temperate 54 degrees year-round.
"It's the first time I've been cool in I don't know how long," said Sarah Hyatt, who traveled from Maryland to marvel at the massive limestone formations with her parents and her 8-year-old daughter.
Each year, about 700,000 people take the short trip off Interstate 65 to visit Mammoth Cave, with the peak time coming in summer. In winter, the cave's temperate climate gives it a balmy feel, said park spokeswoman Vickie Carson.
Tours cater to a range of visitors, from hardy adventurers to those looking for less-strenuous outings.
One tour suited for small children, the elderly and others who can't walk long distances covers a quarter-mile and includes just a dozen stairs. Other tours cover four to five miles and put participants through vigorous workouts.
On the popular "Historic Tour," visitors take a winding two-mile hike that leads them some 310 feet below the surface.
It's not a stroll in the park. Participants have to chug up and down 440 stairs. Wide walkways leading into expansive "rooms" give way to belly-scraping paths that take a serpentine route through the rock.
For adults, there's stooping to maneuver past low rock ceilings and sideway squeezing to slip through a narrow passage in a part of the cave known as "Fat Man's Misery." There's a steep climb up a stairway at a majestic part of the cave known as Mammoth Dome.
"How are those hour-long aerobic workouts working for you now," Hyatt asked her mother as visitors huffed their way upward.
Dim lighting woven along points in the cave revealed a fascinating look at the tapestry of rock formations during the two-hour excursion.
At one point, tour guide Nick Asher let visitors experience the cave in its purest form.
He told them that on the count of three, they would be enveloped in darkness. On count one, they should close their eyes, he coached them. On count two, he would cut off his lantern. On count three, they should open their eyes.
"And if you're afraid of the dark, just skip count three," Asher advised.
When the group opened their eyes, the only audible responses were "wow."
"This is total and complete darkness we're feeling down here," Asher said as visitors soaked in the feeling of being completely cut off from the world above. "And the cave is one of the only places on earth where you can experience total silence."
After a few moments, he flicked a small lighter that illuminated the walls and ceiling.
Asher said that faint light was enough to get them back to the surface.
"Now when I say we, I mean Ranger Joe and I," he joked, referring to his sidekick, longtime tour guide Joe Duvall. "But we would surely send someone back to get you all later."
The experience was a highlight for Cameron Moreland, who fulfilled his boyhood dream with his visit to Mammoth Cave.
"That's exactly the kind of experience we wanted to get out of it," said Moreland, who took the tour with his wife and their three children from Green Bay, Wis.
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