Cavers 101: what you need to know to celebrate the International Year of Caves and Karst

Chelsea Ballard checking water levels on Echo River inside Mammoth Cave.

Want to fit into the caver crowd?  As we celebrate 2021 being the International Year of Caves and Karst, we thought you’d like a primer.  This one is provided with the assistance of one of our favorite local cavers, Chelsea Ballard.

First and most importantly, let’s talk about what makes our area the cave capitol of the world!  Have you ever heard of a SANDSTONE CAP? It is not headwear for our locals, although that is a good guess. It is a top layer of sandstone that protects the caves from being weathered away.  Our SINKHOLE PLAINS drain water underground. This running water erodes away the LIMESTONE LAYER, which creates the cave. So caves are in the limestone layer, but it is the sandstone cap that protects the passages and chambers created by this process of erosion.  Without the cap, the cave environments would not exist for exploration, research and animal homes – which we will also be covering in this primer. The photo below is a perfect example of these layer.

Photo by Chelsea Ballard of Cathedral Domes, which can be seen from the Wild Cave Tour offered by Mammoth Cave National Park NOTE: The Wild Cave Tour at MCNP will be closed until 2021. However, Hidden River Cave offers a Wild Cave Tour, also.

Secondly, and also important, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines SPELUNKERS as “one who makes a hobby of exploring and studying caves.” It is important to note that while we do hold their professional definition services in high esteem, we must point out that neither Mr. Merriam, nor Mr. Webster seem to have grown up in cave country. In the Caveland area people who explore caves are CAVERS. Simple, straightforward and un-fancy.

Our Caveland area has been loaded with cavers for centuries, proof of that is literally on the walls of the caves we still explore. Cavers with the Cave Research Foundation still explore various cave passages monthly, if not more often.  EXPLORATION is always done in hopes of making new connections, finding new passages and maybe, just maybe pushing the distance on the World’s longest cave.  

That’s right, we are home to Mammoth Cave: with a length over 400 miles, it is longest known cave in the world. There are some fascinating stories involved with the exploration of the cave itself and caves in the surrounding area.  We have some links listed at the end of this blog for you to gather even more knowledge about the process.

Chelsea Ballard conducting a dye trace in Mammoth Cave National Park

Not only is cave exploration big here, but cave RESEARCH is going on constantly.  Dye traces are done to determine water flow.  Water levels are checked.  Cave animal counts are done. Did you know that the Kentucky cave shrimp is found only in the Mammoth Cave region and no where else in the world?  We also the home to eyeless fish and crayfish.

Kentucky Cave Shrimp, photo by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife

So there you have a short primer on caves here and those who still explore and research them.  Below you’ll find a list of caves you might want to check out and some of those additional stories we promised.

More about the exploration of Mammoth Cave: