Karstic Treasure: Mammoth Cave National Park (Mammoth Cave, KY)

Although our travel plans were going to be largely confined to Tennessee, how could my wife and I not pass up Mammoth Cave National Park in South Central Kentucky? The first I ever heard of it was during a nature program on PBS, described as the largest cave system in the world. Its size is so immense that it would still be larger than the next two largest systems combined by 100 miles.

Odd that the name uses the grammatical singular when in fact Mammoth Cave is comprised of many interconnected spaces in the limestone: sink holes, tubes, passageways, canyons, shafts, fissures as well as caves. This combination of limestone and excavation is characteristic of karst. A geology map shows that almost a quarter of Kentucky is karstic.

Mammoth was our first overnight stop after picking up a car at Nashville Airport and driving two hours north. The park is surrounded by the famous rolling hills of Kentucky. As we got closer, the road cuts in some areas bared telltale limestone layers. The soil has a rusty-reddish color.

We checked in to the Mammoth Cave Hotel, located within the national park boundary. Our accommodation was a standalone cabin, one of ten that form an arc along the property’s edge, which was rustic but comfortable. The hotel was undergoing an extensive renovation and construction until November, so the main building and eating facilities were closed behind chain-link fencing, except for the outlying cabins. In the evening, there was the musical thrum of cicadas and tree frogs. The park’s visitors center is only a short walking distance away.

On our only full day here, we wanted to maximize our cave experience. To that end we decided to take the longest tour called Grand Avenue tour. At almost 400 surveyed miles and counting, Mammoth was not going to feel as if we had trod on it at all. We had a terrific guide in ranger Rick Thomas, who was so knowledgeable about the cave and its history, told interesting stories and cracked bad jokes (“There’s nothing lower than cave humor,” he said proudly). As a federal employee, he was obliged to forewarn everyone on the tour, all 69 of us, that the fast-paced walk of roughly four hours, four miles and almost 700 steps over uneven terrain would be taxing. He also had to mention that in an emergency, it would take a very long time to get anyone to a hospital. No one budged. The last time my wife and I were ‘intimidated’ by a park employee (the Fiery Furnace walk at Arches National Park), we to this day regretted having changed our minds. Not this time.

The usual speleotherms of stalactites, stalagmites and such, of wet cave environments were scarce, but there were plenty of gypsum accumulations (in the form of blisters and flowers) typical of dry caves, compliments of a hard layer of sandstone that acts like an almost impervious cap over the limestone underneath. These gypsum deposits are unimaginably slow growing at a rate of a dime’s thickness per century. One impressive example is Last Rose of Summer along Cleveland Avenue. There are prolific gypsum blisters in The Snowball Room, because they look like snowballs on the ceilings and walls.

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Snowball Room

Snowball Room

The long tour passage was the result of underground streams and rivers that have long since drained into the Green River, which over a period of time has carved ever deeper into the limestone layers, leaving the upper limestone layers dry. Parts of the tour were like walking through a long elliptical tunnel, sometimes bordered by smooth walls or flat ceilings, other times littered with limestone fragments, including huge slabs lying at oblique angles. Other sections were like underground slot canyons, at several points narrow enough that you had to angle your body to get through, an experience not unlike in the Southwest. We had to walk single-file for roughly a mile. There were also cavernous rooms where the group could gather around Ranger Rick to hear another story or lecture. At tour’s end, we got to see the spectacular Frozen Niagara, an unbelievable mass of flowstone deposits that require a steep descent of some forty stairs to see top to bottom. Looking up from the pit gives you a view of why this area was so named. It looks like frozen water cascading over an enormous U-shaped ledge (top image).

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks


An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

As it turned out, the tour really was exhausting like Rick warned. We were bushed by its end, but what an experience!

Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
270. 758.2180

Waitomo Caves (Waitomo Caves, NZ)

David Attenborough featured them in his BBC Planet Earth series. Arachnocampa luminosa is found only in New Zealand, more commonly called glowworms.

Technically, they are not worms, but rather the larvae of gnats. To snare food, one larva can exude several mucousy threads of silk that suspend from the roof of a cave, sticky enough to trap tiny flying insects. The bioluminescence is thought to attract its prey. New Zealand has made a cottage industry out of glowworms. While glowworms can be seen throughout NZ, the best place is Waitomo Caves in the North Island. Here, the conditions are said to be perfect for their proliferation.

We purchased a combo tour pack: glowworm cave + Ruakuri Cave. In the former, a boat that holds no more than 20 people took us through a tunnel along an underground waterway in complete darkness. Eventually, we reached the cave and saw them suspended on the ceiling like little blue-green lights high above our heads. The tour was short at about 15 minutes, so really you don’t have much time to marvel at them.

Waitomo glowworm tour (image from waitomo.com)

The Ruakuri Cave walking tour is different. The best part was being able to look at glowworms up close, at eye-level. Our guide shone a flashlight on them so we could see their diaphanous threads and beads, allowing us to look at them as long as we wanted (see top photo). The walking tour also highlighted many interesting cave decorations (speleotherms), an ancient moa bone, an underground stream, waterfall and petrified scallop shells that indicate that the limestone formations all around were formed in ancient seas.

Ruakuri Cave speleotherms

Petrified scallop shell

It’s difficult to take pictures of the worms as points of light against a black background. Besides the technical challenge, the boat tour wouldn’t permit cameras anyway. But on the walking tour, with a flashlight to provide enough illumination, you can take as many pictures as you like.

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Whakarewarewa Thermal Village (Rotorua, NZ)

The full name is Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, or Whaka for short.

A thermal reserve, Whaka is a showcase for geothermal activity—hot springs, mud pools and geysers. The most famous and largest geyser in NZ, Pohutu, which can reach heights of 40m (130ft), can be seen at a distance from an observation point, but a better vantage would be gained on a visit to neighboring Te Puia instead, though more costly. On our Whaka visit, there was so much steam activity from the intervening pool and inclement weather that the eruption was partially obscured.

Pohutu geyser erupts, obscured by steam and drizzly weather.

It was a drizzly day with periods of showers, so it wasn’t an ideal day for appreciating the sights. Still, our guide gave us a fascinating tour, focusing more on the day-to-day living of the residents. These included bathing and cooking, the latter employing steam to cook, a variation of traditional pit hangi cooking. Food prepared in this way is available at Ned’s Cafe on site. But because we dropped in close to 3pm, the selection was sparse, so we left.

Our guide removed the lid from a steam hangi box

Part of admission included a traditional Maori performance.

A 30-minute Maori cultural performance was held at the performance center.

The interesting thing about Whaka is that Maori (specifically, the Tuhourangi and Ngati Wahiao iwis) still live there, much as the Navajo live in two of America’s Southwest attractions: Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. On the glum side, there may be evidence that long-term exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulphide gas could have serious health consequences.

In Maori, the “wh” phoneme is pronounced like an “f”. So, while it is always correct to use the “f” sound, one of the exceptions is Whaka, where the “wh” sound is used instead for polite reasons.

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Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve (NZ)

After spending the night in Whitianga, we headed south to Rotorua. Along the eastern edge of the Coromandel Peninsula is Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve which was set aside by the government in order to protect a rich variety of sea animals and their habitats. Curiously, the sea creatures here grow bigger and are more plentiful than the surrounding waters and for that reason are protected within the reserve. There are also impressive kelp forests that rival any in the world.

Moturoa, Poikeke and Motueka Islands are volcanic domes

We took a trail to try to reach the beach near Cathedral Cove, but the rain from the previous night made the track really muddy. We decided to turn back, but not before getting wonderful views of the water and the headlands that make this area so beautiful.

Aside from flora and fauna, the area is unique for its geological formations. About 8 million years ago, violent volcanic activity covered the landscape with pumice and ash, then later with lava flows. Over time, the softer layers of tuff eroded at a faster rate to create the distinctive landforms seen today: arches, caves, sea stacks, blow holes and a distinctive honeycomb pattern along some cliffs exposed to the sea. The most picturesque attraction is an arch carved through the headland.

Cathedral Cove (Note the arch below the headland and sea stack to the right)

Update: (1-20-13) These photos were taken by my daughter, five months after our visit. In the late afternoon, she and her sister took a kayak tour, originating from Hahei (about 35km by road from Whitianga), to Cathedral Cove and surrounding area. Since it was the peak of summer, the weather was more gorgeous than when my wife and I went last winter (see above). The handiwork of erosional forces is very obvious in these images.

cathedral cove tour-1

cathedral cove tour-2

Arch at Cathedral Cove

cathedral cove tour-3

Pinnacle Rock

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)

Neither of us has ever been to Carlsbad Caverns. We set aside three whole days to explore it since its remoteness in the southeast corner of New Mexico makes it unlikely we’d ever have an opportunity to return. This remoteness is the reason that, although its wonders are many, far fewer visitors show up than at the more popular national parks. It is located in an almost featureless desert, indistinguishable from much of west Texas, but possessing oil deposits underground that supports much of the local economy. You’re more likely to hear a Texas drawl here than not.

The Big Room, Kings Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room and others, “rooms” all named by the 16-year-old Jim White who purportedly first discovered the caves, are wondrous to behold. The word cavernous seems to describe The Big Room aptly, an immense chamber big enough to hold six football fields. An almost level, paved walkway allows everyone to enjoy The Big Room. For those so inclined, there are slightly to much-more-strenuous ranger-guided tours that vary from mild climbing, scrambling (sometimes on rocks that seemed coated with candle wax), rope climbing and going through claustrophobic tunnels barely large enough to squeeze through.

Millions of years ago, at a time when the area was more tropical than at present, an ancient reef was transfigured when hydrogen sulfide gas rose from the oil deposits below and mixed with the oxygen in the water from above. The resulting sulfuric acid carved out the caverns in limestone. The decorations we see today—stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn and the rest (collectively called speleotherms)—are the result of the “normal” process of deposition built up over time by calcium-rich droplets of water. Artfully designed by a Hollywood lighting director many years ago, the major rooms are beautifully illuminated by artificial lights, effects that Jim White never saw that he would likely denounce as removing the “mystery of the caves.” Our favorite tour was the Kings Palace which showcases rooms so elaborately embellished with cave decorations that the word opulence comes to mind.

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

The other attraction here are the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from the so-called Natural Entrance about an hour before sunset. The Park Service has installed some high-tech equipment within the cave that can detect when the bats are ready to emerge; it translates the bats’ echolocation sounds to frequencies that humans can hear. At first, over the amphitheater’s PA system, there was a single click or pop; within seconds, there were so many clicks that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Shortly thereafter, the bats emerged in waves, rather than all at once. No photography (nor turning on of electronic equipment of any kind) was allowed during the bat flight. They disturb the bats as they fly out. The park ranger told us that the more impressive sight is the bats’ return an hour before sunrise, when they swoop back (literally dive bomb) into the cave at about 25 mph or more. On the morning of our departure, we rose early and got to the amphitheater when it was still dark. Try as we might, we couldn’t see the bats, even silhouetted against a lightening sky. But we did hear zipping sounds in the air around us, like bullets whizzing by, which we could only assume were the bats returning so fast that we couldn’t see them. A thickening fog also likely obscured our vision somewhat.

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

The video below from YouTube shows a much larger swarm emerging from the cave than we witnessed. Bat populations ebb and swell, depending on the season.

The closest town with full amenities is Carlsbad City, some 25 miles away from the park entrance. However, right at the intersection of the park road with Highway 62/180, there is a Rodeway Inn and a few services, including an RV park, gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It’s called White’s City, where we chose to stay, only about 6 miles from the visitors center. It’s much more convenient, but which seems to be on most travel sources’ lists of not-recommended places to stay. Our own experience here was not ideal, but not terrible either. Eating at the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner quickly got old.

Acoma Pueblo (Sky City, NM)

Our third visited pueblo was one that surprised us. Known in artistic circles for their intricately decorated clay pottery, the Acoma people have one village perched on a 365-foot mesa high above the surrounding valley. Guided tours are the only way to visit the village, more commonly known as Sky City. Photography permits for a fee are also available.

Though the Acoma share a common ancestry with the Zuni and Hopi, including similar gods and spirits and a matrilineal society, they seem to have adopted material culture much more readily. The Sky City Cultural Center is second to none, a modern facility that houses a gift shop, cafe and museum, with massive wooden front doors that suggest a Spanish influence. In fact, the Spanish seem to have converted the Acoma to Catholicism, which the Zuni and Hopi have long since largely rejected, even though the Acoma took part in the 17th-century Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish with the other surrounding tribes. The Acomas have Spanish surnames and the church in the pueblo (San Esteban del Rey Mission, on the National Register of Historic Places) still conducts mass and church services.

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

The homes atop the mesa, the original architecture still evident, seem to have been partially renovated using more modern materials, including double-pane glass windows and modern doors. Even though the pueblo still is not electrified nor does it have running water or sewage system, large propane tanks and modern-day honey buckets are in use.

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Propane for fuel

Propane for fuel

The Acoma have also recently opened a large casino, something that the Hopi or Zuni have not or probably never will do.

View of valley from mesa top

View of valley from mesa top

The pottery is much sought-after by collectors. Pots exhibit complex geometric patterns on thin clay walls with fluted rims and often decorated with a characteristic black paint made from pulverized hematite rock. The coveted, hand-coiled pottery is very expensive, but more affordable ones made from pour-molded stock have the same meticulous hand-painted patterns.


Acoma seed pot (Wikipedia)

Zuni Pueblo (NM)

The town of Zuni is indistinguishable from any other small American town. The only difference is that it is inhabited by about 6,000 Zuni people. Like the Hopi, Zuni are thought to be descended from the Ancient Puebloans who famously and mysteriously abandoned their cliff dwellings centuries ago, but the languages of the two groups are meaningfully unrelated.

Many of the Pueblo Indians offer guided tours, the best way to get a sense of the culture and way of life. We took one to the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church (no longer used as a Catholic church) where the guide talked about Zuni culture, which (again like the Hopi) is matrilineal for the purposes of primary clan affiliation and land ownership. However, it is the men who take part in all religious activities, which seems to consume a large portion of their waking hours. The women perform the more traditional roles, such as preparing food and keeping the home. The Zuni have highly complex social relationships and practice a complex religion that are unlike that of other Pueblo Indians.

A researcher has suggested that there is a genetic connection between the Zuni and Japanese. She speculates that 13th-century Japanese Buddhist wayfarers may have sailed across the Pacific and eventually discovered and mixed with the Zuni sometime during the thirteenth century. There are tantalizing connections, such as a serious kidney disease, many words that are similar for the same things (cognates), symbols (such as the chrysanthemum), cosmological beliefs and artistic motifs that are common to both. Zuni origin tales tell of an emergence from the underworld (Grand Canyon) and eventual migration to their current and final location. There is no tale of any ancestors having crossed an ocean, though the word is associated with certain mythological figures. The book was also translated into Japanese; for this reason, many Japanese visit the Zuni pueblo.

Corn maidenThe arts & crafts shops and proprietors were happy to educate us about Zuni artistry—their fine stone inlays in silver jewelry, stone fetishes, their pottery with cultural and religious motifs and kachina dolls, who like the Hopi consider them spirits from the San Francisco peaks that lie to the west.

Curiously, the Zuni allow you to take photos for a $10 fee, which makes you wonder to what extent the issue that one’s spirit being trapped in images is taken seriously by all native tribes in the area. The Hopi seemed genuinely concerned, but for a fee, it’s not an issue with the Zuni?

fried chickenWe had lunch at the Inn at Halona, where (during my research) a website highly recommended the fried chicken with chile sauce. The restaurant at the “inn” turned out to be a deli tucked away in a grocery store and the fried chicken just like what you’d find at any supermarket behind the fast food counter. The red chile sauce was served in a small plastic tub. Pretty disappointing.

Hopi Villages (Arizona)

One of my biggest apprehensions as a tourist is—being viewed as a tourist. Not that there is anything I can do about it. You kind of stick out, so to speak, whether it’s the backpack, camera, REI clothes, synthetic zippered-khaki pants, even shorts in certain parts of the world, anything that pegs you as being different from the locals. Economically speaking, many people rely on tourism for their livelihood. It’s the classic dichotomy: you are the income and the intruder, a necessary evil.

And so it was that my wife and I went to visit a Hopi village, one of the oldest pueblos in the Southwest, a community of people living high atop a mesa in a remote part of northern Arizona. Many families still live there in modest homes. The drive to the top was over a dirt road. Rather than just roaming around unescorted, guided tours are provided that can be arranged at the community center.

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi - NARA - 523645

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi – NARA – 523645 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went on a guided tour of Sichomovi and Walpi, the latter one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States and where there is no electricity or water. Besides a rehearsed explanation of Hopi culture and life, one that sounded like it had been given many times before, there were stops at tables where artists were selling kachina dolls and pottery, most of them exquisite—and beyond our means. So here we were, tourists, upon whom the artists’ livelihood depended. We felt guilty each time we were invited to look at an artist’s wares, only to decline a purchase after each was gracious enough to talk about the symbolism of his/her artwork.

After the tour, we were free to walk around. On our way to the car, a grandmotherly woman was standing outside her home and invited us in. I knew we were in trouble. She showed us her crafts for sale. It took all our will power to thank her and not buy anything.

The sun was intense at this high altitude, even though the temperature was only about 80 degrees. I’m not sure how I felt about the visit. This was our first visit to a pueblo, and it was informative. The guilt-trip that was gnawing at me was self-imposed, of course. Was it better not to have come at all? No, of course not.

No photography is allowed in this (and many other) Indian pueblos, so there are no pictures I can share.

Down below the mesa, we had a Hopi lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center, a lamb stew and a pinto bean stew, each with hominy, served with blue corn frybread.

Mt. Cook National Park (NZ)

At a viewing area along State Highway 80, where the tour bus made a temporary stop, there was a breathtaking vista of a portion of the Southern Alps. Without a doubt, the snow cover made for a most dramatic effect.

The tallest peak is Mount Cook (Aoraki, in Maori), the highest in all of New Zealand, which distinction makes it a favorite destination for mountain climbers, the most famous having been Sir Edmund Hillary, a native Kiwi.

We made a brief stop at Mount Cook National Park to have lunch and admire the scenery, though any views of Mount Cook could not be equalled by what we saw earlier. Still, from the Hermitage Hotel, you could get a glimpse of this towering mountain, one of over 140 peaks in the park and a large number of glaciers. At this time of year, only the cafeteria was open for lunch. On the exit door, a sign read: “Please do not feed the kea.”

Mount Cook from the Hermitage Hotel

Our attempts to take a short hike along some the tracks near the hotel were thwarted by snow cover, except for one. Outside, the most beautiful and delicate ice crystals formed on the plants.

Ice crystals formed delicate patterns on the leaves of plants

The park would certainly be worth a return visit when the weather is nicer.

Milford Sound (NZ)

From Queenstown, it took the bus tour four hours to get to Milford Sound, reputedly the most visited tourist spot in all of New Zealand. The boat cruise, once we got there, lasted almost two hours, by which time we got a closer look at the majestic fjords that can tower out of the water almost 4,000 feet high. Unless you plan to spend the night at one of the very few accommodations there, this is all the time you can afford before boarding the bus to return. And herein lies the problem with these organized tours—the lack of freedom to explore, to linger and ponder the majesty of these geologic wonders.

Since it was winter, the sun hung low above the horizon and the peaks lay mostly in shadow. As the boat turned and positioned the sun to angle behind Mitre Peak, the effect was magical as if glimpsing a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

If you happen to arrive when it’s raining, which here at the wettest spot in NZ is quite often, you will obviously not be fortunate enough to experience Milford Sound in its picture-perfect pose, but you will be rewarded with perhaps a more spectacular sight—the production of hundreds of temporary waterfalls that come cascading down the cliff faces, as the following YouTube video shows:


Milford Sound and the vast area known as Fiordland surrounding it got their present form from repeated advances and retreats of glaciers that left enormous swaths of deep valleys in their wake. To the north are still the popularly visited Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. An aerial tour would provide the most spectacular visual evidence of the scale of geologic forces that have been at work to create this remarkable area.

We reluctantly boarded the bus for another 4-hour ride, but not before briefly entertaining an offer by an air tour operator for seats at half-price to fill vacancies. At $250 per person, we boarded the bus instead.