The Mammoth Cave National Park preserves portions of the Mammoth Cave and part of the Green River valley and hills region of south central Kentucky. This is the world's most extensive cave system known so far, with over 365 miles already explored. Its official name is the Mammoth Cave System, although it could also include the names of the various ridges under which the cave was formed. The name, however, doesn't come from the prehistoric animal, but it was used first to describe the size of the cave's avenues and chambers in the early 1800s. The Mammoth Cave is among the oldest tourist attractions in North America, since tours started as early as 1816. The complex gained the status of national park on July 1, 1941 and it went on to become a World Heritage Site in 1981 and an international Biosphere Reserve nine years later. With a surface of 52,830 acres, the park encompasses large parts of Edmonson County, Kentucky and smaller area of Hart County and Barren County. Along a small section of the eastern boundary of the park the Green River flows freely.
The Cave was discovered in 1797 by the European John Houchins. Later on, it was bought by Franklin Gorin who used his slaves as guides. One of them, the African-American Stephen Bishop, was among the first persons to draw extensive maps of the cave, and became a legendary figure of the sight, which he described as a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place". Archeological investigations proved that prehistorically the Mammoth Cave was used by Native Americans as a burial place, as most mummies presented evidence of pre-Columbian funerary practice. The only exception were the remains of a pre-Columbian miner, who had been accidentally killed by an enormous boulder. "Lost John", as he was called, was first exhibited to the public and then buried in a secret location of the park.
The park is visited by almost two million people every year. The main attractions remain features such as Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man's Misery. The cave tours vary in difficulty and length, the cave being either lighted electrically or by the paraffin lamps carried by the visitors themselves. "Wild" tours are also available, venturing away from the popular parts of the cave into dark tunnels. Besides these tours, visitors may choose among plentiful outdoor recreation activities, such as riverboat rides, campfire programs, hiking, biking, riding or canoeing and kayaking. In the visitor center area the Mammoth Cave Hotel is located, providing both comfortable lodging and easy access to the world famous cave.