Carter Caves State Park is located in northeastern Kentucky outside the small town of Olive Hill in Carter County. The park encompasses a scenic wilderness area and a secluded underground limestone cavern. There is so much to do in Carter Caves State Resort Park that filling a weekend to the brim with memorable activities is a cinch.
Top Hikes And Sights Of Carter Caves State Resort Park, Kentucky
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Jack and I spent two full days and three nights at Carter Caves State Resort Park in November of 2020. We were amazed at how much there was to do in the park. We were not able to finish it in two days. We will leave a list at the bottom of this post of what we didn’t get to that you might enjoy doing while you visit.
Walk To Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge is listed as a hike in the park’s brochure, but it is more of a walk at half a mile with little elevation change. Besides its beauty, what makes this natural bridge unique is that it is the only one in Kentucky supporting a highway over the top.
Take A Tour Of The Caves
There are four different caves within the park that you can tour through either guided walking or self-guided tours (depending on the cave). However, not all the caves are open year-round.
In the winter season (November 15 through March 31), the frequency of tours also decreases, so make sure to get to the visitor center when it first opens to ensure that you get a ticket. Tickets cost money, but the fees are reasonable for the length of the tours, ranging from 45 to 75 minutes.
Tour Cascade Cave
The first cave we toured was Cascade Cave, located off Route 209, just over three and a half miles from the visitor center where you buy your tickets.
Our tour guide took us into a large room that, at one time, people used to hold dances in. She then went over a handy mnemonic to remember the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. Stalagmites might cause you to trip since they are located on the cave floor. Stalactites hang tight to the cave ceiling, so they don’t fall. Finally, in my mid-forties, I am no longer mixing up these two cave formations.
This is a picture of the cathedral room of Cascade Caves, named after all the stalagmites that line the high ceiling.
After seeing several more cave formations, the tour guide brought us into another cave system opening. This is where the James Branch stream flows through the cave.
We were not in the light of day for long, though. The guide soon opened another door to the second part of the Cascade Cave tour.
The major highlight of this part of the tour is a room full of unique stalactites and stalagmites in various stages of growth.
See a 30-Foot Underground Waterfall
Behind this door is something impressive that I have not seen before until exploring Carter Caves State Resort Park.
A 30-foot waterfall inside a cave is a rare sight. It wasn’t a roaring waterfall, more of a trickle, but I am sure its roar is tied to how much rainfall eastern Kentucky has recently received. Pictures don’t do it justice; this is something you have to see for yourself to appreciate its true beauty.
Box Canyon (.8 miles)
We went clockwise along the Box Canyon trail loop, which means the first rock feature we hit was Cascade Bridge. There isn’t much of a gap between the bridge and the rock wall behind it.
I admit it. I have a thing for honeycomb rock formations. Water and limestone make some pretty unique sculptures when they work together.
What we loved most about the Box Canyon was the beautiful colors found on the rocks. Shades of green, brown, grey, black, and white made colorful stripes down the canyon walls.
On the way out of the canyon, we made our way between giant rocks on either side of us.
Horn Hollow Loop ( 1.5 miles)
The Horn Hollow Loop Trail entrance can be found across from the welcome center. It is a short trail, but it does require you to go up and down hills, and if you want to get a closer look at the cave entrances, you will need to do a bit of rock scrambling.
If you want to go inside Horn Hollow cave which is found just off the trail, you need to pick up a free permit from inside the gift shop first.
We stuck to peeking into the caves’ entrance along the loop.
Three Bridges ( 3.6 Miles)
If you have time to hike only one trail in the park, hike the Three Bridges Trail.
Our favorite bridge of the three was the Smokey Bridge. It is the largest natural land bridge in the state of Kentucky. It is so massive that Jack and I figured it would be an excellent place for an outdoor-loving couple to hold their wedding ceremony. And from what I read on the website for the park, under the heading of “meetings,” this seems possible.
Raven bridge has a unique stone stair access that allows you to climb up on top of the arch and then over to the other side.
Fern bridge is a fair distance from the other arches, but it is worth the effort to hike to. It is not a stand-alone bridge like the other two bridges. Instead, it hugs a rock face like the Cascade bridge along the Box Canyon route.
4C’s Loop 8.3 Miles
The 4C’s Trail is also known as the Carter Caves Cross Country Trail and is the second-longest trail in the park at 8.3 miles, with the Kiser Hollow Route beating it by just a third of a mile (8.6). You could combine the two to make one giant loop around the park and the surrounding Tygarts State Forest.
Along the trail are two backcountry tent sites. One is at Eagles Nest, and the other is at Johnson Homeplace. A permit is required to stay at these sites and can be obtained at the front desk of the Lewis Caveland Lodge.
You certainly do not have to break this trail up into a multi-day hike. We were able to hike all of it in the hours between breakfast and lunch. We brought our daypack with two of these Nalgene water bottles clipped into the side pockets. We also packed a snack for each of us to enjoy along the way.
There are a lot of ups and downs on this trail and some uneven terrain; if you don’t have the best balance, you might want to pack along a pair of collapsable hiking poles to use on the rocky spots.
Shangri-La arch is the only rock arch in the park. I was curious about the difference between a rock arch and a rock bridge, so I Googled it. It turns out bridges are formed by water, whereas other natural forces, such as wind, create arches.
What we loved about this arch was its stacks of limestone. It reminded us of the arches we made as kids out of wooden blocks.
The Suspension Bridges Of The 4C’s
I am a big kid at heart, which shows when I encounter a suspension bridge. On the 4C’s Trail, there are two suspension bridges, one crosses Smoky Creek, and the other crosses the far end of Smoky Lake before it flows into Tygarts Creek.
My favorite one was the one across Smoky Creek, as you could feel it swaying and bouncing beneath you.
The Waterfalls Along The 4C’s
There are a few seasonal waterfalls that you will pass along the 4C’s trail. Depending on what time of year you hike the loop, they will be dry, a dribble, or a steady trickle.
Then there are the cascades that flow out of Smoky Lake. Those, I believe, flow all year long. They were stunning in the fall when we hiked the trail as they were covered in colorful fallen leaves.
We finished our exploration of Carter Caves State Resort Park with a paid tour of X-Cave. This tour brings you through two impressive caves, one dry and one wet, that cross over each other, creating an X–hence the name.
Our tour guide first brought us through the wet cave, which has various cave features. Then we went through the dry cave, void of any typical cave features since the water dripping through the rock creates nature’s cave art.
Carter Caves State Resort Park Campground
Carter Caves has both a campground area for tenters and one for RV owners. Pets are allowed in the campground.
Amenities available depend on what site you book. They vary from primitive (in the tenting area) to sites with electric, water, and sewer connections. There is also a dump station in the campground area.
Check-in is at 2 pm, and check-out is at 1 pm.
We spent three nights camping in the campground at Carter Caves. Although we can’t say enough great things about the park, we don’t have many great things to say about their campground.
The bathrooms are outdated, with small and dark shower stalls and as far as cleanliness is concerned, I have seen much cleaner facilities although I have also seen worse.
The sites have their electrical hookups in the strangest places. Ours was so far away that we had to get an extension cord to hook up. Even though there is decent space between the campsites in our area, the noise seemed to travel. We slept with earplugs, which is something we rarely do.
All that aside, we would camp there again because there is so much to do at the park that we didn’t spend much time at the campground.
If you are not a camper, there are plenty of other lodging options in the park. You could book a room at the lodge with a private patio or balcony overlooking the surrounding woodlands or stay in one of the cottages.
More Things To Do In Or Near Carter Caves Resort Park, Kentucky
Even though we explored the park from sunup to sundown the two full days we were there, we left the park with things undone. Here is a list of other things you and your family can enjoy within the park.
Enjoy more of the park’s 33 miles of wooded nature trails–We didn’t have time to trek all the hiking trails, so make sure to pick up a trail map when you get to the park and wander the ones that interest you.
Enjoy a meal at Tierney’s Cavern Restaurant, which prides itself on serving local meat and produce when in season.
Take a dip in the pool–Carter Caves has an outdoor pool open to the public during the summertime.
Go Back-Country Camping–The park offers two tent sites where you can hike and enjoy a night in the woods.
Tour Saltpeter Cave–open seasonally.
Tour Bat Cave–open seasonally.
Go Fishing–There is a boat ramp on the shores of Smoky Lake, which is known for its fantastic largemouth bass. The lake also has bluegill, catfish, and crappie. The park has a free loaner program if you don’t have a fishing pole.
Go Birding–winter and spring are the best time to watch birds in the park.
Bring your horse–the park has a campground for people with horses and several multi-use paths you can go horseback riding on.
Play a round of miniature golf–this is a seasonal activity.
Go paddling–during the summer months; Smoky Lake is open for canoeing, kayaking, or paddleboarding. There are no rentals, so you have to bring your own.
Have a picnic–the park has numerous picnic areas with picnic tables where you and your family can enjoy a picnic.
Take the kids to explore the playgrounds.
Go Rappelling or Rock Climbing–Open to experienced rock climbers only; a permit is required.
Enjoy a round of tennis–there are two courts near the lodge.
Go mountain biking–a few of the trails in the park are open to mountain bikers.
Practice your gem mining skills–Carter Caves Gem Mine is in front of the gift store.
Play Tennis -There are two tennis courts available for guests of the lodge.
I hope this post helps you plan a fantastic adventure in Carter Caves State Resort Park, Kentucky.
Are you looking for an alternative to busy and expensive campgrounds and one-night Walmart stops on the way to your destination? Check out our post about our first time using Boondockers Welcome.