A visit to Carter Caves State Resort Park

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a photo of a cave
The great rounded opening of the natural arch found along the Three Bridges Trail was the result of weathering. (Julie Geiss photo)

Our caving adventure didn’t end at Mammoth Cave National Park. We continued to travel east in Kentucky until we reached Carter County.

The region is known for having the highest concentration of caves in Kentucky. Not only was my family looking forward to exploring more caves, but we wanted to hike across natural arches found in the area.

Carter Caves

We had a campsite reserved at Carter Caves State Resort Park. The state park was established in 1946 when citizens donated 945 acres to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Included in the donated land were many impressive caves.

The Carter and Cascade cave systems located in the park have over 20 caverns in total. The park is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just under 40 miles from West Virginia. More land was donated over time, bringing the total to 2,000 acres.

When we pulled into the campground, we noticed the party atmosphere. Like most state parks, alcohol is prohibited in Kentucky state campgrounds. The party I’m referring to was the festive atmosphere created with lights, flags, activities for kids and large family gatherings. Our 26-foot camper seemed tiny next to the giant fifth-wheel trailers and motorhomes.

Arriving late in the day meant cave tours would have to wait until the morning. Instead, we looked for a short hike as daylight hours were beginning to fade. We started behind Lewis Caveland Lodge, a mid-century modern lodge named after John F. Lewis.

Built in 1962, the fieldstone lodge remains a time capsule as well as a hotel with 28 rooms. The Lewis family owned much of the land donated to the park and started much of the tourism in the area.

Smoky Bridge

Our goal was to see the Smoky Bridge located on the Three Bridges Trail. The topography of the area was very similar to Mammoth Cave with sinkholes and …. We didn’t have time to complete the entire 3.1-mile loop, but we were able to use shortcuts and connector trails to make our way to the bridge.

Immediately impressed with the massive limestone bridge, we carefully descended the steps into the ravine. The best view was from inside the natural arch. Looking upwards, it seemed reverent and massive like nature’s own sanctuary. The great rounded opening inside was the result of weathering. At one point in time, swirling water eroded large slabs of limestone creating a breakout dome.

As I continued to look around at the dome, my boys hurried off to look inside a cave opening on the nearby rock cliff. They stepped inside to find that it was small for them but just right for snakes or spiders. At the bottom of the ravine was a creekbed, dry at the moment.

Enjoying the evening

As much as I love seeing a forest at twilight, we had to leave before darkness set into the valley. The campground was buzzing with lights and laughter. The enormous camper next to us was illuminated with blue LED lights casting an eerie glow into all our windows.

My husband joked that it was a blue light special, but our kids have never shopped at K-Mart and didn’t understand the joke. They had missed the punchline by a few decades.

I’m not usually a night owl, but I managed to stay awake late into the night. Sitting in a lounge chair, with our camper blocking our neighbor’s LED lights, I was surprised by the night sky. A million stars were scattered across the dark expanse above me. My husband joined me in star gazing. It’s been a long time since I was able to slow down and just stare at the heavens.

Our camping trip was incredible with many thrilling sights. However, I have to count gazing at the depths of the stars as one of my personal highlights. Eventually, I had to give in to slumber. We had more arches and caves to explore the next day.

I was starting to understand the natives and grasped their cycle of amicable gatherings, celebration in nature and sleep on repeat.

(Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.)

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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