This Kentucky State Park is the hidden secret to an affordable family vacation


CARTER COUNTY, Ky. (WOWK) — Summer is here, which means the kids are out of school, and you have probably been saving up for that family vacation. Maybe you’re planning on going to a beach or go explore what other parts of the country have to offer. But have you considered exploring this very Tri-State you call home? You might be surprised at what you can find to do at Carter Caves State Resort in Olive Hill, Kentucky.

Do you like to camp? Campsites are readily available. You’d rather stay indoors? They’ve got you covered, too, with 28 pet-friendly lodge rooms, 11 two-bedroom cottages, and one three-bedroom cottage.

You might also wonder whether there is enough for you and your family to do for a traditional week-long vacation. Park Naturalist Paul Tierney says absolutely. “Most people come here for a week at a time, and there’s plenty enough to do throughout the week,” said Tierney. “A lot of the programming that we do have here may not have that sand component, but you can do a lot of the same exact things right here.”

Cave Tours

The caves are probably the one thing Carter Caves State Resort is most known for having. Through Labor Day, four caves can be toured seven days per week. Two of those caves, X Cave and Cascade Cave, can be toured year around. Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10 to do a walking tour, and up to $30 if you want to do an adventure tour. X Cave is the shortest cave to explore; it’s about a quarter mile long and takes 45 minutes to complete. Cascade Cave is longer and has larger rooms, allowing up to 75 people to go on the same tour. “It’s probably our most popular tour,” said Park Naturalist Coy Ainsley.

Bat Cave and Saltpeter Cave are more of a walking excursion. Saltpeter Cave is actually a historical tour, too. According to Tierney, Saltpeter Cave goes back to the early 1800s as it was mined for saltpeter, which was used to make gun powder, during the civil war.

“We do crawl tours in Saltpeter Cave and Bat Cave,” said Ainsley. “You can show up here with absolutely nothing, and we’ll give you coveralls and headlamps and helmets,” said Tierney. But if you aren’t a history fanatic, Saltpeter Cave might still be worth your time to explore. “We thought it’d be fun to create an escape room out of a cave,” said Ainsley.

Carter Caves also offers the option for you to do a self-guided tour of Laurel & Horn Hollow Cave. It’s free of charge, all you need to do is acquire a permit at the Carter Caves Welcome Center. Issuance of the permits are dependent on the weather.

Carter Caves Natural Bridge

There is a very unique stream that leads you to the Carter Caves Natural Bridge. Underneath the bridge, it can get a little foggy, but it’s lit by a skylight, which has about a 60-foot opening you can rappel down for fun. “[People] can check this bridge out from the top to the bottom,” said Ainsley, and he means it quite literally. Carter Caves offers visitors the chance to rappel down the opening of the Natural Bridge, in a safety harness of course. The temperature change can be quite rewarding during the summer, as the temperature underneath the bridge will typically drop by 15 degrees.

A Hidden Secret in Plain Sight

Tierney says he’ll hear locals say they didn’t know about Carter Caves at least two or three times per month. “You’d be surprised how many times that happens,” he said. “You get so many different types of people here, and every single one of them experience this park in a different way.” That being said, Tierney adds that the caves get visited by people all the way from Tennessee, too.

If the caves haven’t sold you, don’t worry because there’s much more to do. Carter Caves offers a community pool, horseback riding, mini golf, smoky lake paddle trips, fishing, over 30 miles worth of hiking trails, and gem mining for the kids. Some of these activities are available at no cost while others are offered at a discount if you stay at the state park.  “What we find are people who discover us in this area, they start coming back year after year, after year.” said Tierney, who believes this is the case because of how affordable the activities at Carter Caves are for families. “Carter Caves is our hidden secret in plain sight.”

Different and new recreational activities are offered every week.

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