Cave tours, hiking trails, rock climbing, and more await visitors to Carter Caves State Park in northeastern Kentucky. Explore this park's outdoor adventures year-round!
Carter Caves State Resort Park is one of our favorite destinations in northeastern Kentucky.
The scenery at this park (both above and below ground!) always invites a closer look. So, whether you like caves or not, you're pretty sure to find something fascinating as you explore!
Besides the hiking and camping options you expect to find at a state park, Carter Caves has also been really proactive over the years in setting up other activities.
Rock climbing, rappelling, wild caving adventures, specially scheduled cave "escape rooms," and annual events like a music festival and Pioneer Life days — there's always something on the calendar!
We've been to the park quite a few times over the years, especially for hiking. So this winter when we wanted a little change of pace, we decided to head out and revisit some of our favorite spots.
Hiking at Carter Caves
About a dozen different trails are maintained within the park, ranging from quick half-mile strolls to more challenging cross-country hikes over eight miles long.
One of the shortest trails is to Carter Caves' very own Natural Bridge (not to be confused with another state park of the same name in central Kentucky).
If you're searching for something easy but scenic to do with a family, or if you don't have much time, this trail is perfect.
The Natural Bridge Trail starts right next to the visitor center/gift shop.
It's an easy, slightly downhill path that quickly leads you to a massive limestone rock tunnel, or bridge.
Once you arrive at the natural bridge, you'll find lots of rock formations to check out.
This spot is beautiful any time of year, but the icicles in winter added a special look.
All this limestone actually supports a paved highway on top – passing right above you!
Staying at Carter Caves State Park
Carter Caves has a handful of backcountry campsites near the 45-acre Smoky Lake.
The official campground has well over 100 sites, most of them with electric hookups. A few sites can even accommodate guests who bring their horses. (Yes, some of the trails allow for horseback riding!)
The campground is open year-round. You can reserve your spot online.
The sites have campfire rings and grates for cooking. (I love to cook over the campfire! With the combo of a camp Dutch oven and my Lodge 12" carbon steel skillet, I can put together meals like these campfire enchiladas or campfire brats with peppers and onions in just a few minutes.)
If you prefer indoor accommodations, the Lewis Caveland Lodge has 28 rooms with patios overlooking the woods.
The lodge also features a restaurant with a buffet. If you're visiting during the winter, be sure to look up the hours, as they may only open for part of the week.
Bringing extra people along? Consider renting a cottage. We were impressed by how large they are!
With two or three bedrooms and fully furnished kitchen, living space, and bathroom, the cottages at Carter Caves look quite comfortable for a retreat with family and friends. Some of them even have fireplaces.
Trail access, as well as rappelling and rock climbing, are close at hand.
Activities Around the Park
There's a designated area for rappelling and rock climbing at the park. It's a self-guided activity (although you're advised not to do it alone). You'll need to get a permit from the lodge.
Two caves are open year-round for paid guided tours: Cascade Cave and X-Cave.
A cave tour can be a nice option in winter, as the temperature below ground will often be warmer than the outside! Of course, the reverse is true in summer, so you can also get a break from an oppressive heat wave by heading underground.
Cascade Cave is a popular choice for a tour because of its beautiful reflecting pool, cathedral-like column formations, and massive underground waterfall. It's the one we most often opt for when we have friends or family visiting.
Through the summer, you can also tour Saltpetre Cave and learn about a slice of Kentucky history dating back over 200 years.
And if a guided walking tour is just not exhilarating enough for you, there are crawling tours or self-guided exploration.
No matter what kind of cave tour or exploration you decide to go for, you'll always start by getting tickets or permits from the visitor center.
Have you been to Carter Caves recently? Let us know in the comments what your favorite trails or cave experiences are!