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Are you planning to visit Carter Caves State Park? This park has more than just caves– the Three Bridges Trail is one of the prettiest hikes in Kentucky!
As much as I love epic, overnight hiking trips, some of my favorite trails are hike that are close to home.
I love hiking both the West Pinnacle and East Pinnacle Trails in Berea, Natural Bridge, and (of course) the trails at Carter Caves.
Carter Caves State Park in Olive Hill, Kentucky, is known for– obviously– caves.
BUT– I really don’t like caving (or spelunking, if you want to get technical).
My favorite part of spelunking is the light you see when you exit the cave.
Happily, this nearby park offers another attraction– gorgeous hiking trails.
Carter Caves has lots of trails. Some of them are short and easy; others are long, full-day hikes (like the gorgeous 4C’s trail).
One of my favorite trails here is the Three Bridges Trail.
Want more nearby hiking ideas? Check out the trails at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky), the New River Gorge (West Virginia), or the Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee).
Three Bridges Trail Information
The Three Bridges Trail is a 3.5-mile moderately difficult loop trail. The trail took us about 2 hours to hike, start to finish.
The trail has three natural bridges (or arches) and is fairly well maintained and marked.
If you hike in the summer (when we typically go), the trail includes a few glimpses of the nearby lake. The rest of the year (when there’s less tree cover) you’ll get a gorgeous lakeside view through portions of the hike.
I wear hiking boots on this trail– I love these Keen boots— but you could probably get away with sneakers.
I also carry my trekking pole— I love these Kelty cork-handled poles for a budget-friendly pick and these Black Diamond Alpine carbon trekking poles for a higher-end option.
Make sure to bring along plenty of water. I carry water in my Osprey daypack.
The trail is almost entirely in the shade even on extra-sunny days.
Planning your next trip? Check out my favorite camping and hiking gear.
Getting to The Three Bridges Trail in Carter Caves
Drive to the Carter Caves visitor center, and park in the lot.
Cross the street and walk towards the Saltpeter Cave mine. The Three Bridges trailhead is directly behind the old mine.
This is a loop trail, so you can go either right or left at the sign. We prefer to go right at the trail sign.
That’s important if you’re following along for directions– this trail guide follows the trail counterclockwise.
Want to camp in Carter Caves State Park? Make campground reservations here, and then check out my camping recipe ideas!
Hiking the Three Bridges Trail
Go right at the trailhead sign, and head towards Smokey Bridge.
You’ll immediately see the red trail markers on the trees— pay attention to the markers, because in several places the trail signs are unclear, but the trail markers will lead the way.
Right away, you’ll cross the road, and then go back on the trail into the woods.
Then, you’ll pass a spot where the trail appears to split– there’s a walking path to the left, and a staircase towards the main road on the right. Stay on the path to the left.
We got lost at this point the first time we hiked this trail– if you go up the stairs and cross the road, there’s another trail waiting for you– but it’s a very messy horse trail that you don’t want to hike.
A few minutes later, you’ll cross the road again– and from this point on you’ll be in the woods.
About a mile into the hike, the trail appears to split. Red trail markers go in two different directions.
Both directions lead to Smokey Bridge.
If you go right, you’ll climb down a rocky staircase. Make sure your shoes have good traction if you go this route.
If you go left, you’ll come to a sign for Smokey Bridge, turn right, and then go down a long, stone staircase.
And then, you’ll be at Carter Caves’ Smokey Bridge.
Smokey Bridge is probably the most impressive bridge on the trail.
However, it also (in my experience) tends to be the most crowded of the three bridges in Carter Caves, because there’s a road nearby and it’s easy to access the bridge without much hiking.
If it’s been raining recently, Smokey Bridge will have water streaming along the path underneath.
Next, turn around and go up the stone staircase back towards the trail.
Follow the trail sign towards Caveland Lodge.
When the trail splits, go right to continue the loop towards the next bridge.
Keep hiking along the Three Bridges Trail, following the trail markers.
Along the path, you’ll cross a wooden bridge over a creek and climb a wooden staircase built into the hill.
Raven Bridge in Carter Caves
When you come to the signs for Raven Bridge, turn towards the bridge.
Raven Bridge is on a short trail spur and is not on Carter Caves’ official Three Bridges Loop.
The trail spur will lead you up a steep wooden staircase and then up a trail.
Keep an eye out for the bridge– it will be on your left, and in the summer it could be partially hidden by overgrowth.
Continue to follow the trail for a view of Raven Bridge from above, and then turn around and go back the way you came towards the main trail.
Fern Bridge in Carter Caves
Once you’re back on the main trail, continue hiking until you reach my favorite of Carter Caves’ bridges– Fern Bridge.
Fern Bridge is a long narrow bridge in moss-covered rocky cove, and (I assume) is named after the ferns that grow all over the ground near the bridge.
Water trickles over the bridge (even on dry days) and is a refreshing cold treat after a long, hot hike.
Continue hiking along the trail for another mile, up more rocky stairs and along the wooded path.
Eventually, you’ll return to the Saltpeter Mine, walk across the street, and back to your car.
Did you go hiking in Carter Caves? Comment to let me know which trail you took, and what you liked best!
Looking for somewhere to eat after your hike? Carter Caves is located in the extra-tiny town of Olive Hill, and there’s not many restaurants.
Drive west on i64 towards Morehead or Lexington, or east towards Grayson or Ashland for more food options.
I will be leading a group hike on this trail on Wednesday May 26, 2021 meeting @ 10:00 @Caveland Lodge.
Nice! It’s a great time of year for it!
-Alisha at Champagne Tastes
The biggest natural bridge in Carter Caves is unimaginatively named Natural Bridge. It’s only a short 1/4 mile hike from the welcome center and supports a road on top. Twice a year they allow rappelling over 60 feet through a hole in the roof of the bridge. It’s awesome! Food at the lodge, and all Kentucky State Parks, is meh. The best breakfast in nearby Olive Hill is at Walker’s. It’s a family style restaurant. Tyler’s Pizza has a giant menu of good food at very reasonable prices. Your kids will love it and you’ll enjoy the prices. I enjoy both places. It may not be 5 star dining but it works for me.
While at Carter Caves, don’t miss hiking the Boxed Canyon. It’s less than a mile but isn’t easy. However, it’s beautiful.
Carter Caves is a great place to take your family hiking (or caving) and expand their abilities to have fun outdoors.
Nice suggestions 🙂 Yup, Tyler’s Pizza is pretty good!
-Alisha at Champagne Tastes