By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
First, full disclosure: I love Carter Caves State Resort Park for more reasons than I can fit in this column.
Suffice it to say, this 2,000-acre gem is my favorite preserved natural place in the U.S. because it’s practically in my backyard and offers breathtaking natural beauty, biodiversity, and opportunities for recreation during every season. Although well used, the park seldom seems crowded.
Carter Caves is one of the oldest members of the state’s free public park Kentucky system for a reason. It’s subterranean caverns and unique geological features have long been popular tourist destinations.
The area was settled in the 1700s and there is evidence of activity in the caves dating further back. The Commonwealth of Kentucky acquired the park’s original 945-acres in 1946 and has continued to add to it since.
A temperate mixed mesophytic forest, which is noted for having Earth’s richest biodiversity of plants and animal species, the Carter Caves area is part of the karstic limestone region of the Cumberland Plateau. It is chocked full of with unique geological features such as sandstone arches, natural bridges, and sinkholes along with other rock formations caused by the weathering of rock and mineral composites.
Below the Surface
Two of the Caves more than 20 caverns, including the trio collectively known as Cascade Cave, remain accessible to visitors throughout the winter. Tickets for guided tours are available for purchase from the Visitor’s Center on Thursday – Sunday between 10:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Tours lasts about 75 minutes and cost $10 for adults and children age 13 and up. Children age 3 to 12 are $5 and children under 2 are free.
Cascade Cave, which has been known to host all matter of events from cave-in movie nights, musical performances, weddings and even once, a gathering of geology academics, is a short drive along Ky.182 from the Visitors Center. (Cave tour tickets must be purchased at the Visitors Center inside the park.)
The caves on park property are linked to an extensive system, which includes more than 200 caves and extends far off the park’s boundaries. Cascade Cave itself is a series of parallel passages with openings throughout a small area of the park, which was acquired in 1959.
On a visit in early November, I joined regional journalists, and state and local park personnel on a tour of the cave. All tours include a walk through the electrically lit rooms of the caves, which are often named for features visible there.
For example, in “The Lake Room,” the stream known as James Branch creates a large reflecting pool of water. This area of the cave also opens into one of several nature preserves within the park, which is home to rare species of flora and fauna. These include the Mountain Maple and Canadian Yew, according to Coy Ainsley, park naturalist and our tour guide.
In this area, the tour exits the cave below a sandstone cliff, and then quickly reenters another cavern. Inside this cave is the Cathedral Room.
Numerous dripstone formations including flowstones, stalactites, columns, soda straws and draperies are visible here. Ainsley pointed out each type along the tour explaining how mineral-laden water seeping through overhead cracks in the rock layers has slowly crafted Cascades features over millennia.
The highlight of Cascade Cave for many, including me, is a glimpse of a 30-foot underground waterfall. Accessible by a manmade entrance a short walk away from the natural opening used during the first portion of the tour, the waterfall is visible from a constructed platform down a narrow passageway.
In early November the stream feeding the falls, which eventually empties into the James Branch, was roaring.
Before leaving the area, all visitors are asked to walkover a mat to sanitize their shoes. This is now common practice following cave tours across the U.S. a result of White Nose Syndrome, which is afflicting local bat populations. The fungal disease has killed more than 5.7 million bats in North America after migrating to New York in 2006 from Europe.
Bats at Carter Caves were first documented with the disease during the winter of 2012-2013. Ainsley noted, during our tour, that researchers have test a method of preventing hibernating bats from dying from the disease during winters at Carter Caves. However, the method is practical for widespread use, he said.
Four different types of bats are known to live or hibernate within Carter Caves. These include include the common little brown bat, the federally protected Indiana bat and the tiny tri-colored bat. Ainsley also pointed out several groups of bats hanging near entrances to Cascade Cave during our tour. Due to the unseasonably warm temperatures the bats had not yet begun their winter hibernation.
To plan your visit to Carter Caves State Resort Park visit www.Parks.Ky.gov/resortparks/carter-caves or call 606-286-4411.