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Carter Caves, KY

At a cave entrance. Photos by Attila Horvath.

Eastern Kentucky’s Carter Caves State Resort Park is a twofer: a quality below-ground and above-ground destination all in one. “There’s something we have for you here at Carter Caves,” says park naturalist Coy Ainsley, “With the hiking trails and the canoeing and the commercial cave tours, and then you bring in the special events and the summer weekly activity schedule … it’s just awesome.”

Start, of course, with the cave tours to get your dose of TD (total darkness) and much more. X Cave is known for its narrow, winding passage full of beautiful features, including stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, popcorn and cave coral. Then there’s Cascade Cave, with its namesake waterfall. “It’s still an active cave,” Coy says, meaning that there’s water flowing through the limestone cavern, still shaping it every day. Cascade Cave’s Lake Room, near the exit, is a reflecting pool that allows you to see blue skies reflecting in the water. All other caves are closed due to white-nose syndrome.

Above ground, hit some of the 26 miles worth of trails. Coy’s favorite is the Box Canyon Trail. It’s less than a mile long, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in scenery, including an arch and the 60-foot tall box canyon. “You also get to walk through the wind tunnel,” Coy says, “It’s an eroded fracture in the sandstone.” A must-do is the 3.5-mile 3 Bridges Trail, which takes you by both sandstone and limestone natural arches, along with views of Smoky Valley Lake. For an overnighter, try the 4 C’s Trail (Carter Caves Cross Country Trail). It’s 7.5 mile-long loop and has backcountry camping.

Put together your own shuttle and canoe the 6.2-mile section of Tygarts Creek between I-64 and KY-182, where you’ll float by clifflines on both sides. “It’s just beautiful,” Coy allows.

Where it’s at: Less than three hours from Louisville or Cincinnati; from the junction of I-75 and I-64 outside of Lexington, KY, travel east on I-64 87 miles to US-60/KY-182 (exit 161). Turn north and go 1.5 miles to Carter Caves Road on the left, follow signs to the park.

Contact: or (606) 286-4411

Digs: The park has camping ($15-$32/night), a lodge (rooms $59/night) and two-bedroom cottages ($120/night). You can also rent a bunkhouse at the primitive backcountry site ($48/night, sleeps 12).

Grub: The lodge houses Tierney’s Cavern Restaurant

Cost: Cave tours run $7-$9 ($3-$4 ages 12 and under)