written by Bill Fultz
all photography credit to Bill Fultz & Fultz Fotos
Hello and welcome to The Arch Trip Volume 2! The last trip we spent some time running around the Red River Gorge, for this trip we will find us to the north for a visit to Carter Caves State Park! Carter Caves is home to numerous arches and natural bridges both on and off-trail but we are going to stick to the 6 on trail arches and a couple of surprises. Now, let's talk about the park before we head into arching!
Carter Caves is quite possibly the coolest park in the Kentucky Park System! Besides the arches, Carter Caves features several caves available for tour. Two are year-round guided tours, X Cave and Cascade Caverns, and there are numerous seasonal guided cave tours as well as two seasonal self-guided cave tours. There are also several seasonal waterfalls throughout the park. Lastly, Carter Caves is a Resort Park, with a motel, cabins, large camping area, miles of hiking trails and a 9 hole golf course. Here is a link to learn more about Carter Caves!
There are a couple of different ways to approach visiting the arches at Carter Caves. One is to take the 3 Bridges Trail, a 3.5-mile moderate loop trail that begins at the visitor center which takes you past three of the six bridges in the park: Fern Bridge, Raven Bridge, and Smoky Bridge. The other option is you can drive to each one, which is what we are going to do for this trip. So let us begin!
Carter Caves is located 4.3 miles driving distance north of I-64 near Olive Hill, Kentucky and you will enter the park from State Route 182. Notice the landscape along the park road is immediately distinctive. At 0.5 miles the road curves to the left and there is a pull-off to the right. If you want to see a cool waterfall, and if there has been enough rain, pull over here. Nearby is the location of Horn Hollow Cave Falls. There is potential to get your feet wet here as you have to cross Cave Branch and follow along or up the side stream that enters directly across from the pull off. By now you should be able to see the waterfall cascading out of Horn Hollow Cave. Up close inspection reveals some really cool colors in the rock and you really can not beat a waterfall emerging from the rock from out of nowhere.
The unique Horn Hollow Cave Falls emerges from Horn Hollow Cave.
Continue on the entrance road and look for the Visitor Center on your right as you ascend a hill. You’ll definitely want to stop here. There’s lots of information on the caves, the trails, and the bridges, a park map is a must. Across the street from the parking area is the trailhead for the 3 Bridges Trail if you decide to visit some of the arches that way. The trailhead for Natural Bridge is located at this parking lot as well.
The Natural Bridge of Carter Caves
The entrance to the Natural Bridge closest to the Visitor Center. Also, the opening above is Arch KY-8.
The Entrance to the Natural Bridge furthest from the Visitor Center.
If you walk to the left facing the visitor center you’ll find the trailhead for Natural Bridge which starts out as a road to the picnic and shelter rental area. You’ll pass to the left of all that and pick up an actual trail that follows along a stream where you’ll come to the entrance to the bridge. The bridge is an impressive sight as centuries upon centuries of running water cut a curved passage through the limestone. While under the bridge if you hear the sound of a passing car it is because there is a road built across it. Notice near where you entered above the right wall there is a skylight in the bridge. It in itself is considered an arch. The bridge will curve to the left and beyond that opposite entrance, you’ll see a trail that follows up to the left. This trail will take you to the road above that crosses the bridge. The trail continues for a short distance on the other side of the road for some views of the creek below. Remember to watch out for that skylight, wouldn’t want to fall through it!
If you are not feeling the .5 mile hike to the bridge you can drive thereby exiting the visitor center parking lot and turning right on the entrance road of the park. After passing a road that goes to the left you’ll see a pull-off on the left and right. Park here for a trail that starts at the left pull off that takes you down to the bridge.
In the distance through Smoky Bridge on the left, you can see the steps down to the base showing it’s an impressive size.
To get to Smoky Bridge you don’t even have to go back to your car, just walk by it! Return the way you came, once you are close to the parking area a side trail to the left will pass behind the Lodge and down the hill and connect the 3 Bridges Trail. Make a right and continue down to the bridge. Once close to the bridge there is a trail to the right or the trail continues straight. Either one leads to the base. The right will take you out along the canyon and drop below and bring you back along a watershed and eventually under the bridge. Going straight will take you across the bridge and then follow the trail and steps to the right and it will take you to its base. Prepare yourself, it’s one of the most impressive looking arches in the eastern US. Return to the lodge and where your car is parked.
Looking out the entrance to Shangra La Bridge.
The rear entrance of Shangra La Bridge. Notice the touch of neon pink spraypaint to the right of the entrance.
Since it is there I’m going to throw in Shangra La Bridge. As a photographer, I am not all that fond of this one, but it is not that far of a walk and whatever floats your boat you may like it. From the lodge parking lot drive up to the 4-way intersection and turn left onto Smoky Lake Lane. You’ll pass the campground to the right, continue down the hill until you see a road on your right and turn onto it. This road leads to a boat ramp and the 4C’s trailhead. The trailhead will be to the right of the end of the road. The hike to the bridge is less than a ½ mile. As you begin your trek the trail will split, keep right here. In approximately 0.3 of a mile, you will enter the mouth of the bridge. It’s almost a tunnel in design. Notice the rock, how it layers along the wall and how the rock scatters the floor. The 4C’s trail continues through the arch or you can go back to the car for our next destination.
Cascade Bridge is actually not located inside the main park. If you really want to go all out I suggest taking the Cascade Caverns Guided Tour. It’s a great tour with a cave waterfall and some cave natural bridges (see photo below), seems to me it might be an hour tour. Well worth it. Cascade Bridge is located on the Box Canyon Trail and it might be the best hike in the park. Box Canyon is cool in itself.
To get there head back to the main entrance and make a right onto KY 182. At the top of the hill make a right onto KY 209 and look for a sign for Cascade Caverns and a parking lot on the left. The trailhead is for the Box Canyon Trail is located at the back right of the parking lot at the outbuilding. Beyond the outbuilding, you’ll see two trails. On that goes to the right and one that goes to the left. The one to the right leads to the entrance to Cascade Caverns. It is a locked steel door and only the state park has the key. The trail to the left leads to Cascade Bridge and Box Canyon and becomes a 0.8-mile moderate loop hike. On your way to the loop, you’ll notice the exit from Cascade Caverns down some stairs to the left. More than likely you won’t notice where the loop begins, where a trail comes in from the right. If you notice it, you know what it is and continue forward. About .3 of a mile into the loop the trail ascends to the cliff line. Before you are Cascade Bridge. Years ago the first time I walked this trail I didn’t even notice it was a bridge and the reason why? Well, it does not stand out as a bridge as it closely hugs the cliffside. Even so, it is still an impressive sight. The trail will pass to the right of the bridge and proceed along the cliff line. As you continue, notice the landscape is becoming even more interesting and within no time you find yourself at Box Canyon. It is immediately obvious why it got its name. The trail will follow along the base of the canyon wall then loop around and up the hillside to finally descend down to meet up to tie the loop. Turn left and follow the trail back to your car.
The Natural Bridges in Cascade Caverns, one is in the very foreground the other is on the opposite side of the opening.
So that’s it for this arch trip folks! Join us next time when we find ourselves somewhere in Laurel, Whitley or McCreary County for some adventure!