Carter Caves is a state park located in Carter County, Kentucky, United States. The park consists of 1,065 acres (430ha) surrounding an 860-acre (350ha) cave complex with more than 3 miles (4.8km) of passages and an underground lake. It is accessible via Highway 41 just east of the city of Carter Falls.
There are also several miles of trails within the park itself. Mountain biking is especially popular, with many different trails ranging from easy to hard. Other sports and activities which can be enjoyed either inside or outside the park include soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis, golf, archery, hunting, and rock climbing. Camping facilities include 50 campsites equipped with water and electrical hookups as well as modern bathhouses and dump stations.
Many sites have views of both the sun rising and setting over Carter Caves. Backcountry camping is allowed in some areas away from major traffic routes. Toilets and showers are not provided; campers must bring their own. No pets are permitted on the site. Parking fees are in effect during parts of the summer. The visitor center features exhibits about the history and ecology of the caves, plus information on how the cave ecosystem works. Tours of the caves themselves are given daily, though visitors are warned that some areas may be unsafe for cave diving.
The cave system was discovered by local cavers in 1974, but it took nearly twenty years to complete the exploration of all 230 caves. Much of the work done on the caves was performed by Dan Morse and Don Conner who were members of the original team that discovered the system while they were students at Murray State University. After their graduation, they formed the non-profit Friends of Carter Caves which has worked closely with the Commonwealth of Kentucky to preserve the caves for future generations.
In 2007, the Kentucky General Assembly allocated $2 million from the lottery proceeds to develop a plan to protect and preserve the caves. With help from the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, the Trust for Public Land purchased 82 acres of land including most of the Big Bone Cave System. Additional acreage totalling 203 acres was contributed by private donors as well as the Kentucky Department of Parks. Development of the park began in 2008 and was completed in 2012 when the first tourist entrance opened. A second entrance was dedicated later that year. On November 21, 2010, Carter Caves received its designation as a state nature preserve.
Activities available at the park include:
- mountain biking
- wildlife viewing
Over 300 species of fish have been identified in the cave system, including:
- largemouth bass
More than 150 species of birds have been observed in the park including:
- owls such as screech owls
- bald eagles
- cow birds
Mammals commonly found in the area include:
- white-tail deer
- eastern gray squirrels
- mule deer
- cottontail rabbit
- Virginia opossums