Carter Caves in the fall

By Carrie Stambaugh

OLIVE HILL Carter Caves State Resort Park is beautiful all year but in the fall its hardwood forests put on a dazzling display of color, which almost steals the show from its namesake caves and sandstone arches.

The warm days and cool nights the Tri-State has been experiencing the last several weeks, coupled with adequate rainfall, have primed the leaves for an extravagant October display this year.

Already deep reds are creeping up the boughs of maples and shades of yellow and orange are appearing on the limbs of trees all around them.  Even the ever-so-green hemlocks and pines dotting the landscape seem more vibrant in the fall in contrast to their showy neighbors.

From afar, the kaleidoscope of hues can camouflage the park’s pale sandstone arches, making them almost a surprise when they come clearly into view through the leaves. The formations serve as stable, dependable anchors in the rapidly shifting fall landscape, awash in floating leaves.

I’ve enjoyed the park in all seasons and times of day, from misty spring afternoons to sweltering humid summer nights and freezing mid-winter morning but October is my favorite time to visit.

By Carrie Stambaugh. Smoky Arch at Carter Caves State Park.

On a trip to the park this past week it was evident I’m not the only one that makes an annual autumnal pilgrimage here.

Families of all ages and sizes could be spotted everywhere taking advantage of the warm, crystal clear Indian summer weather.

My husband Carl and I brought my mother and sister Alison, who carried her 10-week-old son, Jacob, on his first hiking excursion.

Photo by Carrie Stambaugh. The natural bridge at Carter Caves State Resort Park.

We walked two of the most popular trails to Smoky Arch and Natural Bridge. Both echoed with laughter – and a few of Jacob’s cries – as children and their parents wandered around beneath the arches, looking for fossils or peering at passages through the rock high above their heads. We happily joined them, first craning our necks to take in the full height of the bridges before tiptoeing through the jumbled rocks lying at the feet of the giants.

The 4C’s trail, a nearly 8 mile jaunt through the woods, over Tygarts Creek, past three of the park’s seven arches, and around Smoky Valley Lake is our favorite hike and is simply stunning in the fall. It offers visitors the best of all the park has to offer, but should be attempted by those in good shape and with plenty of time.

But our series of short walks and a long drive through the park were enough, on this trip to satisfy my appetite for seasonal splendor.

As we passed the campground we noted it was packed with campers, and my family reminisced about our own childhood campouts.

The park offers discount camping throughout October as well as a slate of festive Halloween activities for families. Carter Cave’s Haunted Trail will open this weekend (Oct. 14-15) and will also frighten visitors the weekend of Oct. 21-22.  The park will also host an Addams Family themed mystery dinner theatre Nov. 4-5.

Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh is the managing editor of Kentucky Angling News available online at

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