March 13, 2013 — Family and group picnics, cave tours, hiking, fishing, swimming and paddle boating in Smoky Lake, group camping, horseback rides and beautiful scenery.
For most of the first half of its 67 years of existence, those were the primary attractions at Carter Caves State Resort Park.
We Carter Countians were rightly proud of this little jewel in a statewide park system we claimed to be the best in the U.S.
It was a recreation destination for local families and for their kinfolk who had migrated to other states for work.
Compared with today’s recreation attractions,
Carter Caves, still known to most locals as “the Caves”, could be enjoyed at bargain prices.
The park was established in July 1946 but the property had been in private ownership since the area was first settled in the late 1700’s.
Landowners in Carter and some adjacent counties, inspired and led by the J. F. Lewis family, donated 945 acres of woodlands, streams and caves to the state to create the park.
Also playing key roles were the Grayson and Olive Hill Rotary clubs.
Former Kentucky Gov. William Jason Fields, a native of Carter County, was another key player in making it happen.
Thirteen years later, a nearby cave system known as Cascade Caves, was purchased to become part of the state park.
Previously, Cascade Caves had been a privately-owned commercial enterprise in operation since 1925.
Cascade Caves and other land obtained by the state eventually increased the total land area to nearly 2,000 acres or about three square miles.
Two years earlier, the state established the adjoining Tygart State Forest, consisting of 874 acres, one of seven forests managed by the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
Also in the early years, Smoky Creek was impounded to create Smoky Lake to offer swimming, fishing and boating to park visitors.
Another major development in the park’s history occurred in December 1981, when the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission set aside 146 acres within the park as nature preserves.
Called Bat Cave and Cascade Caverns State Nature Preserves, this area was designed to protect several rare and endangered species, including the Indiana bat, the mountain maple tree and the Canada yew, an evergreen shrub.
Later, the Little Brown bat was to become a celebrity species under protection in the cold, dark caves under the park.
Geologists describe the acreage of the park as stream-eroded hills and ridges with narrow valleys.
Principal geologic features within the park include caves, sinkholes, natural bridges, waterfalls, box canyons, deep gorges, steep-sided cliffs, and rock houses.
Those natural features were to play a major role in the park’s future as we will see in future installments of this series.
Lewis Caveland Lodge was constructed in 1962 as the park added “resort” to its official name with modern lodging accommodations and a highly regarded restaurant now known as “Tierney’s Cavern”, to honor retired, longtime park naturalist John Tierney.
A nine-hole golf course and a swimming pool followed later, as did campgrounds for RV’s, tents and camping trailers.
The riding stable was modernized in 2011 with the opening of a $1.2 million equine campground, one of only five in the state park system.
Carter Caves added a new dimension in 1970 when legendary fiddler J. P. Fraley, another Carter County native, started an outdoor music festival which evolved into the Fraley Mountain Music Festival.
Pioneer Life Week came later as amateur and professional historians began to discover and celebrate the park’s rich heritage.
For example, saltpeter from the park’s Saltpetre Cave was used to make gunpowder in the War of 1812. It was also a hideout for counterfeiters.
The park has constantly expanded its schedule of activities to attract day visitors, as well as overnight guests who utilize the lodge and the growing selection of rental homes called cottages.
(Next: Carter Caves State Resort Park today. Visitors can see…and do.)
Keith Kappes can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at 800-247-6142.