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Kentucky Storytellers: Outdoors

Paul Tierney has one of Kentucky’s most beautiful office views.

As park naturalist at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill, Tierney gets to go to work each day and revel in Kentucky’s natural beauty — both above and below ground.

Carter Caves State Park is home to more than 40 known caves, though public tours there focus primarily on the park’s largest caves: Cascade Cave, X-Cave, Saltpetre Cave and Bat Cave. During peak summer months, the park offers as many as 15 different tour types to explore them.

“We have tours ranging from simple, scenic walking tours to wild tours, crawling tours, flashlight and lantern tours, and ghosts and legends tours,” said Tierney. “We try to give visitors insights on all the interesting stories and every significant aspect of those caves.”

Tierney is following in the footsteps of his father, John Tierney, who was park naturalist at Carter Caves for more than 35 years. Said Paul, working at the park feels “like coming home.”

As naturalist, Tierney helps develop programming and special events at the park, leads tours and generally tries to connect with visitors as much as possible to help ensure their visits to Carter Caves are meaningful and memorable.

“When you see someone get it — maybe it’s seeing a bat for the first time or seeing a salamander, or understanding what it takes to make a cave — that moment is just so cool,” said Tierney, who enjoyed a 17-year career as historian at Kentucky’s Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park in Carlisle before joining the Carter Caves State Park staff in 2016.

“You can lead as many as 10 cave tours a day and see hundreds of people on those tours, but if you get that one person where the light comes on and they have that ‘aha’ moment or that ‘wow, that’s so cool’ moment, that’s what it’s all about,” Tierney said.

Tierney feels lucky to work in a field and a state where it’s his job to help others see the natural beauty around them.

“A large part of what makes Kentucky so special is its diversity,” he said. “You’ve got the mountains in the far eastern portion of the state. And then, as you go westward, you have these huge, gorgeous prairies. The diversity that you find here is really unique. No matter what region you travel to in Kentucky, there’s something very special and beautiful to enjoy there.”

Carter Caves

As their name suggests, caves are the stars at Carter Caves State Park in Olive Hill, where visitors can choose from an array of cave tours, from leisurely strolls through large caverns to more adventurous “wild” cave tours. The most popular tours include treks through Cascade Cave, noted for rooms so large that dances were once held there; X-Cave, home to ornate cave formations such as the Great Chandelier, the Pipe Organ and Headache Rock; and Saltpetre Cave, used as a source of gunpowder ingredients during the War of 1812. Aboveground, the park also boasts ample opportunities for hiking on 26 miles of nature trails, as well as guided horseback riding, fishing and more.

Cumberland Falls

As one of the most visited and photographed spots in Kentucky, Cumberland Falls is known as the Niagara of the South thanks to its 125-foot-wide curtain of water that’s been a must-see destination in Corbin for generations. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park offers opportunities for hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding and more, and the on-site DuPont Lodge, which was completely renovated in 2006, offers 51 rooms, many overlooking the nearby Cumberland River. Visitors can dine at the lodge’s Riverview Restaurant for sweeping views of the river valley as well as hearty Southern-classic meals crafted from locally grown ingredients. For a special sight, groups may want to time their visits to the park around a scheduled appearance of a moonbow, a lunar rainbow, that forms near the falls on clear nights with a full moon.

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

In Clermont, roughly 30 miles south of Louisville, the 16,000-acre Bernheim Arboretum is home to over 8,000 varieties of trees, shrubs and perennials. Bernheim includes more than 40 miles of nature trails with varied difficulties to accommodate hikers and mountain bikers of all skill levels. The new “Forest Giants” exhibit, added to celebrate Bernheim’s 90th anniversary, features three large-scale giant sculptures, created by Danish artist Thomas Danbo using reclaimed wood, that greet visitors along a two-mile-long loop on the grounds. Bernheim also hosts frequent special events and eco-learning workshops, as well as guided group tours.

Mammoth Cave National Park

No trip to explore Kentucky’s outdoor wonders would be complete without a stop at Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the world’s longest known cave system: So far, more than 400 miles have been mapped. Groups should start their journey at the National Park Visitor Center, starting point for all cave tours. Popular ranger-led tour options include the Frozen Niagara Tour, the Historic Tour and the Domes and Dripstones Tour.

Natural Bridge

One of Kentucky’s most recognizable spots, the Natural Bridge is a natural sandstone arch that spans 78 feet and stands 65 feet high in the Daniel Boone National Forest, near the Red River Gorge geologic area, a popular destination for camping, hiking, rappelling and rock climbing. At Natural Bridge State Park, visitors can hike to the famous arch or ride up on a sky lift. The state park lodge in Slade features 35 rooms, all with private balconies.

Land Between the Lakes

The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is a designated U.S. National Recreation Area that spans some 170,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. A lake lover’s paradise, the region offers unlimited options for water sports, fishing, boating, swimming, camping and more. Lodges are available at Lake Barkley State Resort Park in Cadiz, Kenlake State Resort Park in Hardin and Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Calvert City.