March 27, 2013 — For about the first 40 years of its existence as a state park, visitors and local residents went to Carter Caves primarily to see interesting things.
The beauty of those rugged cliffs and forested hillsides and the underground wonder of caves were there for all to see but generally not to touch.
Golf, horseback riding, swimming, picnicking, hiking, camping and fishing were the main hands-on activities.
Greater numbers of visitors were there in the summer with smaller turnouts in the spring and summer. Other than cottage rentals, winter was always slow.
That began to change in the 1980’s with the introduction of the “Crawlathon”, a January weekend devoted to rugged hikes and cave tours that left you cold and muddy but exhilarated.
Longtime park naturalist John Tierney, now retired, realized that some members of the public yearned to do more than just stroll along a lighted, relatively flat and comfortably wide trail inside a cave, see the same sights over and over and listen to a carefully-rehearsed tour narrative.
“Crawlathon” was well named because many of the cave tours involving crawling, climbing, scooting, twisting and other body contortions necessary to navigate cold, dark passages heretofore unexplored by amateurs.
The off-season event grew and grew and brought much-needed winter revenue to the park as hundreds of “cavers” and “spelunkers” began migrating to Carter Caves to test themselves underground.
When we asked the difference between cavers and spelunkers, the answer was that cavers are those individuals who rescue the spelunkers.
In other words, cavers train and prepare and utilize the correct equipment while the other folks are more likely to go into an unlighted cave with a $10 flashlight while wearing shorts and flip-flops.
Regardless of which term you use, exploring these caves apparently was the first “adventure tourism” to be successfully marketed in this part of Kentucky.