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Blue Water Trails – Tygarts Creek

By: Lee McClellan

From Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Moving water throughout the millennia left an indelible mark on Carter County, Kentucky. Water flowing through the ground melted the porous limestone bedrock prior to the creation of the Ohio River, creating a series of labyrinthine caves. The most scenic and unique of these are now contained within the boundaries of Carter Caves State Resort Park.

Through time, flowing water cut down into the bedrock and created the spectacular Tygarts Creek Gorge, rivaling anything found in Kentucky. The sheer slate gray bluffs of the gorge that rise straight from the banks and tower above you, the mild rapids and blue-green water draw paddlers to Tygarts Creek from all over Kentucky and surrounding states. Two floats showcase the Tygarts Creek Gorge. These floats are suitable for beginners and families at normal water levels, but grow more challenging at higher water.

The first float begins in downtown Olive Hill at the Tygarts Creek Rail Trail Park, adjacent to the KY 986 (Cross St.) bridge over the creek. The launch and parking area are on the right just before the bridge on Cross St. The take-out is at the KY 182 bridge at Carter Caves State Resort Park. Take U.S. 60 north out of Olive Hill to a left on KY 182. The parking area lies on the right just before you reach the bridge and entrance to the park.

This 12.5 mile section flows low and skinny at this time of year. Water levels of less than 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) make this section a challenge to complete in a day. Check the flows for Tygarts Creek on the U.S. Geological Survey website at Plan on launching just after dawn and arriving at the take-out at dusk.

Expect to carry your boat over shallow riffles and shoals in summer on this float. The smart paddler would quickly burn the first 6 miles of water till they reach the I-64 bridge, so they may enjoy the incredible views of the Tygarts Creek Gorge that begin shortly after the bridge. At water levels above 300 cfs, this float increases in difficultly, with several borderline Class II rapids. Also, strong current carries you into the many beautiful bluffs with overhanging rocks, so be mindful you don’t crack your head against one while awing the scenery.

Toward the end of this float, you will take a hard, tight left hand turn with very high bluffs, followed by Smoky Creek entering on your left (looking downstream) followed by another hard left with tall bluffs. You are floating around the geologic formation known as the Devil’s Backbone. The take-out at KY 182 bridge lies just downstream. Look for a set of wooden steps cut into the bank on the left about 150 yards upstream of the bridge.

The next float begins at the KY 182 bridge and concludes at the KY 7 bridge at Iron Hill, Kentucky. Tygarts Creek exits the gorge about half way through this 9.5 mile section, but this float, with its deep long pools and wider breadth, makes the best bet for summer floating at low water levels.

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At the end of this float is the KY 7 bridge, quickly followed by the AA Highway bridge. The take-out is on the right just past the KY 7 bridge. If you float to the modern large bridge for the AA Highway, you’ve missed the take-out. You can dramatically shorten the shuttle time from KY 182 to Iron Hill by taking Sutton Road just north of the entrance to Carter Caves State Resort Park on the right. This extremely rural road turns to gravel and crosses a creek, requiring a truck or other high clearance vehicle. After crossing the creek, turn right and drive a short distance to KY 7. A right turn brings you into Iron Hill.

Tygarts Creek, along with the nearby Little Sandy River and Kinniconick Creek, form three legendary native Kentucky muskellunge streams. Long before the construction of Cave Run Lake or Buckhorn Lake, the muskellunge fishing in these streams spawned a regional reputation for excellence.

The creek still holds quality muskellunge today. The old time anglers on these streams believed July and August are the two toughest months to fish for muskellunge. The first and last few hours of the day are the best times to try and raise a muskellunge in August, but floating Tygarts Creek from mid-September through November is the better option. Once the water cools from the summer heat, muskellunge grow more active and show interest in lures cast near their woody lairs. Past population studies show muskellunge prefer brush and fallen trees to all other habitats on Tygarts Creek.

Bass-sized crankbaits with hues of gold or chartreuse mimic the golden redhorse and spotted suckers that muskellunge gorge on when the opportunity arises. A 6-inch soft plastic swimbait rigged on a ¼-ounce leadhead in similar colors also works. A large in-line spinner dressed with bucktail is an old-time lure that still works for stream muskellunge when cast near a fallen tree top or sunken log.

The long, slower pools in Tygarts Creek downstream of the KY 182 bridge are ideal habitat for spotted or Kentucky bass. Like muskellunge, spotted bass lurk in brush, fallen tree tops or under sunken logs. They crush 4-inch black finesse worms rigged on 1/8-ounce leadheads worked thoroughly in these areas. Spotted bass also hit 3-inch black curly-tailed grubs, black in-line spinners and small shad-colored crankbaits.

Smallmouth bass abound in Tygarts Creek, especially in the section upstream of the KY 182 bridge. Concentrate your efforts for smallmouth in the areas above and below riffles. They lie in wait in the seams where swift current meets slower. The same 3-inch black curly-tailed grub that works for spotted bass also draws smallmouth bass when worked in these current seams. A 4-inch motor-oil double-tailed skirted grub rigged on a 3/16-ounce standup leadhead is a deadly lure for smallmouth on Tygarts Creek. Let this lure flow down the current seams or where swift water flows over small boulders.

As we get into August and September, chrome or bone-colored cigar-shaped topwaters designed for the “walk the dog” retrieve draw vicious hits from smallmouth. These lures work best in the slack water behind boulders or in the eddy areas downstream of riffles.

In addition to floating and fishing, the Tygarts Creek Gorge area offers scenic hiking and tours of Cascade and X Caves in Carter Caves State Resort Park. Cascade Cave, one of the largest of the over 200 caves in Carter County, features a 30-foot underground waterfall and a reflecting pool. The X Cave holds unique formations such as Giant Turkey, the Pipe Organ and the Giant Chandelier. Contact the Welcome Center at Carter Caves State Resort Park for tickets to the cave tours.

Carter Caves State Resort Park offers accommodations at the Lewis Caveland Lodge and also cottages for rent. The Tierney Cavern Restaurant inside Lewis Caveland Lodge provides breakfast, lunch and dinner. The park also offers seasonal canoe floats through the Tygarts Creek Gorge.

The Blue Water Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear’s Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Water Trails webpage at for a detailed map.

Carter Caves Resort Park: 1-606-286-4411

Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

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