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Carter Hills

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About the Carter Hills

The Carter Hills are a small, rugged region of the Western Allegheny Plateau located entirely within northeastern Kentucky, with diverse terrain, soil types, land use, and plant communities.

This region was never glaciated. The terrain is very rugged and heavily dissected, with narrow ridges and valleys. Streams tend to have moderate to high gradients, rocky bottoms, and numerous riffles and low waterfalls. There is some Karst topography, associated with the presence of limestone. The underlying bedrock here is diverse, with erosion-resistant sandstone and conglomerate capping the ridges. Underneath this are various layers of shale, siltstone, and coal, with limestone in some of the valleys. Bedrock outcroppings are common. Soils are highly diverse both in texture and fertility, ranging from deep, highly fertile soils to thin, nearly-sterile soils over bedrock, to deep, leached soils.

This area has high plant diversity owing to the diversity of terrain and soils. Most of the region originally supported the highly-diverse mixed mesophytic forest. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) dominated drier sites. Mesic uplands featured American beech (Fagus grandifolia), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and northern red oak (Quercus rubra). Drier uplands supported mixed oak forest with various hickories. Poorly-drained bottomlands supported pin oak (Quercus palustris), northern red oak, red maple (Acer rubrum), American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), river birch (Betula nigra), common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra). Well-drained valleys supported tuliptree, eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra), white oak (Quercus alba), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), northern red oak, and sugar maple. Steeper ravines supported eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and magnolia with an understory of rhododendron.

Nowadays this area is mostly forested; there is some pastureland, and in the broader valleys on more fertile soils, some cropland, producing hay, corn, tobacco, soybeans, small grains, and livestock. This region is utilized for logging, clay mining, oil extraction, and recreation. The diversity of land use in this region has contributed to maintaining this region's diverse forest type. Chestnut has been virtually eliminated by the blight, and replaced mostly by oaks. Recently-abandoned fields support early-successional growth of various pines and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). Most of the other forest types can still be found, relatively intact, in this region. There is some protected public land here, at Tygarts State Forest and the adjacent Carter Caves State Resort Park.

This region is bordered to the east and south by the Ohio/Kentucky Carboniferous Plateau, a slightly less rugged area with more isolated ridgetops and fewer large expanses of uplands, and more coal mining. To the northwest, this region is bordered by the Knobs-Lower Scioto Dissected Plateau, a geologically distinct region, also with narrower ridgetops and fewer broad expanses of uplands. There is a small border to the southwest with the Northern Forested Plateau Escarpment, a region that is more rugged and has more exposed cliffs, and slightly less limestone and Karst topography.

Plant Lists & In-Region Search

We do not yet have data to generate plant lists for a region as fine-tuned as this one. However you can move up to the broader Western Allegheny Plateau and generate lists for that region: native plants or all plants. Or search that region's plants here:


1. Woods, A.J., Omernik, J.M., Martin, W.H., Pond, G.J., Andrews, W.M., Call, S.M, Comstock, J.A., and Taylor, D.D. "Ecoregions of Kentucky (Poster)", U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA (2002) Web.