Explore a different side of the southeast in Kentucky's national parks
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
If you think Kentucky is a sleepy southern state, you’re in for some surprises. Here, the fittest, finest Thoroughbred horses compete in some of the highest-stake races in the world. Award-winning bourbon, a Kentucky exclusive, is distilled with the same intense care and knowledge that’s applied to wines in Napa Valley. And the University of Kentucky Wildcats frequently topple the most competitive basketball teams in the nation, creating a zealous local following rivaled by few college towns.
In the shadow of these bold and beautiful superstars lie some of Kentucky’s greatest assets: its national parks, rich in history, culture, and stunning landscapes. And the fact that they’re often overlooked is part of their appeal, because for much of the year you can have these places to yourself. Sure, the crowds swell in May and October when the landscapes burst with wildflowers and fall colors—but if you’re willing to step out of the car and onto a trail, you’ll discover what really makes this region shine: century-old cabins tucked in a quiet mountain valley. Old, wooden homesteads on a windswept mountaintop. Black bears, little brown bats, and a herd of elk thousands strong; waterfalls, sandstone arches, and the most complex cave systems in the world.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Lovingly called the “Little Smokies” for its similar natural and historical features—minus the crowds—Cumberland Gap traces the diagonal border between Kentucky and Virginia before dipping into the northern part of Tennessee. Of the more than 24,000 acres protected here, about two-thirds are managed as wilderness, which means that visitors can hike the same trails and gaze at the same landscapes that westward-bound explorers experienced in the 1700s.
But long before that, herds of buffalo, deer, and elk carved the path through Cumberland Gap en route to Kentucky’s fertile fields. Settlers hunted buffalo to extinction by 1800, but a handful of elk still roam these hills, thanks to a reintroduction of the species in 1998.
Upon arrival, check in at the visitor center, located on Highway 25 East just before the tunnel into Tennessee. This is the central hub for all guided tours in the park and a good starting point for exploring on your own. Start by driving a short distance up to Pinnacle Overlook, which offers easy hikes, an incredible view of Fern Lake, and access to some of the most significant Civil War sites in the South, from old batteries to small forts.
When you’re ready for a guided tour, hop aboard a shuttle to the Hensley Settlement, a 20th-century homestead atop Brush Mountain where two extended Appalachian families lived in isolation for half a century, growing vegetables, raising livestock, and even distilling their own moonshine. Wander slowly through the schoolhouse—you can almost hear the voices of children reciting lessons around the wood-burning stove. Guided tours run from May through October ($10 for adults, $5 for seniors and children) and can be reserved up to a month in advance by calling 606.248.2817, ext. 1075.
If you’re up for an eight-mile round-trip hike, it’s worth returning to Brush Mountain to explore Sand Cave—a large, cool den that offers a stunning view of the landscape below—and White Rocks, an equally impressive sandstone outcropping rising 3,500 feet above the valley. To get there you’ll have to hike the steep Ewing Trail on the east end of the park. Leave your car at Civic Park, and be sure to bring snacks, plenty of water, and lots of energy; the trail gains 2,000 feet in elevation in the first two miles.
Next, journey beneath the surface into one of the park’s public caves. In summertime, rangers lead daily lantern tours of Gap Cave, which boasts a stunning variety of stalactites and stalagmites. The deeper you go, the more likely you are to come face to face with furry, hamster-sized bats—surprisingly adorable creatures up close. Take care not to disturb them; many of these species are being wiped out by white-nose syndrome in other parts of the country (see “In Cold Blood,” Summer 2009), a disease that’s creeping closer to the Southeast. Humans might be vectors, so tell rangers if you’ve been cave-hopping so they can disinfect your clothes and shoes before you enter.
If you want a unique lodging experience, skip the chain hotels and book a room at the Cumberland Manor ($79–$109/night), a historic bed-and-breakfast perched above the town of Middlesboro. Spacious rooms boast an eclectic mix of antiques, and breakfast includes colorful omelets, flaxseed toast with moonshine jelly, and sweet, crumbly muffins made with blueberries grown in the garden.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
In Big South Fork, creeks named No Business, Troublesome, and Difficulty are testament to the hard times settlers faced here. Without modern agricultural techniques, farming on the plateau was difficult. Other industries like saltpeter, coal, and timber peaked and plateaued with the times, and after World War II most residents left in search of a better life. Congress established the park in 1974 not only to preserve local culture and natural landscapes but to help bring life back into the region. And it worked. The park receives just short of a million visits each year.
Because there are few roads within Big South Fork, it takes two hours to get from one end of the park to the other using highways and small country roads outside park boundaries. So rent a car, and give yourself at least three days to explore.
Start on the north end of the park at the Stearns Depot Visitor Center near Whitley City, where, from mid-April through November, you can hop aboard the historic Big South Fork Scenic Railway and wind through mountain passes to Blue Heron, a former mining community. Skeleton structures of a church, a school, and old mining houses along with rich oral histories and life-sized displays bring to life the families who lived and worked here from the early to mid-1900s.
Reflect on their stories with a lazy float down the park’s major artery, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Just be sure to choose the right stretch to match your paddling skills—sections like “Washing Machine” and “Devil’s Jump” paint an accurate picture of the river’s character. Consider hooking up with the pros at Sheltowee Trace, a rafting outfitter in Corbin that guides everything from white-knuckled rafting trips to calm canoe floats. Call 1.800.541.7238 to reserve a spot or to simply check river conditions.
In a park like Big South Fork, where you stay is half the experience. Tennessee’s Charit Creek Lodge, nestled between a creek, weeping willows, and pink-flowering bushes that hum with honeybees, should be at the top of your list. Its buildings, which date back to 1813, are accessible only by foot or on horseback, which means you have to carry in your gear. But you shouldn’t need much beyond clothes, a headlamp, and a camera.
Accommodations are basic but cozy: two main cabins sleep up to 12 in bunk beds, and lodge rooms offer a more private retreat. Wool blankets, wood-burning stoves, and hot showers make up for any inconveniences that come with a lack of electricity. Full-paying guests ($66/night) wake to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon; lodge staff will pack sandwiches and homemade cookies for day trips, like the short, rolling hike to Twin Arches, the biggest sandstone arches in the East. End the day with a down-home meal of chicken and dumplings, homemade bread, and apple cobbler.
If Charit Creek seems too remote, check out the Bandy Creek campsites in Oneida, just south of the lodge. They offer full hook-ups for RVs ($22/night), separate campsites for tents ($19/night), and private stables.
Mammoth Cave National Park
You haven’t experienced Kentucky until you’ve experienced Mammoth Cave. This place has been making international headlines since the early 1800s, when locals guided cave tours through dark and twisting passages. Scientists have since mapped 367 miles, establishing Mammoth Cave as the longest known cave system in the world.
The park’s fascinating geology is matched only by the stories of its earliest explorers, from the first humans who harvested its gypsum crystals to the doctor who believed that a cave environment could cure tuberculosis. Miners carved out their own legends, employing some of the most innovative techniques of their time to extract saltpeter—a mineral used in gunpowder—and ultimately armed the country during the War of 1812.
Hop on a historic tour with interpretive ranger Jerry Bransford, the great-great-grandson of Mat Bransford, an African-American and one of Mammoth Cave’s first tour guides. Although the elder Bransford was a slave, he learned about the world’s politics, cultures, food, and fashion, thanks to wealthy international tourists who flocked here in search of adventure.
Other excursions include the Snowball Tour, which leads visitors into a gypsum-encrusted chamber. The Focus on Frozen Niagara tour, offered in summer, gives amateur shutterbugs a chance to practice cave photography without the fear of tourists tripping over their tripods. And on the Wild Cave tour, adrenaline junkies can crawl through narrow passages and muddy chambers.
If all that time underground makes you crave sunshine and fresh air, cast your line on the Green or Nolin Rivers, or hike one of the park’s many wooded paths. Or make like the locals and bring your own horse to explore up to 60 miles of trails, then camp at the equine-friendly Maple Springs Group Campground. For reservations, visit www.recreation.gov. Otherwise, book a hotel room or cottage at the Mammoth Cave Hotel in the park (starting at $59/night). Visit www.mammothcavehotel.com or call 270.758.2225.
Lexington, Kentucky, has become one of the South’s most dynamic cities. Despite its small size, it hosts some big things: the University of Kentucky, known for its competitive academics and Wildcats basketball; Calumet Farm, one of the largest and wealthiest Thoroughbred farms in the world; and Keeneland, the track where high-stakes horse races rumble to life.
Plan a Sunday drive along Old Versailles Road, famous for its mansions and the white-fenced pastures where mares and foals quietly graze. At Route 60, turn left to go to Keeneland, which sits across the road from Lexington’s airport. Races run in fall and spring, and yearling sales create international buzz in September and July.
Afterwards, stop at the Woodford Reserve distillery, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Tours cost $5 and run Tuesday through Saturday year-round, and on Sundays from April through October. Swing by the gift shop for a box of chocolate bourbon balls to bring home to friends and family.
Next, head downtown for a meal at Stella’s Kentucky Deli, a friendly café that features fried green tomatoes and hot browns (a turkey sandwich with a Southern twist). Ingredients are local, organic, and free range, putting Stella’s at the forefront of an increasingly eco-conscious city.
The historic Gratz Park Inn also serves creative Southern fare, including spicy shrimp and grits, and crème brûlée topped with Kentucky bourbon set aflame. After dinner, retire to an immaculate room; prices start at $179. For reservations, call 1.800.752.4166.
Kentucky’s parks are most beautiful in late spring and early fall—summers are generally hot and humid, and winter can bring ice and snow. Parks are open year-round, but ranger-led tours are limited in the off-season, so call ahead if you plan to go in colder months. You can find contact information on the park websites: www.nps.gov/cuga, www.nps.gov/biso, and www.nps.gov/maca.
Flights into Lexington’s airport can cost a little more than flights into Louisville, but car rentals are significantly cheaper here, and Lexington will get you closer to the Southern parks. Consider renting a car with all-wheel drive, because you might have to navigate unpaved roads.
The most logical route starts and ends in Lexington, hitting Cumberland Gap, Big South Fork, and Mammoth Cave in that order. Following that itinerary, the maximum amount of driving time between sites is three hours, but roads can be winding and poorly marked, so aim to navigate in daylight. You’ll cross a time zone and gain an hour going to Mammoth Cave but lose that hour returning east. If you have an afternoon to spare, visit Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/abli), an easy and worthwhile stop on the way back to Lexington.
If you enjoy unwinding with a glass of wine at the end of a day, note that many of the tiny gateway towns surrounding these parks are bone-dry; alcohol isn’t sold in stores or restaurants. So grab a few bottles of the local brew, bourbon, or wine in Lexington before heading south.