When pioneers Daniel Boone and Felix Walker stepped foot upon Kentucky’s beautiful land, Walker famously noted, “It appeared that nature, in the profusion of her bounty, had spread a feast for all that lives.” And so it still goes for those lucky enough to live off the land for a few days in this sleepy southern state.
The Appalachian Mountains stretch through Eastern Kentucky, offering scenic hikes galore throughout the Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau. Rock climbers will want to head to the deservedly popular Red River Gorge, a geological area that is consistently ranked as a premier climbing destination. Just north of this, Carter Caves State Resort Park offers over 20 caverns to explore.
Moving south, the Daniel Boone National Forest covers hundreds of thousands of acres in this section of Kentucky, offering a veritable outdoor playground for campers and adventurers. Hikers and rafters should check out Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, which boasts scenic hiking trails and guided rafting trips along the Cumberland River. The river is also home to Cumberland Falls, a large waterfall that earns its nickname, “Niagara of the South”, with a whopping 68-foot high drop. On clear nights, you might even catch a lunar rainbow or moonbow in its mist.
Established in 1963, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area oversees 170,000 acres tucked between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. The peninsula is one of the largest blocks of undeveloped forest in the Eastern U.S., and the area’s vast water network is a huge draw for fishing, boating, hiking, and shoreline tourism in general.
Together, the two lakes form the largest body of water between the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico, boasting 2,400 miles of shoreline between them across the western tip of Kentucky and Tennessee. The area features a nature station, working historic farm and planetarium; as well as the Fort Henry Trail System, which offers over 500 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
Lexington’s celebrated Bluegrass region surrounds Lexington with all the natural wonder of the south. Working bourbon distilleries such as The Woodford Reserve Distillery, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey offer a unique way to spend a day – and those looking to experience the breadth of the Kentucky bourbon trail can explore the 100-plus mile stretch from Louisville to Lexington. Campers can follow the Kentucky Distillers’ Association’s map at their leisure, or hop on guided tours of the area.
Dreaming of slow pedaling a bike down tree-studded country lanes, leisurely passing picture-book farms and twinkling streams? The small counties that surround Lexington offer hundreds of back road miles for putting together just this sort of laid-back biking fantasy. Families may want to check out Kentucky Horse Park, a working horse farm and educational theme park on the outskirts of Lexington; or wander south to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the largest restored Shaker village in the world.
Just a bit south of Lexington, paddlers will find a bucket list kayaking spot at one of the state’s most beautiful natural areas, the Kentucky River Palisades. The gorgeous limestone cliffs run along 100 miles of the Kentucky River, offering an intricate cave system of deep gorges and springs to explore.
Looking to get a little closer to Mother Earth? Head west, and you’ll hit Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world with over 340 miles of mapped passages.