Planning a Park Vacation?
Blessed with 52 appealing parks—more than any other state—it’s not easy to choose a park to visit in Kentucky, so we hope our parks planning guide will help
The seven million folks who visit Kentucky’s 52 state parks annually are in for an added treat this year: in addition to the forested beauty, the recreational opportunities, and the oft-ballyhooed Southern-style hospitality, there are comfy new beds in all the resort parks, as well as hair dryers, ironing boards, and other personal care amenities in all the guest rooms, and 27-inch television sets in the guest rooms and cottages.
There are 24 state parks, 11 state historic sites, and 17 resort parks, so designated because they have a lodge. The most recent additions are Pine Mountain Trail State Park in the southeast; Kentucky, Fishtrap Lake and Wildlife Center in Pike County in the east; and Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, an archaeological research center located in the far western part of the state about 20 miles from Paducah.
The parks are a lure to travelers of every stripe, from history buffs to horseback riders to honeymooners. Vacationers seeking top-tier accommodations are graciously welcomed at Barren River Lake State Resort Park, among other resort parks; those looking for more barebones digs are rewarded with rustic simplicity at Pine Mountain. Golfers appreciate the challenging and scenic courses at Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park and Grayson Lake, both voted by Golf Digest as being among the nation’s best new affordable public golf courses.
According to Kentucky Department of Parks Information Officer Jim Carroll, tradition dictates that honeymooners head to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in the Daniel Boone National Forest, known as the “Niagara of the South” because of its 125-foot-wide cascade. Depending on their interests, families are well-served at many of the parks. The largest selection of cottages is at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, with six three-bedroom and 34 two-bedroom cottages. General Butler State Resort Park also has three-bedroom cottages.
“All resort parks have children’s activities throughout the year, with programs planned daily in the summer,” says Carroll. “Most resorts also have naturalists and/or recreation directors.”
No matter what your interests, there is a Kentucky state park for you. Many of the parks offer year-round interpretive programs focusing on native plants, animals, and local history under the direction of a full-time recreation specialist. During the summer, daily activities are offered. By no means all the activities or parks, here are a few suggestions to help you in planning your visit.
John James Audubon State Park
Located just south of the Ohio River in the western part of the state, this park preserves the peaceful woods where the famed naturalist once walked, observing the subjects of his paintings—birds. The John James Audubon Museum and Nature Center houses a unique collection of Audubon’s watercolors, oils, engravings, and personal memorabilia, put into perspective with a world event timeline. The Nature Center features a wildlife observatory and a Discovery Center, as well as a Learning Center where the park naturalist and art educator conduct environmental and art programs.
Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site
The Civil War comes to life in the Perryville Battlefield Museum (open daily April 1 through October 31). This historic site is home to one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, one that involved thousands of troops, and is considered the most important Civil War engagement fought in Kentucky. The museum contains battle artifacts, a Civil War display, and a map with the layout of the 1862 battle.
White Hall State Historic Site
Visit this historic site to learn more about one of Kentucky’s most colorful historic figures: Cassius Marcellus Clay, “noted emancipationist, politician, publisher, Minister to Russia, and friend to Abraham Lincoln.” The Georgian-style brick home, Clermont, or the “old building” as Clay referred to his father’s home, was built in 1798-1799 and defined simple sophistication on the frontier.
Fort Boonesborough State Park
Return to Kentucky’s storied pioneer past with a visit to Fort Boonesborough State Park, where Daniel Boone constructed several log huts in a sycamore hollow in 1775.
Today, Boone’s original settlement has been reconstructed as a working fort, complete with blockhouses, cabins, and period furnishings, with resident artisans performing 18th-century pioneer craft demonstrations. New to the park is the Kentucky River Museum (open daily April 1 through October 31), which narrates the history of the development of commerce on the river through tours of a complex of several buildings, including the original lock house, or family residence, that is located on the river at the dam, complete with furnishings.
Old Fort Harrod State Park
Plan at least a full day to tour Old Fort Harrod State Park, a living-history museum with furnished cabins and blockhouses, where craftspeople dressed in period clothing perform pioneer tasks (mid-April through October 31) such as weaving, woodworking, and broom-making. Other attractions: the Mansion Museum, the Pioneer Cemetery, and the Lincoln Marriage Temple.
In the elegant Greek Revival Mansion Museum, there is a gun collection with nearly 50 rifles dating from pioneer days to the late 18th century, and a nearly 100-piece collection of handguns, including a tiny pistol disguised as a writing pen, dating from the early 1900s.
Lake Cumberland State Resort Park
With 50,250 acres, Lake Cumberland has a reputation as one of the finest fishing and pleasure boating areas in the eastern United States, and has an abundance of largemouth, smallmouth, white and Kentucky bass, bluegill, crappie, rockfish, and walleye. Guests will also find the only indoor pool complex in Kentucky’s park system at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park.
Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Situated on the shores of a large man-made lake, Lake Barkley is a natural lure for fishermen. Cast for largemouth, white and Kentucky bass, bluegill, channel catfish, and crappie on a 57,920-acre lake that is a boating paradise with 112 covered slips, 60 open slips, and a launching ramp. Rental fishing boats, pontoon boats, and ski boats are available.
Carter Caves State Resort Park
Spelunkers know to head to Carter Caves State Resort Park, home to more than 20 caverns, four of which offer tours: the beautiful Cascade Cave with an underground waterfall more than 30 feet high; the mysterious and dramatic X Cave; Saltpetre Cave, which is tied to early Kentucky history; and Bat Cave, the largest cave in the park and winter home to thousands of rare bats. Two other caves, Wild Caves Laurel Cave and Horn Hollow Cave, can be explored unguided with a permit (at the Welcome Center, no charge).
Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park
The 18-hole Dale Hollow course plays along a hilly terrain. The No. 8 par 5 hole measures 539 yards; its green is framed by a waterfall and small cave.
Grayson Lake State Park
At Grayson Lake State Park, the course encircles the lake on rolling terrain. The par 5, 647-yard No. 9 demands precise shots, being protected by five fairway bunkers.
Says Parks Commissioner George Ward: “Both courses offer interesting, challenging play for all levels of golfers, are well laid out, and blend nicely into the natural environment.”
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Nature lovers appreciate the 17 miles of hiking trails that wind through this park, including the eloquently named Moonbow Trail that connects with many backpacking trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The park is known for its 125-foot-wide Cumberland Falls that plunges 60 feet into the boulder-strewn gorge below. On a clear night during a full moon, its mist creates a magical moonbow, a unique phenomenon appearing nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere.
You’ll also find designated hiking trails at the majority of Kentucky’s state parks.
Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park
Horseback riders head to Dale Hollow with its 15 miles of trails wending along old logging roads atop narrow ridges through the park’s protected forestlands. Spy wild turkey, fox, migrating waterfowl, and bald eagles from your saddle. Twenty-four campsites offer horse tie-ups and adjoin riding trails.
Taylorsville Lake State Park
Wranglers love Taylorsville Lake State Park, perched on a 3,050-acre lake and home to some of the most spectacular riding country in the state along a 16-mile trail system.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
In the heart of the Bluegrass at Federal Hill—otherwise known as My Old Kentucky Home—Stephen Foster: The Musical (June 11-August 20) recalls the composer who lived most of his life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and gave the 15th state its poignant anthem, My Old Kentucky Home, and America its first pop tune, Oh! Susanna. His songs are all belted out in an 1850s setting by performers in delightfully vivid period costumes. Also playing: Grease (July 7 through August 20). The park’s theatricality extends to the antebellum costumed guides who lead tours through Federal Hill, which is much as it was when Foster was a guest here in 1852.
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park
The boards are busy every summer at the amphitheater of this state park/mountain retreat located deep in the heart of the Appalachians, and given a splash of water color with the scenic 1,100-acre Dewey Lake. The 2005 season presents: Disney's Beauty and the Beast (June 10-August 20); Steel Magnolias (June 17-August 16); Jesus Christ Superstar (July 1-August 19); and Isn't It Romantic: An Evening of Love Songs (July 29 and 30).
Nearby in Prestonsburg is the Mountain Arts Center (www.macarts.com), home of the Kentucky Opry and year-round performing arts.
Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park
Home of the largest marina in the park system, on the largest lake in the state, it’s no wonder this is the park that boaters head to for summer water sports. A bonus of this area is Land Between The Lakes, a 40-mile-long nature conservation area bordered by Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. The Kentucky Dam Marina (open March 1 through October 31) features overnight dockage, rental fishing boats, pontoon boats, and ski boats. Other activities: pedal boats, swimming, and fishing.
Kenlake State Resort Park
With its proximity to Land Between The Lakes, Kenlake State Resort Park is a nature lover’s paradise. And heavily wooded Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park is a perfect back-to-nature hideaway in the midst of a secluded, lush forest.
Kenlake State Resort Park has something that no other park can claim: groundskeeping that rivals anything seen on Home & Garden Television. Guests are immersed in vibrant color at the park entrance, where the entrance road median bursts with yellows, purples, greens, and reds. After a short drive, the resort lodge comes into view. There is color everywhere as an elaborate garden beckons guests. The floral displays are a tradition dating back to the park’s early years, according to park manager Mark McLemore.
Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
When you want to get away from it all, head to Buckhorn Lake, described by the parks department as “nestled among hills that time forgot.”
“We’re isolated, but that’s the attraction,” says recreational supervisor Sue Thomas. “All of our rooms have a balcony or patio with a mountain vista and overlook the lake, so you get the fog rising off the lake in the morning.”
With a full-service marina with seasonal pontoon and fishing boats, birding, beaching, and hiking, there is plenty to do for those who wish to pursue a more active agenda, and there is the quiet, forested beauty of the park for those who wish to simply be and observe.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: TIPS ON PLANNING YOUR PARK VISIT
To easily research and plan your own visit to Kentucky’s state parks, go on the Web to www.parks.ky.gov. Simply click on the areas at the top—I-75 Region, I-65 Region, West Kentucky, East Kentucky— and you’ll see a chart that details 16 different categories of amenities and activities.
For the inside scoop on planning your visit to a Kentucky state park—from pets to wireless access or best times to visit, click here: state park tips