WORTH THE TRIP
National park-it in Kentucky
Historic national parks, trails, and sites offer something for everyone
Tales of the wonders of Mammoth Cave have been luring tourists into its shadowy depths since 1816.
To date, with 367 miles mapped and surveyed, Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world and is but one of five Kentucky parklands run by the National Park Service.
Said to have been called a "grand, gloomy, and peculiar place" by early guide Stephen Bishop, the cave remains a near-constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit. The park offers tours of the caveďż˝s vast chambers and complex labyrinths that range from easy strolling to strenuous, priced from $4 to $48. Guests get to "see" total blackness when lights are doused, smell the dank, earthy air, and marvel at eyeless cave fish.
If you're trying to avoid vacation crowds, consider the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the Southeast Kentucky-Tennessee border. Established in 1974, the 125,000-acre nature lovers' goldmine has 150 miles of hiking trails, 200 miles of horse trails, a 113-foot-high waterfall (the tallest in Kentucky), towering sandstone arches, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River for paddlers and fishermen, and campgrounds for humans and horses.
Adventurous souls can hike or ride a horse for a backcountry stay at Charit Creek Lodge.
"Our park is not as heavily visited as the Smokies or Mammoth Cave," says Howard Duncan, branch chief of visitor services. "That appeals to a lot of people. Also, we have attractions for folks who aren't adventure-minded or perhaps don't have the ability to enjoy the remote and wild areas of the park."
For instance, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway chugs roundtrip through 16 miles of breathtaking scenery to the restored Blue Heron mining camp.
Another eastern Kentucky gem on the Cumberland Plateau, the Red River Gorge National Geological Area is tucked within the 707,000-acre Daniel Boone National Forest in the Appalachian foothills. Other congressional designations in the gorge include a National Natural Landmark, Wilderness Area, Wild and Scenic River, and Scenic Byway.
Within its 41,000-plus acres of forested terrain, hundreds of miles of sandstone cliffs draw rock climbers from around the world; the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail winds 269 miles; Cave Run Lake, Laurel Lake, and Lake Cumberland jump with fish; and campers revel in natural beauty year-round.
When visiting, stop first at the Gladie Cultural Environmental Learning Center for maps, passes, and information. Then find your own corner of the gorge.
"If you're an adrenalin adventure-seeker looking for hard-core rock climbing, a leaf-peeper looking for brilliant fall colors, or a family with kids looking to have a picnic and short hike, you can do it all here," says Jessica Santangelo, the center's director.
Doing it all has a different connotation in western Kentucky at Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL), a 170,000-acre inland peninsula formed when the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers were impounded to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. You can learn about the history of the land at the Golden Pond Visitor Center; stargaze at a planetarium and observatory; immerse yourself in 19th-century rural culture at The HomePlace; and take a dip in a cool pool at Lake Barkley State Resort Park.
"On a recent visitor survey, we found the one thing most people want is to see wildlife, and we offer several types of experiences," says Kathryn Harper, communications manager for LBL. "You can drive through the 700-acre elk and bison prairie and possibly see those animals from your car. Or while hiking the backwoods, you may see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and even bald eagles in season. And if you're really lucky, you might spot a bobcat."
"One of Kentucky's treasures is its scenery,"says Scott Teodorski, park ranger at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Below his park's Pinnacle Overlook spreads a panorama of the confluence of corners of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and the ghost of the Wilderness Road traversing through Cumberland Gap, the first great gateway to the West.
"The history here is phenomenal," Teodorski says. "You come face to face with the era when Native Americans, long hunters, pioneers, and Civil War soldiers traveled this route through the mountains into the wilderness of Kentucky."
History comes alive at these national sites
The boyhood of the 16th U.S. president is explored at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, where Abe lived until age 7 and first saw slaves being taken south to be sold. Take a "Walk through Lincoln's Life" at a park event September 8 and 9, and link through the Web site to other Lincoln-related Kentucky attractions.
In 1838, the U.S. government expelled 16,000 Cherokee people from their Eastern homelands, forcing them to march or go by river 1,000 miles to designated Indian territory in Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail honors them, including the 4,000 who died as a result of the removal. Six official Kentucky sites include Hopkinsville's Trail of Tears Commemorative Park, a spot used as a winter encampment. The first full weekend after Labor Day, Hopkinsville sponsors a powwow open to the public.
Park and area information, including overnight lodging
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
Big South Fork Scenic Railway
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Pine Mountain State Resort Park
Daniel Boone National Forest
Eastern Kentucky from Morehead to the Tennessee line
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area
Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake
Both lakes surround the LBL area with resort parks located at each.
Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
(877) 444-6777 (reservations only)
(270) 758-2180 (park info)
Wigwam Village #2
Red River Gorge National Geological Area
Torrent Falls Resort Climbing Adventure
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
Six sites in western Kentucky
Trail of Tears Commemorative Park