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Pickin’ and Grinnin’ on Poppy Mountain

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Pickin’ and Grinnin’ on Poppy Mountain

“There’s jamming here 24 hours a day,” says Marty Stevens, owner and operator of the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Morehead. That’s music to the ears of scores of bluegrass fans that attend.

“Poppy Mountain is one of the most spectacular festivals in the U.S., which is the Bluegrass Capital of the World,” says Don Rigsby, director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead University and an internationally recognized bluegrass musician. “Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley have played it. And Bill Monroe was booked to appear the year he died.”

Not only does the event feature big-name performers and impromptu jam sessions, but its four stages include one for youth and one where undiscovered bands can play free for attending promoters. Often those unheard-ofs leave with jobs.

Area schools come to Poppy Mountain for field trips, and all ages attend its bluegrass workshops. Stevens has put together quite a package since he turned the first spadeful of dirt on his property 15 years ago.

“The whole hillside is covered with campers and RVs a month in advance. If a festival is old and established like this one, it must be a pretty good event,” says Rigsby.

Many families plan their vacation time during the festival, now in its 13th year.

“A lot of people in this area live for this year to year and have never missed one,” says Stevens, owner of Lee’s Used Cars in Morehead. “We’ve even had four or five weddings during the festival.

“It’s just Poppy Mountain. The land is beautiful. You’ve got the east Kentucky hills and woods, blue skies, and 1,000 acres of green grass, creeks, ponds, and horses. Coming to Poppy Mountain is kind of like joining a family. Eight years ago, a little old lady started saying, ‘Happy Poppy!’ Now everyone says it.”

Slated this year for September 13-17, the annual event actually opens its gates on August 31, with a potluck Round-Up Dinner to welcome several hundred die-hard campers who come early to reserve a choice spot among some 2,000 campsites. Some stay on for the whole shebang. And that’s fine with Stevens, who provides plenty of nonmusical activities.

Attendees can get around the extensive grounds—perhaps to fish at one of several ponds, to go horseback riding, or to eat at the General Store—in one of 50 antique vehicles, including a 1955 Chevy sheriff’s car or one of several British Checker cabs. Or they can take a near life-sized, 50-seat, three-car train.

Folks are encouraged to bring their golf carts and ATVs, though both can be rented, and there’s a 20-mile ATV trail, easily seen from atop the Ferris wheel in a small carnival. Kids can play kick-the-can and laugh at clowns while 30 vendors hawk festival logo gear, performers’ music, and an array of food from “crawdads to hamburgers.”

“Ours is the largest traditional bluegrass music festival in the world,” says Stevens, and then backs up his claim. “We have upward of 20,000 people come each year. No one else has 1,000 acres…and I’m a pretty good-sized fella!”


Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival is off I-64 at the Morehead exit. Turn onto KY 32S, and take KY 60E for less than 10 minutes. The grounds are on the left. For tickets and information, call (606) 784-2277 or go online at

Ticket prices are $10 Tuesday, $15 Wednesday, $25 Thursday, $30 Friday, $35 Saturday, $85 entire week; children 12 and under free with accompanying adult.

Nosin’ Around Nearby
Bluegrass fans can ogle the handcrafts at Morehead’s Kentucky Folk Art Center, and on September 9 meet artist Minnie Atkins at a reception for Country Girls: The Works of Seven Rural Women Folk Artists (September 9 through November 28).

Fill up on art, then head to the great outdoors into the 694,985-acre Daniel Boone National Forest and around 8,270-acre Cave Run Lake. Hit the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center for maps, take a peek at state-owned Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery, and then drive the Zilpo Scenic Byway, with a stop at the 1934 Tater Knob Fire Tower for awesome views and a day hike along part of the 257-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. See the mountains on horseback at nearby DH Resorts.

Want a full breakfast, gorgeous views, and a massage? Unload your gear at Brownwood Bed & Breakfast Cabins at Cave Run Lake. If you’d rather cook your own fresh-caught bass for breakfast, bunk down at Cave Run Lodging. Fish not biting? Haul your hungry self to the Pig Out BBQ, where the name says it all.

Brownwood Bed & Breakfast Cabins:
(606) 784-8799 or

Cave Run Lake:
(606) 784-5624

Cave Run Lodging:
(888) 276-8759 or

Daniel Boone National Forest, Morehead District:
(606) 784-6428 or

DH Resorts:
(800) 737-RIDE or

Kentucky Folk Art Center:
(606) 783-2204 or

Morehead Tourism:
(800) 654-1944 or

Pig Out BBQ:
(606) 784-6378

Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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At least one generation of Kentuckians has missed out on a train ride experience. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are several active railroads across the state that offer real train rides as well as telling the history the railroad played in the development of Kentucky. You can even plan a mini-vacation around nothing but trains if you are so inclined. Combine the rides with several museums, restored depots, and rail cars, and you will quickly realize the opportunities available for a family trip that provides both fun and an education.

You might be surprised to learn that one of America’s most famous railroaders, Casey Jones, was a Kentuckian. The famous engineer of the Cannonball Express lived in Cayce, and though his name was John Luther Jones, he picked up this nickname from his hometown. His first job on the railroad was here.

My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown serves up an elegant dining experience while riding the train. A four-course dinner, served on white tablecloths with top-of-the line dinnerware, allows visitors to see what rail travelers of bygone days enjoyed. At certain times throughout the year, passengers are treated to a who-done-it play in which they actually become characters in the drama. All of this is going on as the train slowly chugs its way through Kentucky’s bourbon country. Specially designed kitchen cars can serve up to 125 passengers, and reservations are a must.

Just a few miles from Bardstown is the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven. Opened in 1954, it is one of the nation’s oldest museums of its kind. Restored L&N engine Old No. 152 provides passenger rides on select weekends and holidays for a 22-mile trip. The 100-year-old engine has a distinguished history. In 1912, it towed a re-election campaign train for President Teddy Roosevelt, and in 1927, it pulled a flood inspection train with Herbert Hoover aboard. Harry Truman rode the train across Kentucky in the early 1950s.

Visitors can enjoy nearby Sherwood Inn, an old restored hotel with a sit-down dining room, and within walking distance there’s an ice cream/sandwich shop.

The Bluegrass Railroad Museum in Versailles features a 5-1/2-mile excursion into the countryside. The track was once used by the Louisville Southern Railroad, and the adjacent museum displays vintage rail equipment and memorabilia.

In the eastern part of the state is Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Stearns. Your train ride is on tracks once used mostly for the transportation of coal and timber. It includes stopovers at two coal camps along the way for eating, shopping, or just relaxing.

Fall is a great time to plan a railroad experience for you and your family; however, you are encouraged to phone ahead and check Web sites for schedules.


Big South Fork Scenic Railway
100 Henderson Street, Stearns
(800) 462-5664
Tickets sold first-come first-serve; reservations 15 or more. Varied schedule now through first three weeks of December.

Bluegrass Railroad Museum
175 Beasley Road, Versailles
(800) 755-2476

Kentucky Railway Museum
136 South Main, New Haven
(800) 272-0152
Now through October 31, weekends only.

My Old Kentucky Dinner Train
602 N. Third Street, Bardstown
(866) 801-3463
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday; lunch Saturday only. Recommended reservations two weeks in advance.

Other Trains and Things
Caldwell Railroad Museum–Princeton
Exit east from Western Kentucky Parkway.
Memorabilia and caboose exhibits.
(270) 365-0582

Elkhorn City Railroad Museum–Pike County
20 miles from Pikeville on Rt. 80.
History of rail life along the Kentucky-Virginia state line.
(606) 754-8300

Historic Rail Park–Bowling Green
401 Kentucky Street
Restored depot with static displays of L&N.
Presidential Car, Duncan Hines Dining Car, and Pullman Sleeper.
Scheduled tours by reservation.
Festival of Trains second Saturday in December.
(270) 745-0090

Stanford Historic L&N Depot–Lincoln County
History of Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 12 noon to 4 p.m.
(606) 365-0207

Lynch L&N Depot–Harlan County
Built in 1930, locomotive and caboose.
(606) 848-1530

Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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