Each April, visitors show up in masses to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont to celebrate nature’s vibrant rebirth.
In fact, the park welcomes more than 230,000 visitors per year, and no matter the season, rest assured there’s always something to do, and that no two visits will look alike.
In 1929, German immigrant Isaac Bernheim founded the park as a gift to all Kentuckians out of gratitude for his fortune made as a whiskey distiller. The facility has been open to the public since 1950, and is designated by the state as Kentucky’s Official Arboretum.
Within Bernheim’s 12,000-acre research forest, park and university researchers inventory plants and animals on-site, or research particular species.
It’s also a haven for wildflower, fishing, hiking, biking, and bird-watching enthusiasts, or those looking for a break from the daily grind.
“It’s just a great, peaceful, relaxing atmosphere, a place to come and experience nature and catch your breath,” says Bernheim Director of Marketing and Development Mike Nolan.
A new visitors center opened in 2005 that will also take your breath away. The American Institute of Architects agreed, bestowing the center with a 2005 Honor Award for excellence in design.
With floor-to-soaring-ceiling windows overlooking stately trees, the center was constructed with wood native to Kentucky. Rustic Kentucky-crafted willow furniture assumes a comfortable contrast alongside computer screens flashing an assortment of flower and insect photographs. Here, you can select and print off trail maps, pick up brochures, or ask questions of friendly park staff.
“We can point you toward trails that are appropriate given your interests and your time,” Nolan says.
Tours are mainly self-guided, though on most weekends there are informal guided programs of some sort, Nolan says. The longest trail is the Millennium Trail, at 13 miles long—hikers eager for this challenge are asked to sign in at the visitors center.
Just past the gift shop, with its nature-inspired books, gifts, and souvenirs, is Isaac’s Café, which serves salads, sandwiches, sides, and desserts to eat in or take outdoors as boxed lunches for picnicking.
At the information desk, visitors can check out hand-held computers to use at designated “infospot” sign markers around the park to access information and photos of different trees, plants, or even the visitors center itself. The computers can be tailored for general use, youth, or advanced users.
Pets on leashes are welcomed outdoors, but picking leaves, berries, flowers, or other plant specimens is not allowed without a permit. Fishing is allowed on the banks of Lake Nevin, and bicycling is on paved roads only.
“A visit of Bernheim has a lot of different faces, depending on what your interest is,” Nolan says.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
I-65, Exit 112, on Kentucky 245 in Clermont,
• Park hours 7 a.m. to sunset (closed December 25 and January 1). Visitors center, art gallery, and nature shop are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (until 6 p.m. summer weekends). Isaac’s Café is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, closed Mondays. Menus change weekly.
• Within 14,000 acres, 2,000 are publicly accessible, with the remainder a research forest. The park has a 250-acre arboretum, 30+ miles of hiking trails, bicycling on 16 miles of paved roadways, picnicking, playground, fishing, classes, workshops, and school programs. Saturday and Sunday, April 8-9, is Arbor Day at Bernheim, with tree giveaways and workshops. The grand opening of the Canopy Tree Walk will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, where you can walk a pier into the tree tops.
• Weekdays are admission-free; weekends and holidays admission is $5 per car, minivan, or motorcycle; $10 per passenger van or RV; $20 per bus. Admission is always free with paid membership.
While in Bullitt County
Kart Kountry: The longest go-cart track in Kentucky and America draws more than 100,000 visitors annually. Arcade, batting cages, mini golf course, bumper boats. I-65, Exit 117, Shepherdsville, on Paroquet Springs Drive. Open March-November, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m.–11 p.m. weekends fall/spring; and 10 a.m.–midnight in summer. Call (502) 543-9588 or go online to www.gokartkountry.com.
Hawks View Gallery: International artist Bernie North welcomes you to browse, buy, or watch the creation of handblown glass art during free, self-guided tours, Monday–Thursday at 170 Carter Avenue, Hillview. Hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Saturday; (502) 955-1010.
The Kitchen: 120 S. Lakeview Drive, Shepherdsville, open 24 hours (closed Christmas). Home cooking; (502) 543-4219.
Country Cupboard: 345 Buckman Street, Shepherdsville, lunch only, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays. Home-cooked specialties; (502) 543-2780.
Shannon Leonard-Boone is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
Rick Fuller can tell you why the black bears left the Kingdom Come State Park area some 100 years ago: the mining and timber industries had pretty much decimated the forestlands.
The forest gradually re-established itself, covering most of eastern and southeastern Kentucky again by the 1950s through 1970s—a period when young bears were being pushed out of territories in some neighboring states where they were born and were seeking new habitats safe from the older males. Miners in the region at that time began reporting the presence of bears in Kentucky.
“The more remote regions in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee kept their populations and they eventually became the source of our black bears,” says Fuller. “These young bears can travel hundreds of miles from where they were born. What they found here in eastern and southeastern Kentucky was an enormous area of old habitat that had regrown but wasn’t inhabited.”
According to Fuller, these younger bears (probably all male at this point) grew to maturity and were most likely bigger than the bears that originally pushed them out of the region. These mature bears would then try to return to their home regions for breeding purposes.
What the park ranger can’t tell you is why, exactly, the bears started coming back to this corner of Kentucky—now a hot spot of black bear activity.
“No one knows for sure when or why, but somewhere in the mid- to late-1980s, females began to re-enter the state,” he explained. “Normally, a female will share her territory with daughters or her daughters’ territory will be nearby; they don’t spread as fast as the males do. With the return of the females, our black bear population began to grow much faster until now we see cubs and females on a regular basis, where as little as five years ago we weren’t even sure if we had any.”
Some 30 to 35 bears call the Kingdom Come area home, lumbering and cavorting through the park that is located in Cumberland near the Virginia border. They are the primary reason that park attendance has steadily increased—anywhere from 10 to 25 percent, depending on the time of year—over the years.
Bear sightings were rare in the 1980s. A few were spotted in the early 1990s; several years later, they were seen more often. By the turn of this century, bear sightings had become a regular occurrence.
“Beginning about 2001, word began spreading that you could see black bears in the park,” says Fuller. “Now in the summertime, we’re to a point where we’re seeing the bears nearly every single day. It’s gone from one or two sightings a year to almost daily sightings.”
Bears are a major draw to the park named after The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, a popular novel set in Civil War Kentucky written in 1903 by Appalachian author John Fox Jr., but there are other attractions, too. Amidst the park’s nearly 1,300 acres of wilderness, forest, caves, and rock formations—including one that lurches 290 feet into the air at a 45-degree angle—are hiking trails, including the Pine Mountain Trail, picnicking, a lake for fishing and paddle boating, a 225-acre nature preserve on the north face of Pine Mountain, and a gift shop.
For more information, contact Kingdom Come State Park, 502 Park Road, Cumberland, KY 40823, (606) 589-2479, or go on the Web to http://parks.ky.gov.
Kingdom Come State Park is but one attraction located on the Kingdom Come Scenic Parkway, which wends its way between the rugged Pine and Black mountains. Other attractions are the Kentucky Coal Museum, Benham Schoolhouse Inn, Sleepy Hollow Golf Course, and Portal No. 31 Mine and its Exhibition Mine Tour, a new exciting and educational exhibit due to open this month in Lynch.
“The exhibit really can be compared to Disney theme park rides,” says Phyllis Sizemore, assistant curator of the Kentucky Coal Museum in nearby Benham. “There is a rail car ride that winds deep inside Loony Spur of Black Mountain through the old shafts of one of the most productive coal mines of the early 1900s. Robotic exhibits will trace the history of coal mining through the century in a culturally diverse Appalachian coal camp.”
The Kentucky Coal Museum has expanded on the historical story of the coal camps and miners, creating a compelling narrative through exhibits featuring mining tools and equipment, a mock coal mine, town and home exhibits, and a Loretta Lynn exhibit.
For more information about Portal 31, Kentucky Coal Museum, and the Lamphouse Museum, call (606) 848-1530 or go online to www.kingdomcome.org.
Black Bear Festival returns
The Third Annual Black Bear Festival takes place this year May 12-13 at the Isaac Memorial Rotary Park in downtown Cumberland and in Kingdom Come State Park.
Enjoy a host of activities: amusement rides, live bluegrass and country music, food, craft demonstrations and sales, black bear merchandise, and Ju Ju Choo Choo, a small train ride.
At Kingdom Come State Park, there will be black bear educational programs, plus fishing and archery, as well as hands-on demonstrations and displays by the UK College of Agriculture and Harlan County Extension Service, including tracking methods and making animal tracks, among others.
For more information, contact the Cumberland Tourist Commission at (606) 589-5812 or online at www.kingdomcome.org, or contact Kingdom Come State Park at (606) 589-2479 or online at http://parks.ky.gov.
Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.