Native Americans arrived 10,000 years ago, attracted by abundant resources of food, water, and shelter. Mary Draper Ingles was brought here by the Shawnee Indians in 1755 and chose it as the point at which she would make her legendary 800- to 1,000-mile escape back to Virginia. In 1807, at the request of President Thomas Jefferson, explorer William Clark plucked bones from the area, thereby establishing American vertebrate paleontology.
Long before any of these notables arrived, however, Big Bone Lick State Park near Union was where the buffalo roamed. Attracted to the warm salt springs in the area, the bison, along with woolly mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths, began migrating to the area during the Pleistocene period about 15,000 years ago.
The park is 546 green acres, a handful of which have been tamed to make way for a museum that exhibits some of the fossils unearthed in the area, and a gift shop that stocks made-in-Kentucky crafts, edibles, and books. It has a Nature Center, Discovery Trail, and walking/hiking trails, plus 62 campsites and numerous shaded picnic areas and playgrounds. Visitors can fish in the bass- and bluegill-stocked lake, swim in the campground pool, and play miniature golf, tennis, volleyball, basketball, softball, and horseshoes.
And then, of course, there are the bison. Follow the Discovery Trail along wetlands, grasslands, and wooded savannas to the bog where a tableau re-creates the woolly mammoth and other animals trapped in the very substance that attracted them, known as “jelly ground” by the pioneers. The trail links to Big Bone Creek Trail and through the original swampland to the Bison Trace and a live buffalo herd.
Highlighting the park’s salty heritage is the annual Salt Festival, which will be held this year, with a bit of a twist, October 19-21.
“The Salt Festival will focus not just on pioneer life, but also on prehistoric peoples in the region,” says park naturalist and anthropologist Todd Young.
“During the festival, we’re having an atlatl contest and demonstrations going all day long. Each afternoon we will hold, in conjunction with the World Atlatl Association, an atlatl throwing contest. The atlatl was a prehistoric hunting device. Most people call it a ‘spear thrower,’ but that term isn’t technically correct.”
Visitors can explore a pioneer encampment and its attendant demonstrations: salt making, tomahawk throwing, leatherwork, beading, soap making, pottery, storytelling, wood carving, weaving, open fire cooking, and dulcimer playing.
The park has also revamped its Nature Center, and has a brand-new atlatl and archery range that will be open to the public as well as an atlatl club.
Pack a picnic, tan some hide, chuck an atlatl, and see where the buffalo (still) roam.
Big Bone Lick State Park
3380 Beaver Road
Union, KY 41091
Family-friendly fun at Jane’s Saddlebag
Located inside Big Bone Lick State Park, on the shores of Big Bone Creek, is Jane’s Saddlebag, (859) 384-6617, www.bigbonelick.com. A hands-on heritage destination, the complex, open weekends April through October or any day by appointment, comprises an amphitheater, a life-size replica of a 1700s flatboat, century-old mortise and tenon barn, outdoor classrooms, petting zoo, and an eatery with such prehistoric-sounding comestibles as 1/3-pound woolly mammoth burgers and frozen Ice Age pie.
“We do not sell saddlebags,” jokes owner Nancy Jordan Blackmore. “The name is from the style of house with two front doors—very common in large Kentucky land holdings. And Jane was my husband Peter’s mother.”
Blackmore explains that the concept for Jane’s Saddlebag is based on the rich history of Big Bone and her 1998 children’s book, The Story of Big Bone Lick.
“The book is told by Tokey the talking paint horse who was named the Ambassador of Goodwill for the state of Kentucky by the Legislature. She is a big hit here, along with three other horses, a Watusi cow that will be featured this fall in the ‘moo-ternity ward,’ and llamas Dolly Llama and Obama Llama.”
Besides presenting the story of Big Bone through the book, Blackmore offers educational programs on topics including Ice Age animals, Lewis and Clark at Big Bone Lick, flatboat history, and primitive living, as well as guided farm animal tours and nature walks.
“The land here is beautiful,” says Blackmore, “and it hasn’t changed in 10,000 years.”
Between maintaining the buildings, presenting the programs, preparing the homemade victuals, and personally greeting every guest, the Blackmores keep very busy.
“We are so proud of what we have accomplished,” says Nancy. “It is a total labor of love. To be part of someone’s memories is a blessing.”
Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
On any given Saturday from March through October, world-class anglers put in at one of Lake Cumberland’s marinas on the hunt for a trophy bass. But during the first weekend in September, fishermen and pleasure boaters defer to sailors with a need for speed during the annual Lake Cumberland Poker Run.
For the past 12 years, speed boating enthusiasts from around the U.S. have come to Lake Cumberland to show off their boats and tour the lake’s marinas collecting playing cards, hoping to get the race’s winning poker hand.
“Every year, 120 speed boats compete in the poker run,” says Bill Jasper, State Dock Marina president. “It’s grown to be a big, big event.”
Jasper expects this year’s poker run, September 8-10, to be no exception even though Lake Cumberland has been drawn down to 680 feet, 43 feet lower than its normal summer depth of 723 feet, to accommodate a $309 million project to repair the 56-year-old Wolf Creek Dam. Army Corps of Engineers’ monthly visitors tally shows the lower lake level has not deterred water-loving visitors significantly. In May, Lake Cumberland visitation was 362,483, down from 483,328 in 2006, but not yet the high-season figures.
Kentucky Commerce Cabinet Secretary George Ward says some are visiting because they are curious, and there may also be an unexpected benefit of the drawdown.
“People are curious about the lake and the repairs to the dam,” he says. “Also, for the first time in a very long time, Lake Cumberland has a beach to explore, and people want to enjoy it.”
But the Lake Cumberland region is more than its centerpiece waterway. The shoreline communities of Burnside, Jamestown, Monticello, Russell Springs, and Somerset offer a full menu of special events.
Every fourth Friday and Saturday of the month from April through October, Somerset is a haven for gear heads when it hosts Somernites Cruises, a showcase for custom and classic cars and trucks.
There’s music on the lakeshore too. Bluegrass musicians take the stage at the Lake Cumberland Bluegrass Festival in Russell Springs on August 17-18. And September 9-14, those hungry for down-home cooking visit the Catfish Festival in Burnside. Besides freshly prepared catfish, the event features vendors, musical entertainment, and a bicycle race through downtown Burnside.
Later in September, Civil War history comes to life when the Mill Springs Battle Re-enactment takes place in Nancy, September 29-30.
Visit the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet at www.kytourism.com to get a handle on what’s happening around Lake Cumberland. Click on the Lake Cumberland button for real-time Web cam lake views, along with marina and boat launch updates, and events information.
Back in the 1950s, cruisin’ meant driving down Main Street in a snazzy hot rod. During Somerset’s Somernites Cruises, it still does. The event draws hundreds of custom and classic cars and their owners from April to October. For details, go online to www.somernitescruise.com.
There’s music, food, and history in the Lake Cumberland region, too.
September 8-10: Speed boats take center stage at the Lake Cumberland Poker Run at the State Dock Marina in Jamestown. Visit www.lakecumberlandpokerrun.net for more information.
August 17-18: Lake Cumberland Bluegrass Festival at the KOA Campground, Highway 1383, Russell Springs, features the best of bluegrass music along with arts and crafts vendors. Get details from Moochie Hart at (270) 566-1488.
September 14-15: Burnside Catfish Festival focuses on the bounty that comes out of Lake Cumberland. Along with freshly prepared, lake-caught catfish, you’ll find music, vendors, and a bicycle race through downtown Burnside. For more info about Burnside, go to the Burnside Tourism Commission at www.burnsidetourism.com. For details on the Burnside Catfish Festival, call Patty Guinn, (606) 561-7104.
Now through January 6: Liberty on the Border—a traveling exhibit of artifacts, documents, and memorabilia depicting how the Civil War changed lives in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland—is on view at Mill Springs Battlefield Visitors Center and Museum in Nancy. Preview the exhibit at www.millsprings.net.
September 29-30: Civil War re-enactors from the North South Alliance will fight the pivotal 1862 Battle of Mill Springs during the Mill Springs Battle Re-enactment in Nancy. Along with the re-enactment, history buffs can mingle with soldiers at the encampment, take a ghost walk through the battlefield, and witness night cannon firings. Go online to www.millsprings.net for details.