Hitting the trails in Kentucky is not just a hike in the woods. Well-defined and thematic trails criss-cross the state and encompass related attractions, restaurants, and accommodations, inviting travelers to pursue a favorite interest or hobby to their heart’s desire.
Kentucky has trails for historical figures, including Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and—as of February—one for Abraham Lincoln, who each left a big footprint. Some trails celebrate the bounty the Bluegrass is blessed with: bourbon, barbecue, music, and artisans. One trail marks the state’s role in one of the most dramatic chapters in U.S. history, the Civil War. And creating drama on a different stage, another trail wends its way from one outdoor theater to another.
We don’t have the space to cover all the trails, but here is a glimpse into a few of them.
Hidden Heritage of Art
The Artisan Heritage Trail is a paean to Kentucky’s working craftspeople. Unique in scope and subdivided geographically into 17 sub-trails, it covers all of Appalachian Kentucky. At just about every bend in the road, art appreciators will discover fine, handcrafted products and collectibles: brooms, candles, ceramics, glassworks, jewelry, sculptures, textiles—even homespun, cornhusk clay-sculpted dolls.
The Artisan Heritage Trail was created to share eastern Kentucky’s many hidden treasures—scenically, historically, and culturally—and to help the many small businesses in the region get the word out about their unique crafts and products.
“Most folks associate artwork with galleries, festivals, and exhibits,” says Diana Kilburn, a watercolorist on the Millstone Trail. “The most important aspect of visiting artists on the Artisan Heritage Trail is the connection with the artist and their work.”
Unwinding through Mt. Vernon, Livingston, East Bernstadt, London, and Corbin, the Millstone Trail visits the Dog Patch Trading Post (one of the state’s oldest gift shops), charming bed and breakfasts, local eateries, antique shops, and artists’ galleries, including the Kentucky Craftsman, whose crafts are made from recyclable wood materials, and the Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site, named for the frontiersman who preceded Daniel Boone into Kentucky territory by 17 years.
“For arts lovers, the trail makes it easy to find and visit artisan studios and galleries,” says Kathy Werking, Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail project manager. “The diversity on these trails—the antique shops, bed and breakfasts, regional restaurants, scenic and historic sites, and agricultural producers, in addition to the artists—offers travelers the ability to plan every aspect of their journey.”
Barbecue and Bluegrass Feed the Senses
Combine a couple major attractions with a meal that makes your mouth water, and what do you have? A trail that blazes a succulent path right through the birthplace—Rosine—of the Father of Bluegrass Music. The Kentucky Barbeque and Bluegrass Trail offers the best in food and music.
“No other region in the world is both the birthplace of Bill Monroe and the host region for the only international museum for all of bluegrass music,” says Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro.
The museum houses the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, a tribute to the pioneers of bluegrass music, a variety of historically significant instruments, and a timeline that follows the roots of bluegrass music and Monroe’s role in originating the genre.
Gray says two of the region’s unique assets—bluegrass and barbecue—are a natural for drawing people. In fact, the International Bar-B-Q Festival, held annually every second weekend in May, draws crowds of up to 80,000. And bluegrass aficionados from all over the world make pilgrimages not only to Monroe’s birthplace, a trim, white clapboard home perched near the summit of Jerusalem Ridge, but to the charmingly ramshackle Rosine Barn Jamboree—the last stage on which Monroe performed—and its next-door neighbor, the Rosine General Store. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Of course, you can eat barbecue in many places,” says Gray. “But this area is home to several unique culinary traditions, including mutton barbecue.”
One of Owensboro’s barbecue joints serving this specialty is Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. World-famous for its mutton, plus beef, chicken, pork, and ribs slow-cooked over a hickory log fire in custom-built pits, it has been featured on The Food Network and was selected as one of America’s top 10 barbecues by Epicurious.com, a CondéNet site.
The trail brings out the best in western Kentucky, with visits to the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah, Henderson’s Fine Arts Center, Patti’s 1880’s Settlement restaurant in Grand Rivers, and Princeton’s Adsmore House & Gardens. Also on the trail are Bowling Green’s Kentucky Museum, Lost River Cave, and the National Corvette Museum; the Pratt Museum at Fort Campbell; and in Hopkinsville, the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park and Pennyroyal Area Museum.
“Bluegrass music is becoming so popular that it’s now being played in 75 nations,” says Gray. “Even those with just a casual interest in barbecue, bluegrass, Kentucky history, or music history may enjoy a truly in-depth experience.”
History Served Straight Up
From modest origins in 1999 to mega attendance numbers, Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail encompasses a clutch of working distilleries making more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.
“It’s unique to Kentucky,” says Ed O’Daniel, past president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and former state senator. “You can’t go anyplace else in the world and see bourbon made—at least not on any scale. And the distilleries are all located in such beautiful settings of rolling, green countryside.”
The distilleries are also historic. According to O’Daniel, most of the facilities have been used for the purpose of making Kentucky bourbon for more than 100 years and some for as long as 200. Facilities tend to be state-of-the-art and typically include museum or visitor center, multimedia presentations, gift shops, and top-of-the-line tasting rooms on the premises.
In the Bardstown area: Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center, America’s largest independent family-owned producer and marketer of distilled spirits; Jim Beam, the world’s largest bourbon distiller; and Maker’s Mark, the nation’s oldest working distillery still on its original site, a National Historic Landmark.
In the Frankfort area and connected by the scenic Bluegrass Parkway: Buffalo Trace, whose highly decorated whiskey is aged in century-old warehouses; Four Roses, which dates back to the 1860s, now operating in a distinctive Spanish Mission-style facility built in 1911; Woodford Reserve, a National Historic Landmark known for premium small-batch bourbon and made on the site chosen in 1812 by bourbon pioneer Elijah Pepper; and Wild Turkey, with its unique 40-foot-high column still, hand-crafted oak barrels, and timber warehouses. All are within a leisurely day’s drive.
“The industry is on fire in terms of growth,” says O’Daniel, who notes that current production levels have returned to more than a million barrels of bourbon annually for the first time since 1973.
“Kentuckians are famous for their pride in Kentucky traditions, and there’s nothing more traditional in Kentucky than bourbon. It’s truly a chapter—and a huge one at that—of the history of the state.”
Music Culture in the Foothills
Country, gospel, bluegrass, and folk music traditions have flourished in the foothills of the Cumberland and Appalachian mountains in central and eastern Kentucky as long as there has been coal beneath the land.
The 200-plus mile Kentucky Music Trail, which begins in the folk arts and crafts town of Berea, travels through a constantly changing landscape, and concludes in Ashland, celebrates the state’s musical heritage, paying tribute to homegrown talents Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Billy Ray Cyrus, and others. Much of that heritage is concentrated along the Country Music Highway (Route 23), a byway of the larger Kentucky Music Trail.
“The Country Music Highway is a rich music area that looks at the culture and tradition of music,” says Bob Gates, program director of the inter-agency program of the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Arts Council. “More than Music,” a guided heritage tour of Route 23 available at the Society’s 1792 Store, introduces the people and places that define the region.
“You get to hear the voices of the people who live along the trail. You get to see the wide range and deep culture that explains why these country music stars are there.”
And he adds, “It is a slice of everyday life of people and their art forms. It is a glimpse at where some of these country music stars got their art from.”
Highlights of the Kentucky Music Trail include the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Renfro Valley, the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, and Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg, plus heritage sites like the living-history village of Mountain Home Place and Butcher Hollow, where Loretta Lynn grew up.
“Music is such a huge part of our heritage,” says Keith Caudill, executive director of the Mountain Arts Center. “It’s part of what makes us who we are and we enjoy sharing that with our visitors.” During the summer, a series of concerts are presented, some headlining one of Kentucky’s musical prodigies, at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg and at the Paramount Arts Center, the historic 1931 theater made famous as the site of the filming of Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart.
“Everybody asks if there’s something in the water (in eastern Kentucky) because of the abundance of music stars,” says Gates, “but it’s the culture.”
Trip the Lights Fantastic
The directors at Kentucky’s outdoor theaters got together several years ago and organized themselves into the Kentucky Summer Theatre Trail. With a click on its Web site, theater-goers can follow the boards across the state, from rural burgs to big cities, and enjoy a variety of quality summer theater.
“It’s possible to get on one of the east-west highways and find a theater within just a few miles,” says Shirley Johnson, producer-director at the professional, nonprofit Twilight Cabaret Productions in Gilbertsville. The theater, third oldest in the state, produces a comedy during June and July, offers a Holiday Dinner Experience in December, and Mystery Theatre with dinner in January.
Stretching from Prestonsburg to Mayfield, the venues are Jenny Wiley Theatre, Kincaid Regional Theatre in Falmouth, Music Theatre Louisville, Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Stephen Foster—The Musical in Bardstown, Kentucky Repertory Theatre in Horse Cave near Mammoth Cave, Pine Knob Theatre, and Twilight Cabaret.
“With some of the theaters, which were created and built by ourselves and families, we have a personal interest in seeing that we continue to operate and bring visitors to our communities,” says Honus Shain, producer-manager at Pine Knob Theatre. The theater produces five different shows each summer, June through September (with a sixth, an Elvis tribute, being added this year in August), at its Caneyville facility that also includes several dining options: fish and steak at Delilah’s, a backyard cookout at picnic tables under the trees, and buffet service in a private train dining car.
Each of the theaters has a unique stage presence, from the forested backdrops at Jenny Wiley Theatre and Stephen Foster—The Musical, to the city scrim of Music Theatre Louisville and the pioneering Kentucky Repertory Theatre, and the historic Pioneer Playhouse—Kentucky’s first outdoor theater whose piecemeal architecture includes everything from World War II army barracks to movie sets from Hollywood’s “Golden Era”—to the cultural élan blended with rural surroundings of the other theaters on the trail.
From music beneath the stars to crafts inspired by the Bluegrass, its scenery and sensibility, to spirits and song and creative revelry, each of Kentucky’s trails offers a unique slice of life, culture, and history.
MORE INFORMATION ON FEATURED TRAILS
The Artisan Heritage Trail, (859) 622-2334, www.kaht.com, is a Web-based project created by the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail. The site is constantly updated and includes the artists, antique shops, bed and breakfasts, regional restaurants, scenic and historic sites, and agricultural producers on 17 sub-trails, plus photographs, venue descriptions, contact information, and driving directions.
Barbeque and Bluegrass Trail, www.kentuckytourism.com (click Things To Do, then Trails/Roads). The 7th Annual Bluegrass Returns to its Roots, Owensboro, April 10-12, (270) 926-8000, (800) 626-1936, www.atthebige.com. The International Bar-B-Q Festival, Owensboro, May 9-10, www.bbqfest.com. The International Bluegrass Music Museum’s 5th annual fund-raiser festival ROMP (River of Music Party), Owensboro, June 26-28, (888) MY BANJO (692-2656).
Bourbon Trail, (859) 336-9612, www.kybourbon.com. Free guided tours are offered most days at the distilleries. Last year, the number of tours to see “America’s only native spirit” was in the half million range. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown is held the third weekend of September each year. (800) 638-4877, www.KyBourbonFestival.com.
Kentucky Music Trail, www.kentuckytourism.com (click Things To Do, then Trails/Roads). Purchase the “More than Music” Heritage Driving Tour package at the Kentucky Historical Society’s 1792 store. Narrated by Ricky Skaggs, the three-CD package includes a book with maps, history, Web sites, contact numbers, and a calendar of events. A fourth CD is a sampler of music by Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Loretta Lynn, The Judds, and others.
From mid-June through August, a series of concerts featuring a variety of entertainers, including perennial favorites Kentucky Opry and Front Porch Pickin’ as well as some of the top names on the contemporary country music circuit, including stars homegrown in the Bluegrass, are presented at the Mountain Arts Center, (888) 622-2787, www.macarts.com, and the Paramount Arts Center, (606) 324-3175, www.paramountartscenter.com.
Kentucky Summer Theatre Trail, www.kytheatretrail.com. Eight theaters produce a variety of outdoor theater, with shows running from June through August, and in some cases into September, and including everything from Kentucky legends taken from the pages of history to splashy Broadway musicals. Many of the theaters offer on-site food service and several have extended seasons at indoor venues. Use the Web site to find and sample each venue and learn about their unique histories and offerings.
Other tourism trails
For more information on any of Kentucky’s many designated trails, contact the Kentucky Department of Tourism, Capital Plaza Tower, 500 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY 40601, (800) 225-8747 or online at www.kentuckytourism.com. A list of trails with links is on the Web site that includes points of interest, maps, and contact information.
Trails R Us Web site, www.trailsRus.com, provides information on dozens of adventure trails all over the state and can be a source for additional research when planning to explore Kentucky. (270) 781-6858.