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Gorillas in the Bluegrass

Cabin Fever

Gorillas in the Bluegrass

Just imagine. A huge gorilla looms in front of you, his massive, dark shape mere inches away. He weighs as much as two or three men, with a neck almost as thick as your waist, and fingers as big as your wrist. He may have the strength of eight men. Even the meanest hulk of a professional wrestler scheduled to grapple with this guy would think about a quick career change.

The gorilla turns. Now he is looking right at you.

No—change that. His deep-set eyes and heavy overhanging brow ridges make it seem that he is glaring at you.

Imagine the chill creeping up your spine…

Such scenes happen daily at the Louisville Zoo.

The gorilla, just on the other side of the glass, is JoJo, a gentle 450-pound silverback, so-called because of the gray hair on the back and legs of mature males.

Gorilla Forest is the newest gorilla exhibit in North America, and is one of only three zoos in the world that have “gorillas-in-the-round,” a circular observation area in which the gorillas surround you. Still, for safety, there is a one-half-inch thick, shatterproof glass barrier between you and the gorillas.

This $15 million star attraction, which opened in May 2002, is a four-acre exhibit that lets visitors experience firsthand the intelligence, dignity, and strength of gorillas, and does much to increase our understanding of these intriguing and powerful creatures.

As in Africa, a trip to observe the gorillas starts with a journey by foot. This stroll is short and easy, but gives a good sense of what might be involved on a real African trek to find gorillas.

Near the start of your trek, a life-size bronze sculpture of a gorilla family—a great favorite with children—offers the chance to compare your own dimensions with those of a silverback, a female, and a youngster. Next, you follow a simulated jungle trail, covered with animal tracks and gorilla knuckle prints. Colorful, tropical-looking vegetation encloses the path on both sides, with more than 8,000 different plants. All around are chirps, snorts, growls, and occasional screams of unknown animals. Kids can take a shortcut off the trail and scramble under the trunk of a big fallen tree. Along the way, exhibits explain the many, largely human-created, threats that face gorillas in the wild.

At the end of the trail, you come to the exhibit’s epicenter, the Gorilla Sanctuary. Its 14-foot-tall windows reach all the way to ground level, making it appear possible to walk right out into the “bai,” a simulation of the open, grassy wetlands of West and Central Africa, and one of two large outdoor areas at the zoo where gorillas are free to roam.

Nearby is the observation room, where visitors stand at the center, and the gorillas frolic behind encircling windows along the outside, giving you an unequaled, close-up view of the 12 Western lowland gorillas. There are two large silverbacks—JoJo and Frank, each the boss of his own gorilla family—and a variety of adult and juvenile gorillas, including some playful and occasionally mischievous youngsters. Each gorilla has a distinct face and personality, just like humans.

Perhaps the most exciting news is the patter of little gorilla feet as Makari gave birth in December.

The Louisville Zoological Garden is located at 1100 Trevilian Way, off I-264. Call (502) 459-2181or go online to the Web at for more information.

In addition to the gorillas, the Louisville Zoo offers more than 1,300 exotic animals within an attractive natural setting. Other popular exhibits are polar bears, orangutans, and seals. A small train and trams offer tours, good ways to get a quick overview. Gift shops, a range of eateries, an old-fashioned carousel, a petting zoo, playground, and other attractions make it easy for a family to linger for a full, stimulating day.

Zoo hours:
In winter, the zoo is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and in summer daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours during June, July, and August. Admission for adults is $8.95, seniors (60+) $6.95, and children (3-11) $5.95. Infants 2 and under are admitted free. Wheelchairs for rent are $6, strollers $5, and double strollers $7.

Getting around the zoo:
The zoo train is $2, zoo trams $1.50, and the carousel $1. Infants age 2 and under ride the train and trams free.

Capture the moment:
PhotoSafari at the Louisville Zoo photographs you or your family against a green screen. The photo is then superimposed on a background to show you swimming with the polar bears, playing with the gorillas, or daring to put your head in the lion’s mouth. Prices and scenes vary.

Tour Packages & Area Attractions
The Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has several tour packages. Call (800) 626-5646, or go online to

Packages include hotel stays of one or two nights, and tickets to such attractions as the Louisville Zoo, the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Louisville Science Center, the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Speed Art Museum, and Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom.

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Cabin Fever

On a clear day, from the vantage point of Red River Outdoors, you can see forever: a sweeping woodland vista edged by a cliff line in the squint-eyed distance. Located in the Red River Gorge/Natural Bridge area of eastern Kentucky, this family-owned haven provides luxury vacation cabins in the heart of the Land of the Arches.

“You can see evergreens, mountain laurel, holly, and the cliff lines,” says manager Garry Chaney, whose family owns Red River Outdoors. “This is one of the biggest areas in the eastern United States for rock climbing, and on a sunny day, even in winter, someone will be out climbing.”

The hillside hideaways offer a fully equipped kitchen, whirlpool bath, satellite television, fireplace (in most cabins), and the hush of nature. Surrounded by myriad hiking opportunities, the cabins—with cozy names like Mountain Laurel, Hickory Heights, and Holly Hideaway—encourage vacationers to recharge batteries sapped by winter’s chill and thaw out with hot cocoa in hand before a crackling fire.

“The hiking is great in the winter. You can go over to the Gorge and hike—it’s less than a mile to some of the arches. The gift shop and chairlift are closed, but the state park’s lodge and restaurant are open,” says Chaney.

About 13 miles down the road in Clay City, at the Meadow Green Park Bluegrass Music Hall, country, bluegrass, and mountain music heat up winter weekends: Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, January 10; III Tyme Out/Borrowed Tyme, January 17; the Larry Stephenson Band, January 24; and Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, January 31. Most shows are from 7-11 p.m. and tickets vary from $12 to $20 per person, with children 12 and younger free with an adult. For more information call (606) 663-9008 or (859) 254-4781, or online at

Other attractions in the area are the meandering Red River Gorge Scenic Byway, Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve (the point at which Daniel Boone got his first glimpse of the Bluegrass), and museums.

“If you want to slow down, this area is the place,” says Chaney. “Just bring some food. We supply the cabins and the coffee.”

For more information, contact Red River Outdoors, 415 Natural Bridge Road, Slade, KY 40376, (606) 663-9701, or e-mail them at

For those longing for the more primitive wiles of nature, John James Audubon State Park, (270) 826-2247 or online at, in western Kentucky near Henderson preserves the peaceful woods where the famed naturalist walked as he observed the birds and animals that would become the subjects of his paintings.

There are five one-bedroom cottages with wood-burning fireplaces, cable television, and equipped kitchens, plus a newer handicap-accessible two-bedroom cottage. A museum shop is stocked with nature-based gifts and a museum showcases a collection of Audubon’s watercolors, oils, engravings, and personal memorabilia. The adjacent Nature Center features a wildlife observatory and a Discovery Center with hands-on exhibits and displays explaining bird locomotion, feeding, habitat, and behavior.

With more than six miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty, park manager Mary Dee Miller says winter hiking is a natural.

“The woods are quite nice and the owls are beginning to call in January. Nesting for the great horned owls—the largest owl in Kentucky—begins in late January and most clutches are complete by late February.”

Park it at a State Resort
When January gets so bleak that it chills even the heartiest souls, it’s time to plan a getaway to one of Kentucky’s cabins—preferably one that has all (or more than) the comforts of home and is perched amidst the splendors of nature. Here are five state resort parks offering executive-level retreats—along with hiking trails, dining room service, museum, visitor’s center, and gift shop:

Barren River Lake, (800) 325-0057, in Lucas, “cave country”: 22 contemporary two-bedroom cottages, each with a lake view.

Carter Caves, (800) 325-0059, in Olive Hill: 10 newly built, fully equipped cabins with four queen-size beds in each cabin, most with wood-burning fireplaces, and all with woodland views.

Cumberland Falls, (800) 325-0063, in Daniel Boone National Forest in Corbin: one- and two-bedroom equipped cottages, plus Woodland Rooms, private duplex rooms adjacent to the lodge, maid service, plus wet bars and small refrigerators.

Kentucky Dam Village, (800) 325-0146, in western Kentucky: 68 cottages, including villas and executive two- and three-bedroom cottages.

Lake Cumberland, (800) 325-1709, west of Somerset: one- and two-bedroom cottages, including 10 contemporary Wildwood cottages. Another option: Pumpkin Creek, a private and amenity-laden lodge with 10 rooms and three suites.

For more information on these state park cabins, call (800) 255-7275 or visit the Kentucky Department of Parks Web site at

Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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