Outdoor enthusiasts sometimes ask me where my favorite “little-known gem” is in Kentucky. It’s hard for me to pick just one, but I’ll try to take it down to five.
These sites have left me with indelible memories of tremendous beauty and adventure.
Located in Harlan County, Kingdom Come State Park is a 1,283-acre pristine wilderness on the very top of Pine Mountain. From the park’s overlooks, the mountains stretch out so far they fade from deep forest green to faint, hazy blue. In my opinion, these high vistas are the best in all of the state park system.
Visitors will also see colossal rock formations. Some of the park’s 14 trails pass near the massive rocks, including Raven Rock, a sandstone arch soaring 290 feet at a 45-degree angle. A trip to Kingdom Come can also be a little adventurous because of black bears.
Bears usually avoid humans if they sense our presence. Attaching a bear bell to a hiking stick or daypack is a good idea. When I hike at Kingdom Come, I sing to myself, which not only runs off the bears, but other hikers as well.
Like all the state nature preserves, Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve was established to protect rare, threatened, and endangered species of plants and animals. But there’s even more wonder to this refuge in Clark County.
The sparkling riffles of Lower Howard’s Creek race through a deep, winding, cliff-lined gorge toward the Kentucky River. The steep walls of the gorge remind me of canyons in the western United States.
If you’re brave enough, you can be part of a guided hike and cross Lower Howard’s Creek on a shaky swinging bridge high above the water.
Guided hikes will also take you to the more than 200-year-old stone remains of an industrial settlement in the preserve.
From as early as 1800, stone masons built their houses near the creek’s stone mill sites. Some of the remains of the houses and mills are so well-preserved that sometimes I’ve just stood in silence gazing at the stone walls, pondering the effort it took to erect structures that would be the envy of any builder.
As a boy growing up on the banks of the Green River in the little south-central Kentucky town of Greensburg, I never would have imagined that someday I’d be writing about the Green, boasting of its designation as the nation’s fourth-most important biologically diverse river. The reason: aside from many rare and endangered species, the clean waters of the upper Green hold 43 species of fish, mussels, crustaceans, and other animals found nowhere else in the world.
My favorite of the endemics is the bottlebrush crayfish, a hulking lobster-like creature that can grow up to a foot long.
The Green is a favorite among fishermen, who like to go after the river’s plentiful smallmouth bass. Canoeists and kayakers love the river, too, for its beautiful scenery and its fun, yet easy, Class I and Class II rapids.
When I go back home to float the Green, I can’t help wondering what one-of-a-kind being has yet to be discovered in the mysterious water just beneath my canoe.
In western Kentucky, Sloughs Wildlife Management Area in Henderson and Union counties is managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Wildlife management areas are tracts of public land that offer hunting and fishing—and often fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities.
The approximately 11,000-acre Sloughs Wildlife Management Area is just such an example.
Sloughs is home to a multitude of wildlife species, including an ever-increasing population of bald eagles, watched and photographed by visitors taking advantage of wildlife viewing platforms. Another frequently viewed species is the tall, sleek, great blue heron, since it is the site of the largest great blue heron rookery in Kentucky—a sizable nesting colony with 75–100 nests in tall trees on the Highland Creek unit.
What I enjoy most about Sloughs is a result of approximately 30,000 geese and ducks that overwinter here. When 5,000 or 6,000 gregarious geese lift off at once, I can tell you from personal experience it’s an incredible sight—and sound. The shrill calls of thousands of geese pierce the air, and countless thrashing wings sound like the rumble and roll of thunder.
While Canada geese were once a majority here, the balance has shifted to include more white-fronted and snow geese. Because changes in climate and agricultural practices across North America have shifted their flyway patterns, few Canada geese come this far south anymore.
The farthest point west in my list of favorites is Swan Lake, part of Boatwright Wildlife Management Area in Ballard County.
Swan Lake is Kentucky’s largest natural lake. It’s known as an oxbow lake, defined as the remnant of a river that changed course long ago. There is nothing artificial about it—or around it. Giant cypress trees, hundreds of years old and right out of the Deep South, surround the clean, shimmering waters of Swan Lake.
Here you can put in a small boat or canoe at the public boat ramp and slowly paddle or troll around the lake as egrets in brilliant white gracefully fly overhead. You’ll get caught up in the scenery of a wetland that looks like it belongs in Louisiana. All that’s missing are the alligators.
Now you have my five “little-known gems,” at least for now. From Kingdom Come in the east to Swan Lake in the west, Kentucky is a land so rich in natural diversity and raw splendor, I just might pick five more next year.