AUTUMN ISN’T SHY about showing itself in Kentucky.
Crimson, maple and burgundy sweep along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway and into the Pinnacles in the east and bright oranges and yellows brush the Land Between The Lakes in the west. In the north, every shade of orange and red paint the landscape at Boone County Arboretum and, in the south, reds and purples flash past the windows of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. And in the central part of the state? All of the above washes through Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest and Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
Pack a picnic and prepare for some prime leaf peeping and feasting.
Daniel Boone National Forest: Red River Gorge Scenic Byway, Winchester
With 48% of the state covered in forestland, according to the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Kentucky is a natural canvas for fall color. Much of it saturates the scenic byways in the Daniel Boone National Forest as the brilliant hues weave through the rugged rock-strewn landscape.
Insider tip: The Red River Gorge Scenic Byway zigzags from Stanton to Zachariah. Begin at the Gateway to the Red River Gorge: Nada Tunnel was built more than a century ago as a railway tunnel and is a 900-foot-long doorway to the color rioting through the forest’s heavily wooded and mountainous terrain.
Enhancing the trip: Stop in Slade and Natural Bridge State Resort Park for a ride on the Sky Lift (open through the last weekend in October), carrying visitors above the treetops for enchanting views. A jaunt away is the famous 30-foot-wide “sidewalk” known as Natural Bridge.
Picnicking and peeping: BYOB (as in basket) for a picnic in the Sky Bridge Recreation Area and a chance to see the iconic 75-foot-long sandstone arch formation.
Wilderness Road Heritage Highway/ The Pinnacles, Berea
This historic route stretches from the Cumberland Gap to Berea and is the home of the Pinnacles at Berea College’s Indian Fort and its 9,000 forested acres.
Insider tip: Go to the top of the East Pinnacle Trail and feast your eyes on a tapestry of color, including the jewel tones of the white oak trees.
Enhancing the trip: Pop into the Kentucky Artisan Center to browse and buy among thousands of artisan-made items.
Picnicking and peeping: Pick up made-to-order sandwiches on homemade bread at Old Town Amish Food Store in Berea and pack them to Indian Fort Theater, the primary trailhead for the Pinnacles.
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area, Golden Pond
Expect to see bright oranges, yellows and deep reds in this wildscape of forest and woodland stretching over 170,000 acres.
Insider tip: For scenic driving, begin at the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway.
Enhancing the trip: Cruise down Road 206, a 17-mile secluded paved road that starts at the Kentucky/Tennessee border and moves south along Kentucky Lake and into a world of wildlife and lavish color.
Picnicking and peeping: Unpack the picnic hamper at the South Bison Range picnic area, a beautiful spot to enjoy the fall colors and also take in the bison roaming the prairie.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Clermont
Hues of orange, red, yellow, brown and purple blaze throughout the arboretum and the 16,000-plus-acre forest.
Insider tip: Stroll around Lake Nevin. Visit the Gingko Collection. Drive up Forest Hill Road. You’ll find fall in each location. Scale the Fire Tower for beautiful overlooks of the whole area and the Canopy Tree Walk for treetop views.
Enhancing the trip: The shades of fall make a brilliant backdrop for Bernheim’s multiple art installations.
Picnicking and peeping: At Isaac’s Café, order salad, soup or sandwich made with the veggies, herbs and edible flowers from the garden growing a mere 200 steps away or make it to-go and grab a spot under the seasonally changing canopy.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and Nature Preserve, Harrodsburg
Fall explodes in vibrant oranges, reds, yellows and dark greens throughout the 3,000 acres of the Village and Nature Preserve.
Insider tip: “The mile-long, tree-lined turnpike is dotted with historic buildings visitors can explore,” says Shelby Jones, director of communications. “Our 36 miles of multi-use trails are a perfect escape for hikers and horseback riders looking for seasonal color.”
Enhancing the trip: The Kentucky Palisades is always a scenic drive, but especially in the fall when colors are at their peak.
Picnicking and peeping: Dine at the Trustees’ Table, a seed-to-table restaurant overlooking the Village’s organic garden, or get grab-and-go foodstuffs from the Post Office Shop and picnic at one of the tables throughout the property or atop a blanket.
Big South Fork Scenic Railway, Stearns
Visitors are surrounded by the colors of Appalachia throughout their ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
Insider tip: The railroad tracks follow fall color—from yellow and gold hues of poplar and hickory trees to the reds of oaks, sourwood and sweet gums—right into Barthell Coal Camp with breathtaking views along hardwood forests, creeks and rocky hillsides.
Enhancing the trip: The Big South Fork Scenic Railway’s Shades of Autumn Fall Color Express begins its runs on October 19, a three-hour, round-trip adventure that shows off the beauty of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
“You might see the red and purple of the dogwoods and sumacs and the vibrant orange and red of sugar maples,” says Crystal Taylor, director at the McCreary County Heritage Foundation.
Picnicking and peeping: Pre-order a coal miner’s lunch for the train ride or at the pavilion at Barthell on arrival.
Boone County Arboretum, Union
Fall flames through this 121-acre landscape arboretum with its wide variety of tree and shrub species, including viburnum, beautyberry and winterberry holly.
“Our collection can present the full range of fall colors—from bright yellow through the shades of orange and red and all the way to brown and purple,” says curator Josh Selm.
Insider tip: Walk or bike 2-plus paved miles through woodlands, grasslands and landscape collection areas, each with a different fall leaf color palette and ambiance. Keep an eye peeled for ornamental berries and seeds on the shrubs and trees.
Enhancing the trip: A centrally located gazebo surrounded by hydrangeas, specimen oaks and dogwood trees provides a view across the valley to the nearby native maple-hickory woodland.
Picnicking and peeping: Grab farm-fresh deli farmwiches from The Farmstand Market & Cafe, find a park bench and take in the gardens.
KATHY WITT is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer based in Northern Kentucky and the author of Secret Cincinnati and The Secret of the Belles.