Every town in Kentucky has one—a thing, a place, a treasure—that makes a trip there worthwhile. From the west to the east, we’ve unearthed some of the gems you’ll want to visit the next time you’re in town, or maybe you’ll plan a special trip.
“Never leave hungry”
Micah Seavers has two goals for new and old friends who visit his family-owned restaurant, Southern Red’s BBQ.
“They never leave unhappy or hungry,” says Seavers, whose family has owned and operated the restaurant in the former Pilot Oak Grocery for more than 10 years. “We’re not fancy from the outside, not fancy from the inside, but we can serve some good food.”
From ribs and chicken to steak and pulled pork, Southern Red’s, served by West Kentucky RECC, dishes up a lot of good food. During the slow part of the year, Seavers says the restaurant goes through more than a ton of fresh meat each week—even more impressive when you realize a “week” at the restaurant is three days. Business hours are Thursday–Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
For Seavers, the Graves County restaurant located in Pilot Oak, east of Water Valley, is a family affair—his wife, mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law work there, and his daughters and nephews help out from time to time. Family members have owned and operated restaurants for more than two decades. Seavers attributes Southern Red’s success to good food, good customers, and a good crew.
“The ones that aren’t family, we treat like family,” he says.
A streetcar named “Kentucky”
From a traveler to transportation, the Behringer-Crawford Museum exists to preserve the history and culture of northern Kentucky.
Opened in the former Devou family estate in 1950, the museum is home to the collections of the late world traveler William Behringer. The museum’s first curator, Ellis Crawford, believed the collections should be displayed for the public
“(Behringer) was an eccentric,” says Communications Manager Sharen Kardon. “He collected interesting and odd things.” Among them was a two-headed calf, which had been embalmed, and is now the emblem of the museum’s annual awards.
The museum has galleries devoted to transportation, from The Rivers to The Roads to The Rails and Runways. A streetcar named “Kentucky” has been on display there since its retirement.
“The day it was retired, it was towed to the museum,” says Kardon, adding it is a “gussied up” streetcar that was used as a party car.
Many exhibits are interactive, inviting guests to push buttons to hear a story or start a model train around the track of a small-scale, 1950s-era replica of the small towns of northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati area.
The museum has a free outdoor space called NaturePlay @ BCM, which is a hit with children. It also hosts an outdoor concert series each Thursday night from June 1 to August 10 (except July 6).
“Fiercely proud of their heritage”
If you want to step away from today’s technologies and experience life in simpler times, you may have a thing or two in common with Sherman Hensley. Hensley was the founder of Hensley Settlement, a once-thriving Appalachian community that today takes an hour to reach by shuttle in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
“See what life was like in simpler times, when work was very, very hard,” says Carol Borneman, chief of interpretation and education at the national park. “At the end of the day, talk about self-satisfaction and really being one with the land.”
Tours of the settlement’s cabins and schoolhouse must be scheduled through the park’s visitor center and can be booked up to one month in advance. Each tour accommodates 10 guests and lasts four hours. About a mile of walking is required, so guests are advised to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. It’s also helpful to bring a light lunch or snack and something to drink, Borneman says.
She has worked with the National Park Service for 33 years, with an initial goal of spending four years at each stop, then moving to another park. However, four years turned into 23 at Cumberland Gap.
“Seeing resilient people here in Appalachia, they embrace people and embrace traditions,” she says. “The people are so fiercely proud of their heritage, and here is where they can really understand what that heritage is all about.”
Trace a map to Kentucky’s easternmost county and you’ll find Breaks Interstate Park. One of two interstate parks in the United States, the grounds are in both Kentucky and Virginia. Called the Grand Canyon of the South, the park is home to one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi River.
Superintendent Austin Bradley believes The Breaks can use its resources to help an economy that is in transition.
“All the areas around here, we’re coming together trying to figure out how to move forward,” he says. “The Breaks has really tried to capitalize on our potential as an adventure tourism destination.”
In May 2015, the park became the first in Kentucky and Virginia to fully open rock climbing. It offers horseback rides and whitewater rafting—even for beginners. Recently, it hosted a four-day expedition race, organized by 361 Adventures, which attracted more than 100 racers and filled the park’s hotel.
Plus, there are miles and miles of hiking trails. Bradley’s favorite section is the Pine Mountain Trail on the Kentucky side.
“The thing I like so well about that area is that it’s remote,” Bradley says. “It’s very beautiful, and there’s tons of ecological diversity—really rare and threatened plant species and animal species.”