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Peaceful Palisades 

Ancient cliff corridor is safe harbor for man and nature 

ABOUT 20 MINUTES FROM the modern buildings and concrete of downtown Lexington lies an ancient geological and unique biological landmark: the Kentucky River Palisades, where cliffs tower roughly 250 feet over a meandering river. 

“The Kentucky River has cut a deep gorge into the underlying bedrock, exposing 450-million-year-old Ordovician limestone—the oldest rock layers in the state,” says Josh Lillpop, natural areas branch manager with the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves. “The rich slopes and limestone cliff lines provide valuable habitat for a variety of rare species.” 

Urbanization and road development have cut up much of the nearby wildlands. But the Palisades contain one of the largest blocks of forest in the Bluegrass Region. This wooded corridor provides a major migration route for birds and a travel corridor for wildlife. Its diversity of ecosystems, from cliff line to tree stands to limestone karst, make the relatively compact space host to a profusion of plants and animals. 

The area—which stretches from Fort Boonesborough to Frankfort—harbors four species of endangered bats and several rare and endangered plant species. In the winter, cave topography and loose-barked trees provide critical roosting spots for bats. In the spring, the cliff habitat nourishes rare starry cleft phlox and Eggleston’s violet and other ephemeral flowers. 

A stretch of preserved land that spools along the cliff-lined shores between Jessamine and Garrard counties provides access for exploration. One of the largest is Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve. A small lot off of U.S. Highway 27 in Garrard County leads to 4 miles of moderately difficult hiking trails in the 946-acre preserve. For a year-round view of the cliffs, Lillpop recommends walking the Knight’s Ferry Trail onto the river floodplain. 

As with all state nature preserves, trails are open to human feet only and visitors are asked to stay on the paths. This is a popular location close to Lexington, though it is possible to find peace and solitude. 

The Nature Conservancy has three preserves just downstream of the Tom Dorman preserve. The Crutcher and Sally Brown nature preserves total 750 acres, with 5 miles of easy to moderate hiking trails that wind along a bend in the river. The Dupree Nature Preserve has an additional 300 acres, with 3 miles of hiking trails and an emphasis on educational displays and programs. 

Other access spots 

High Bridge Park in Jessamine County provides easy-to-access views of the Palisades and the noteworthy railroad trestle that crosses the Kentucky River gorge at 275 feet high. A fenced overlook extends 35 feet beyond the cliff for a dizzying view of water, cliffs and bridge. The 145-year-old structure still has daily train traffic. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is the perfect base for Palisades adventures, providing both accommodations and a restaurant. Explorers can start on the easy 1-mile Palisades hiking loop, which offers multiple views of the cliffs and cascading seasonal waterfalls. The route for periodic guided geology hikes traverses down the cliff face on an 1830-era road constructed by the Shakers, with docents sharing its geologic and engineering history. 

The Kentucky River is divided into pools, delineated by the old lock and dam system. Shaker Landing is one of the few watercraft access points along Pool 7, one of the most remote and awe-inspiring stretches. Visitors can launch their personal watercraft for a $5 fee and explore the Palisades, High Bridge and up the Dix River. Those without their own boats can join a monthly guided paddle trip. The summer sunset paddles highlight the quiet of the evening; glow necklaces are provided. 

A new permanent display at the historic village called Local Economies, Global Impact, reveals why carving a road through the Palisades was critical. “The river played a pivotal role in the Shakers’ livelihood,” says Billy Rankin, vice president of public programming and marketing at Shaker Village. “Opening the landing in 1830 exploded their economy as riverboats traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as far as New Orleans. Trading deacons exchanged goods and brought money back to the community.” 

Upriver, the stretch of the Kentucky River between Fayette and Madison counties has smaller, but still impressive, cliffs. A favorite natural area for exploring here is Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. The Lexington park has a nature center and offers year-round educational programs. One stop on its 10 miles of trails is the Kentucky River Overlook, a 70-foot-high perch for viewing the Palisades. 

Proud Mary Honky Tonk & BBQ is the perfect ending to a river day, offering al fresco dining and live music on the banks of the Kentucky River in Lexington. It is located just off of Interstate 75, or the more adventurous can park at Fort Boonesborough State Park, visit the park’s Kentucky River Museum, and then paddle their own canoe for a boat-in meal. 

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