Slower-paced travel offers views of the present, a taste of the past
While driving from Louisville to southern Indiana, you may get a quick sense of the size of the Ohio River from atop a bridge. The same is true as you cross over the Kentucky River in Frankfort or elsewhere. But truly experiencing the beauty and historic importance of these two unique Kentucky rivers requires being on them.
Luckily, whether you’re in the market for a multi-day river cruise or a short, one-hour riverboat ride, Kentucky is home to river tours for every budget and timeline.
At Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, guests can enjoy a one-hour tour of the Kentucky River via the Dixie Belle, a stern-wheel riverboat that takes passengers upstream from Shaker Landing under High Bridge and back.
Constructed in 1876 as the first cantilever bridge in the United States, the railroad bridge is listed as a Historical Civil Engineering Landmark and—at 308 feet high—remains the tallest bridge above navigable water in North America.
While the thrill of traveling under High Bridge by boat may be the highlight of the trip for kids and kids at heart, the trip offers even more to see and experience.
The river provides breathtaking views of the Kentucky River Palisades, the steep, 450-million-year-old limestone cliffs that form parts of the river valley border. “Being able to ride a boat through the Palisades is certainly a different vantage point than even driving a car along Highway 68,” says Amy Bugg, Shaker Village’s director of Marketing and Sales.
Wildlife sightings are also common during Dixie Belle cruises. “We’ve seen river otters, beaver, muskrat, deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and red-tailed hawks over the years,” says Bruce Herring of Harrodsburg. He and his brother, Richard, are the boat’s longtime—and only—captains. In May, during nesting season, the Herring brothers lead the Dixie Belle on an extended cruise upriver to a great blue heron rookery, where riders can see more than 40 heron and cormorant nests.
Guests also get a sense of the history of the Kentucky River and its role in the development and trading business of the Shaker settlement there. “We have quite a bit of history through here,” Bruce Herring says.
Watch a clip about the Dixie Belle from the documentary, Commonwealth Curiosities, here.
Kentucky River Boat Tour
If it’s river history you’re after, make sure to schedule a free trip on the Kentucky River via the Nancy Wilkinson pontoon boat, which departs from the Kentucky River View Park Landing in Frankfort. Overseen by Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites, the free 90-minute tour specializes in sharing the history of the river and its role in shaping modern-day Frankfort.
Aimed at older teens and adults (children under 10 are not permitted), this interpretive river cruise is filled with in-depth details about early Kentucky history and can accommodate up to eight guests at a time. Guides like Parks Department staffer Russ Kennedy of Frankfort educate passengers about the river’s evolution and its role in the development of the town itself: did you know, for example, that in settlement times before the modern lock and dam system, the Kentucky River was little more than a shallow stream in many places? “The truth of the matter is that Frankfort exists because of the river,” Kennedy says. “Colonel James Wilkinson founded the community here as a stopping point for goods coming through eastern Kentucky toward the Ohio River.”
Being on the river also provides a unique vantage point to enjoy views of many historical Frankfort landmarks. “When you see the city for the first time from a view that you’ve never experienced or thought of before, it’s interesting to people,” says John Downs of Frankfort, a river tour guide and curator of the Capital City Museum. “From the river you can see the top of the state Capitol dome. Also, just as we go under the Singing Bridge (an 1893 iron bridge so-named for the sound cars make as they cross it), you can see the three steeples, as we call them: the cupola of the 1887 federal courthouse, the 1835 county courthouse and the 1855 Good Shepherd Church steeple, all lined up in a row. That’s a view you can only get on the river.”
For a longer taste of river life, consider an all-inclusive river cruise, like the ones offered by the American Queen Steamboat Company, which range from five to 23 days. The American Queen—the largest steamboat ever built—can accommodate roughly 414 passengers, offering fine dining and multiple itineraries on the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio rivers.
The Louisville to Alton (St. Louis) tour begins in Louisville and includes stops and shore excursions in Brandenburg, Owensboro, Henderson, Paducah, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, all included in the ticket price. The ships’ historians, called “riverlorians,” share information during the cruise about the history of the Ohio and its river cities.
“River cruising offers a great chance to learn about the history and culture of America that’s in our backyard,” says Ted Sykes, American Queen Steamboat Company’s president and chief operating officer.
While on shore, passengers hop on motorcoaches that deliver them to distinctive Kentucky sites, including the General George Patton Museum of Leadership in Fort Knox (the Brandenburg excursion); the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden and Owensboro Museum of Fine Art; the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson; the National Quilt Museum and Paducah Railroad Museum; and many more.
The American Queen’s bourbon-themed cruise from Memphis to Louisville includes stops at several of Kentucky’s famous distilleries.
Thanks to its all-inclusive, in-depth shore excursions, the American Queen has been voted winner of “Best Shore Excursions”—over other international and ocean cruise lines—by readers of Ocean & Cruise News for the past five years running.
“We like to say people who have done deep-sea cruising often graduate to river cruising,” Sykes says. “It’s just a much more pleasant experience.”
Spectators often come to the river’s edge to watch the giant riverboat pull out and hear its whistles and steam-powered calliope play a farewell song, Sykes says. It’s a glimpse of history, and of an iconic mode of travel, that folks don’t often get to see. But for those lucky enough to be a passenger on the cruise, life slows down to the soothing rhythm of the river.
“We have rocking chairs on the deck, which our guests really enjoy,” Sykes says. “When you’re going 8 miles an hour instead of 80, it’s a very different travel experience.”
Contact the cruisers
Dixie Belle riverboat ride at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Admission: $10, ages 13 and up; $5, 6-12; free, 5 and under
Cruise times: Daily at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Cruise dates: May through October
Purchase tickets at Shaker Village Welcome Center
3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg
Kentucky River Tours via Nancy Wilkinson pontoon
Cruise times: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 10:30 a.m.; Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Cruise dates: June through October
Reservations are required. Call (502) 229-1887 to reserve a space.
Kentucky River View Park Landing
404 Wilkinson Boulevard, Frankfort
www.frankfortparksandrec.com; click on “Historic Sites”
American Queen Steamboat Company
Various itineraries and price points available.