When I tell people I am from Eastern Kentucky, someone usually makes a joke about the old film, Deliverance, or Colonel Sanders.
There are several ideas and stereotypes about my home state that are not all too positive in nature. Delving into those is for another day, however. Right now I want to take you on a journey through Eastern Kentucky, and show you that it is more than a stereotype. It is a place worth exploring.
The Red River Gorge is a place unknown to most unless you are a climber. The 29,000-acre expanse of forest and canyon boast some of the best climbing this side of the Mississippi. I have met people from all over the world who have come to explore the trad lines or attend Rocktoberfest at the Red.
For those of us who are not such a fan of heights, the Gorge offers ample other outdoor adventures. Take a day hike or spend a few nights on the trail to experience all this hidden gem has to offer - from arches and sweeping canyon views to peaceful waterfalls and the sandstone cliffs that make this area a geological marvel. Just be aware that the longer hikes take you over undulating terrain with steep ascents and descents.
On the way to your chosen trailhead, be sure to drive through the historic Nada Tunnel - a 900-foot tunnel carved out with dynamite, steam machinery and hand tools that once served as part of the old railway, now endearingly referred to as “The Gateway to the Gorge”.
At the end of your escapade, refuel at Miguel’s Pizza - a tradition for climbers, hikers, and Sunday drivers alike. You will find their create-your-own menu is just as daring as the Gorge itself, offering toppings that range from traditional to unconventional. Don’t be afraid to get weird with it.
Once you have had your fill, make your way south in time to see the infamous moonbow.
On a clear night during, or close to, the full moon you can stand above Cumberland Falls and view the phenomenon that occurs when the light of the moon meets the waters mist creating a ghostly rainbow - the only one in the Western Hemisphere known to appear regularly.
This lunar rainbow is the gem of Cumberland Falls State Park, but certainly not all the park has to offer. Spend the weekend camping, rent a cabin, or revel in the views of the mighty Cumberland River from the balcony of the historic DuPont Lodge - one of the most beautiful state park lodges I have had the pleasure to see.
Enjoy a guided hike to the Pinnacle Knob fire tower where the park naturalists will regale you with tales from the past, or explore on your own one of the many magnificent hiking trails. I highly recommend Eagle Falls. You will meander along the creek, between towering hemlocks, and scramble down a set of stairs before reaching the trail's namesake - a beautiful waterfall nestled in the forest along the riverside.
If you prefer a more laid back pace for your visit, take a walk and listen for the distinct call of the Pileated Woodpecker or catch a glimpse of the White-breasted Nuthatch as you spend your morning birding. You may also purchase a local fishing license and spend a leisurely day by the river's edge.
When nighttime rolls around, perhaps you will get a chance to marvel at the moonbow.
Walking the 333-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail is an excellent way to explore Eastern Kentucky - whether you want to thru-hike or split the trail into more manageable sections. This footpath spans the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest and into the Big South Fork National Recreation Area.
Follow the white turtle as you blaze your way along the trail named after Daniel Boone, who was given the name Sheltowee (Big Turtle) after being adopted into the Shawnee tribe.
Traipse through the aforementioned Red River Gorge and Cumberland Falls State Park, as well as many other scenics and historic areas of the state. Eastern Kentucky is known for its natural arches and waterfalls, many of which are located on the Sheltowee or just a short walk off the trail.
The unfortunately named Dog Slaughter Falls, which you pass by as the trail follows the Cumberland River through Cumberland Falls State Park is one of my most beloved places to visit. Despite the name, the waterfall is a lovely and tranquil place to stop for a lunch break or just sit and think for a while.
Although snow and ice are a potential issue, this trail can be hiked year-round. In fact, a fall, winter, or spring hike is more ideal than summer, as you will avoid the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. Ticks are also much less abundant in the colder months.
I can attest, it is worth preparing for colder temperatures to avoid a Kentucky summer.
A little farther east of the Sheltowee, you will find Blanton Forest, where ancient oaks and hemlocks tower 100 feet above the forest floor. This preserve is an area of protected old-growth that now stretches over 3,510 acres.
The trees you walk past - many three to four feet in diameter - tell a story of days long past, when settlers first came through Cumberland Gap. There are few patches of old-growth forest left in the eastern United States, which is what makes this place incredibly special.
Old-growth forests are exceptionally biodiverse, providing important habitat for wildlife and plant species regeneration. Even once an old tree has died, it serves as a home for many bird species, then, as it decomposes on the forest floor, creates an essential habitat for a diversity of plant life. Nothing is wasted.
As you walk the Lucy Braun Memorial Trail, look for these special old-growth characteristics - lofty trees with lichen hanging from the branches, snags with holes carved out by the Barred Owl (or perhaps a Pileated Woodpecker) and nurse logs lying on the forest floor blanketed in a variety of mosses, lichens, and other plant life.
Once you complete the loop through Blanton, you are just a short drive from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park - the next and final stop on this Eastern Kentucky exploit.
Trod the same path as the buffalo and many Native Americans did before you as they made their way around the mountains through the Cumberland Gap. Stand, breathless as you look out over ancient mountains and dark forests, from whence the first settlers once walked.
This park has a lot to offer adventurers and historians alike. Learn about the role Cumberland Gap played during the Civil War, explore the early American frontier, and discover what life was like in Appalachia.
After reading up on your history, traverse the parks extensive trail system, with hikes ranging from multi-day strenuous backpacking ventures or easy quarter-mile saunters.
If you are looking to spend a few days in the backcountry, get a permit at the visitor center and take a walk along the twenty-one mile Ridge Trail. This path meanders along the top of the Cumberland Mountains offering many opportunities to visit some of the most famous sights in the park - White Rocks, Sand Cave, and Hensley Settlement.
These unique places are also accessible by shorter, more strenuous, day hikes. If you prefer a laid back pace, there is a multiplicity of trails that offer easy walking and excellent views - just stop by the visitors center for a map and directions.
A Place Worth Exploring
You have now walked through ancient old-growth forests, traced the steps of Daniel Boone, and immersed yourself in the rich history and culture of my home state, Eastern Kentucky. If you were uncertain before, I hope you see it through new eyes as a place worth exploring.