The Kentucky Bucket List: 50 things to see, do and eat in the commonwealth before you die

June 17, 2011 

Most people have at least a notion of the things they want to see, do and experience before they die, aka their "bucket list": Climb a mountain, fall in love, see the Grand Canyon. But how should that list be tailored to Kentuckians?

Here at Weekender/LexGo Central, we have come up with "Kentucky's Bucket List," inspired by Parade magazine's recent cover story on "America's Bucket List."

What are the things every Kentuckian should do, see or experience while living in our beautiful, often misunderstood state? What are the cultural touchstones that make Kentucky what it is and that would be a shame not to experience? What things go deep into the Kentucky experience? And how many of them can you accomplish this summer, which officially starts Tuesday?

Here's our list of 50 experiences, in no particular order, compiled from suggestions offered by readers and staff members.

It includes the grand and obvious (the Kentucky Derby) but also some off-the-beaten-path experiences that only a true Kentuckian can appreciate. It focuses on experiences that can be had between now and summer's end in late September. (We've created an addendum of non-summertime experiences well worth your time; see the sidebar in the black box at the right of this story.)

The list is far from exhaustive, and you can probably easily think of several more to add to your personal list. But it's a start. If you have more suggestions, leave them in the comments section of this story.

Our hope is that you take this list, tack it up on your fridge, get out into our gorgeous Kentucky and start checking them off.

KENTUCKY'S BUCKET LIST

1. Visit Mammoth Cave. Our state's only national park, it makes you realize that Kentucky's stunning beauty isn't just on the surface.

2. Dip a bourbon bottle into that famous red wax at Maker's Mark in Loretto. The brand is known worldwide, and so is the bottle's dripping red wax. Dip your own on the distillery tour.

3. Take a sip at all the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. It's the essence of sophistication and American's only native spirit, and 95 percent of it is produced here.

4. Watch Harlan County U.S.A. Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning 1976 documentary about the "Bloody Harlan" coal miner strikes of the early '70s shows just how dangerous that job used to be (and still is).

5. Read the works of Wendell Berry. The Henry County environmentalist, ruralist, activist and writer is considered one of the nation's greatest minds.

6. Visit the Harland Sanders Café and Museum in Corbin. It's where the Colonel first served his fried chicken with "11 herbs and spices" and birthed an internationally fried chicken recipe.

7. Own a piece of work by a Kentucky craftsman. We are known as an epicenter for folk art. Berea is a good place to start your search for the perfect piece.

8. Read Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson's seminal article "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," which details the hullabaloo surrounding the 1970 race and marked the legendary writer's first foray into gonzo journalism.

9. Spend a silent day at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown. Shed your worldly worries (and your smartphone) at this Trappist monastery, where tranquility reigns.

10. Talk to Freddie Farm Bureau at the Kentucky State Fair. The giant talking doll outside the entrance to the August fair's main hall has entranced kids for decades.

11. Walk over Natural Bridge, near Slade. If it's hot, you'll sweat like a pig getting up there, but once you do, the view is so spectacular, you'll be cool as a cucumber.

12. Ogle the natural beauty at Red River Gorge. Pick pretty much any spot, and it will be stunning.

13. Take a hike at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers thought they had found an earthly Utopia when they settled near Harrodsburg in the 19th century. After walking the miles and miles of trails through meadows, woods and along creeks, you'll understand why.

14. Visit Fort Knox. You can't go inside the gold depository, where 5,000 tons of gold are stored, and you can't take your picture at the gate, as we previously reported. But you can drive by the depository on your way to the Gen. George Patton Museum.

15. Grab a country ham sandwich at one of the many filling stations in rural Kentucky.

16. Listen to the trickle of the Sinking Spring at Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, near Hodgenville. Illinois claims him, but this is where one of America's greatest leaders was born, and that underground spring is where he probably took his first drink of water.

17. Visit the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington. It's America's first site restored to honor a first lady. Get to know the real Mary, not the crazy woman that history has portrayed her to be.

18. Measure your stride against that of the great (giant) horse Man o' War at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

19. Bring roses to Funny Cide, the only Kentucky Derby winner who is readily accessible, at the Kentucky Horse Park.

20. Eat a hot Brown at Louisville's Brown Hotel, the place where the delicious open-faced, heart-attack-on-a-plate sandwich got its name, but stay at the nearby Seelbach Hotel, the 1905 gem that is the backdrop for Tom and Daisy's wedding in The Great Gatsby.

21. Attend one of the multitudes of bluegrass festivals across the state. We invented this kind of music, so we ought to listen to it once in a while.

22. Visit the state Capitol building in Frankfort. We have one of the nation's most beautiful capitols, and we might not always be proud of what goes on inside there, but we can at least appreciate the Frank Mills Andrews-designed architecture.

23. Read Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker. The story of its Appalachian heroine, Gertie Nevels, is unforgettable. Just be sure to have plenty of tissues on hand.

24. Visit Cane Ridge Meeting House outside Paris. It was built in 1791 and is thought to be the largest one-room log building in the country. It also was the site of a major revival in 1801 that is considered the climax of the Western Great Revival.

25. Tour the Corvette Museum and Corvette plant in Bowling Green. It's the only place in the world where the classic sports cars are produced.

26. Visit the Toyota plant in Georgetown while in an automotive frame of mind. It's the birthplace of the world's No. 1 car, the Camry, and the plant's arrival in the mid-1980s was a boon for Kentucky's economy.

27. Eat a tomato still warm from the sun while standing in the garden where it was grown. Consider any slight grittiness a condiment.

28. Attend the Garrard County Tobacco Cutting Contest. The event, held in late summer, might be the best way to see a dying cultural tradition: the harvesting of the tobacco crop. This year will be its 30th anniversary.

29. Find a fence row and pick some blackberries. There are few summertime treats more satisfying than a blackberry cobbler made with fruit you picked yourself. Just keep an eye out for snakes.

30. Eat a slice or two — or three — of historic "transparent" pie at Magee's Bakery in Maysville.

31. Have a taste of the state's regional sodas. May we recommend Ale-8-One, created in Winchester; and Ski, the highly caffeinated lemon-orange soda once bottled in Greensburg?

32. Attend the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. There are literally tons of barbecue being served on the first Saturday of each August, but the picnic is most famous for the political speaking, which traditionally kicks off Kentucky's fall campaigns. Every candidate running for statewide office will speak before the always-rowdy crowd.

33. Watch the sun rise from Pinnacle Overlook at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where Kentucky meets Tennessee and Virginia. The gap, a rare natural break in the ancient Appalachian Mountains, provided a pathway in the 1700s for settlers led by Daniel Boone and other pioneers.

34. Watch the sun set over the Mississippi River at Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County. During the Civil War, Confederates built fortifications along the bluff in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces from moving South.

35. Visit the Tri-Cities area — Cumberland, Benham and Lynch — for a look into the storied past of the underground coal industry. Lynch and Benham were developed as coal towns in the early decades of the 20th century and remained so into the 1960s. Portal 31, in Lynch, is an exhibition coal mine, and Benham is home to a mining museum with photos and artifacts.

36. Read All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner was a native of Guthrie, in Western Kentucky, and his most famous work is an American classic.

37. Take your picture by the signs that mark some of Kentucky's more oddly named places. A few suggestions: Black Gnat in Taylor County, Monkey's Eyebrow in Ballard County, Rabbit Hash in Boone County, and Peasticks in Bath County.

38. Visit Letcher County's Lilley Cornett Woods, one of the largest protected tracts of old-growth forest in Kentucky. You'll see what the state would have looked like before people, bulldozers, strip malls, etc.

39. Memorize all the verses to our state song, My Old Kentucky Home, and sing it at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the place that supposedly inspired the song. While you're there, see The Stephen Foster Story. The outdoor musical has been running for more than 50 years.

40. Take a self-guided West Kentucky barbecue tour: Moonlite in Owensboro, Starnes in Paducah, and pork barbecue pits about every 20 miles in the far western Jackson Purchase area.

41. Put your name on a bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Located in downtown Louisville, the museum includes a guided factory tour, and you can see a traveling exhibit, Norman Rockwell: Sports, featuring sports-themed art through Aug. 14.

42. Drink moonshine.

43. Ride a horse.

44. Go hiking or rafting in gorgeous Breaks Interstate Park, which sits on the state line between Kentucky and the state it used to be a part of, Virginia.

45. Stay in Wigwam Village in Cave City. The collection of 15 concrete tepees, a remnant of the mid-20th century heyday of the roadside motel, this is probably one of the unique hostelries in the world.

46. Explore Kentucky's Amish and Mennonite communities. Allen County is known for its rich Mennonite culture and businesses.

47. Get out on Lake Cumberland, to ski, fish or just tie up in a quiet cove. It's the largest manmade reservoir east of the Mississippi River.

48. Drive Eastern Kentucky's U.S. 23, aka the Country Music Highway. The likes of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless and Loretta Lynn grew up along the highway, but more than that, you will see and understand how the land influenced their music.

49. Meditate on life (and death) at Lexington Cemetery, one of the most beautiful places in Central Kentucky. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

50. Walk on the land once owned by Henry Clay, one of America's greatest statesmen, at his Lexington estate, Ashland.


AND THE REST OF THE YEAR ...

Here are some bucket list items for fall, winter and spring in Kentucky.

1. Go to a University of Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena. Even if you don't bleed blue, the sheer spectacle of a game in Rupp's hallowed halls will make you at least appreciate the undying devotion that fans have for the Wildcats.

2. See the Kentucky Derby live. There's a reason it's known around the world, and 164,858 people showed up to see it in May.

3. Hear Loretta Lynn in person. The country music legend, "coal miner's daughter" and national treasure is 78, but she puts on a show as if she just hit the big time.

4. See a moonbow at Cumberland Falls, near Corbin. This natural wonder, seen regularly only here and at Victoria Falls in Africa, is best viewed under a full or almost full moon on very clear nights when humidity is low. That usually means in fall or winter (which might also mean a flask of bourbon for warmth).

5. Visit Perryville Battlefield, the site of the most famous Kentucky Civil War battle. The next re-enactment is in October. The 150th anniversary of the Perryville battle will be in 2012.

6. Visit Appalshop, a Whitesburg arts and education center that has worked for more than 40 years to document and preserve Appalachian culture through music, films and other media. The center hosts Seedtime on the Cumberland in early June each year. That would be a good time to go.

7. Watch the horse races from the clubhouse at Keeneland. The Southern, sophisticated gentility for which Kentucky is known worldwide is on full display there on a pretty spring or fall afternoon. Make sure you eat some of the scrumptious bread pudding, too.

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