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Day Tripper: Find your way to Lincoln on a scenic Kentucky byway

A two-hour road trip that can take two days lets you soak in the president's heritage

Contributing Travel WriterJuly 29, 2011 

  • IF YOU GO

    Lincoln Byway

    For more information, visit these tourism sites: Byways.org and Preservationkentucky.org.

Taking in eight counties and six communities, the 71.2 miles of the Lincoln Heritage Scenic Byway courses through some of Central Kentucky's loveliest scenery.

The vistas alone would be reason enough to venture down Ky. 150 and U.S. 31E from Danville to Hodgenville, but the byway is more than just a pretty road.

It offers an interpretation of four key threads in the commonwealth's fabric: President Abraham Lincoln's heritage, the Civil War, the history of bourbon, and religious settlement.

The first stop is Perryville and its Battlefield State Historic Site, commemorating the largest battle ever fought on Kentucky soil, and the one that decided the state's fate in the Civil War. A 7-mile, self-guided interpretive trail offers a look at one of the nation's most untouched Civil War sites.

Next, it's on to Springfield for a tantalizing prelude to the Lincoln story, which unfolds on the latter part of the byway. Here, at the 1816 Courthouse (the oldest still in use west of the Alleghenies) is the elusive marriage certificate of Lincoln's parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, a certificate Abraham searched for in vain, dying without ever receiving confirmation of his legitimacy. A copy of the document is on display, and across from the courthouse stands a bronze sculpture of President Lincoln, commissioned to commemorate his bicentennial.

Just outside Springfield is the Lincoln Homestead State Park, with replicas of the homes where Thomas and Nancy were born. The houses are not original, but some of the furniture inside is, crafted by Thomas more than 200 years ago.

As you leave Springfield, you temporarily leave Lincoln's story behind for that of the Catholics who settled the Bardstown area. A stop at the Abbey of Gethsemani is a chance to visit one of America's oldest Trappist monasteries, dating back to 1848.

Other testaments to the area's importance as a stronghold of Catholicism are St. Joseph's Cathedral, the first Catholic cathedral west of the Alleghenies, and St. Catharine College, founded by the Dominican sisters of St. Catharine of Siena.

In addition to its Catholic history, Bardstown is known for its bourbon heritage, often referred to as "the Bourbon Capital of the World."

Just off the byway is Heaven Hill — for seven decades America's largest independent family-owned producer of distilled spirits — where nearly 17 percent of the world's future supply of bourbon is stored.

Leaving Bardstown (perhaps after a late lunch at the restaurant Circa, in a 1780 building that is possibly the town's oldest stone house) it's time to return to the Lincoln saga. A stop at his boyhood home at Knob Creek sets the stage for the magnificent Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville.

The neo-classical building sitting atop 56 steps (one for each year of Lincoln's life) is a fitting memorial to the 16th president, with its symbolic 16 windows, 16 ceiling rosettes and 16 fence posts.

The byway also offers some hidden gems. Even if you're familiar with the Perryville Battlefield, you might not know that just off the trail is a red-brick mansion, now a private home but once a school attended by temperance worker Carrie Nation. Close to that is Perryville Cave, where early settlers often hid from hostile Indians. Read the plaque outside the cave and learn the grisly fate of one Gen. James Harbison.

There's the justly famous meringue pies at Cecconi's in Springfield and the beautiful covered bridge in Washington County spanning the Beech Fork River.

Driving the byway from one end to the other takes two hours, but stopping to take in its scenic and cultural riches could easily take two days.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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