My top nine places to visit in Kentucky

The choices might be subjective, but there's no denying the attractions that the Bluegrass State contains

Contributing Travel WriterJune 15, 2012 

A few weeks ago, Kentucky's Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, Marcheta Sparrow, wrote an editorial in the Herald-Leader suggesting that commonwealth residents look to their own back yard for summer travel destinations.

We are fortunate in that within our relatively small state are some of the nation's most scenic wonders as well as some terrific man-made ones. It's subjective, I know, and I'm leaving out some incredible places, but here are my top Kentucky treasures. All are well worth a visit — or a revisit.

Mammoth Cave National Park

The crystal columns suspended from the cave ceiling appear sprinkled with fairy dust. In the dim light, the eerie formations sprouting from the walls and rising from the floor cast murky shadows. It's easy to imagine you're in the company of ghosts when standing several hundred feet beneath the sandstone-capped ridges of Mammoth Cave National Park, the most extensive cave system on Earth, with more than 350 miles of passageways mapped, and who knows how many more uncharted.

You can marvel at the Giant's Coffin, Bridal Altar and Star Chamber — formations of stalactites and stalagmites, naturally carved from stone and eroded by water, their beauty frozen in time.

Cave tours range from 30-minute beginners' tours to a 6½ -hour Wild Cave Tour, requiring a head lamp and serious chutzpah. You might want to compromise with the two-hour Frozen Niagara Tour, which allows for plenty of thrills without having to shimmy through miniscule openings or wear unflattering headgear.

Details: 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, near Cave City. (270) 758-2180. NPS.gov/maca.

National Corvette Museum

Not far from Mammoth Cave, just off Interstate 65 in Bowling Green, is a vivid structure that resembles a large yellow mushroom impaled on a red toothpick. The flamboyant architecture, however, is just a warm-up for the flamboyant product displayed inside.

Perhaps no automobile has captured America's heart as has the Corvette. The sporty roadster was the 20th-century version of the elegant carriage, albeit with a lot more horsepower.

About a quarter-mile from the assembly plant where the Corvette is manufactured, the museum is a monument to a time when you could fill up your tank for $5, and the back roads of America offered a "Huck Finn on wheels" kind of adventure.

Full-scale dioramas show classic Corvette models in period settings; famous 'Vettes are on display, and the car's time line is covered — from its beginnings chronicled through newsreels in the 200-seat theater to futuristic designs still in the embryonic stages.

Details: 350 Corvette Drive, Bowling Green. Corvettemuseum.com.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Imagine finding in one travel destination the second-largest inland peninsula in the United States, the second-largest contiguous block of forested public land east of the Mississippi River and the largest publicly owned bison herd east of the Mississippi. Then imagine finding it right here in Kentucky.

That's exactly what you will find at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, picturesquely sprawled across rural southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee. The 360-square-mile peninsula, formed when the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers were impounded to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, is a water-sports enthusiast's paradise, offering swimming, boating, waterskiing and some of the best fishing in the southeastern United States.

The slender column of land running between the two lakes is more than a watery wonderland. It has history (three sites on the National Register of Historic Places), wildlife (from deer and bobcat to osprey and eagles, and of course, there's that 750-acre Elk and Bison Prairie) and three excellent resort parks: Lake Barkley, Kenlake and Kentucky Dam Village.

Details: 100 Van Morgan Dr., Golden Pond. (270) 924-2000 or 1-800-525-7077. LBL.org.

Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Resort Park

It's rare for any state to have two treasures like Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge practically side by side.

Near Slade, the gorge, in the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a 29,000-acre wonderland of cliffs, rock shelters, caves, waterfalls, mountain pools and some 100 natural arches, the largest concentration east of the Rocky Mountains. The best-known is Sky Bridge, from which one can get an excellent view of the Clifty Wilderness.

About 10 miles from the gorge's entrance is the entrance to Natural Bridge, whose main attraction is the sandstone formation from which is gets its name. At 65 feet high and 78 feet long, Natural Bridge is the largest of the park's arches, taking nearly 65 million years to be carved by the raging waters of the Red River. Visitors may access it by a sky lift or a hiking trail that begins at the park's lodge.

Details: Red River Gorge, near Slade; Redrivergorge.com. Natural Bridge, 2135 Natural Bridge Road, Slade; (606) 663-2214 or 1-800-325-1710; Parks.ky.gov.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

For Dr. Thomas Walker, the first known white man to cross the Cumberland Gap, in 1759, it was a passageway through the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Allegheny Mountains — a chance to penetrate the dividing line between the familiar East and the unknown West.

Visitors still pour through the Gap to visit the 20,000-acre park just south of Middlesboro. They come to reach the top of the 2,440-foot Pinnacle Overlook, with its view of three states (Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia), and White Rock, where on a clear day you can see all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

The two scenic overlooks are linked by the Ridge Trail, running the entire length of the park. Additionally, some 70 miles of hiking trails range in length from a quarter-mile to 21 miles.

Details: 91 Bartlett Park Road, off U.S. 25E, Middlesboro. (606) 248-2817. NPS.gov/cuga.

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park

There are only two places in the world where a rare phenomenon — a moonbow, which occurs during cycles of the full moon — may be found. To see one, you'd have to travel to Victoria Falls in southern Africa. To see the other, you only have to travel to southern Kentucky.

With a width of 125 feet and a drop of 68 feet, Cumberland Falls attracts throngs of visitors who look at the lacy spirals of water spilling into the boulder-studded river below.

A perpetual mist surrounds the falls, and this, in part, is what causes the moonbow. The scientific explanation is the light of the full moon is reflected and refracted in the delicate droplets of the mist, causing the arc to appear a ghostly white rather than multihued. Possibly, but it's poetry and not science that most think of when viewing their first moonbow.

The park's Web site keeps a calendar of possible times to see a moonbow. The next opportunities are 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. July 1; 10 p.m. to midnight July 2; 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. July 3; and 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. July 4.

Details: 7351 Ky. 90, Corbin. (606) 528-4121 or 1-800-325-0063. Parks.ky.gov.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Less than a half-hour drive from Cumberland Falls is another of Kentucky's scenic wonders: the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, covering parts of southeastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. This is a place of contrasts: jagged gorges and scarred fissures next to deep expanses of cool, green forest. The contrasts are so stark it has an otherworldly feel.

Again, there's plenty of territory for hikers (150 miles of trails offering everything from 1-mile loops to multiday hikes), but most visitors come for an excursion on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. The more than 100-year-old train, once part of the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, takes passengers on a 16-mile round-trip journey that descends 600 feet into the gorge of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.

From the open-air train car, you get a look at flowing mountain streams and vertigo-inducing vistas before stopping at Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp, typical of the camps that flourished in this part of Appalachia.

Details: Park: Blue Heron Interpretive Center is on Mine 18 Road (Ky. 742), near Stearns; (606) 376-5073; Nps.gov/biso. Railway: 100 Henderson Street, Stearns; 1-800-462-5664; Bsfsry.com.

Breaks Interstate Park

Straddling the Kentucky-Virginia state line between Elkhorn City, Ky., and Haysi, Va., this is one of only two interstate parks in the nation. Its centerpiece is the 5-mile, 1,600-foot deep canyon formed more than 250 million years ago by the raging waters of the Russell Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River, on their headlong dash to the Ohio River.

The "breaks" in Pine Mountain made by the water resulted in the sandstone gorge, the largest and deepest east of the Mississippi River, often referred to as "the Grand Canyon of the South."

Daniel Boone is only one of the figures associated with Breaks. Shawnee Indians used Pow Wow Cave for secret ceremonies, and Englishman John Swift allegedly buried a fortune in silver here. The Hatfields and McCoys warred across the state line, but on a more peaceful note, the literary "Trail of the Lonesome Pines" wends its way around the park.

Details: Park entrance is off Va. 80 in Breaks, Va. (276) 865-4413. Breakspark.com.

Newport Aquarium

Kentucky is fortunate to have an aquarium that can hold its own with the likes of the ones in Boston, New Orleans and Monterey, Calif. From lovable tuxedoed King and Gentoo penguins, which strut around the Antarctic-like Penguin Palooza area, to the menacing alligators lazing on the banks of a re-created Louisiana bayou, Newport Aquarium, in Northern Kentucky, is the place to go for the denizens of the deep.

Rated one of the top aquariums in the country by Zagat Travel Guide, its stunning exhibits range from Dangerous and Deadly, where poisonous predators await their prey, to Jellyfish Gallery, where diaphanous, fragile jellies float in a watery ballet.

Details: 1 Levee Way, Newport. 1-800-406-3474. Newportaquarium.com.

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

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