Diverse sights offer wonder and awe

spectacular variety defines state's 40,000 square miles

September 22, 2012 

When I arrived in Kentucky 36 years ago, I kept hearing the same question from people who lived here: "Why would anyone move from Florida to here? You must be nuts."

The main reason for the move had been to leave a job at a small newspaper for a job at a larger one, but the question gave me pause.

Had I make a mistake?

I am happy to report, after decades of research, that the answer is a resounding "No."

Sure, Florida is warm and sunny, but the beach at Boca Raton doesn't look all that different from the beach at St. Petersburg. And if you've seen one glade, well, you've seen Everglades.

Kentucky, the 37th largest of the 50 states, packs a lot of variety into its 40,400 square miles. That's to be expected with a state built on a tilt. On the east end are rugged mountains, the tallest of which rises more than 4,100 feet above sea level. The west end, 380 miles away, is Mississippi River bottomland that in places is less than 300 feet above sea level.

In between are prairies, forests, streams, rivers, lakes, knobs, swamps, bogs, rolling bluegrass pastures, many small towns, a couple of decent-size cities and Cumberland Falls, the largest waterfall this side of Niagara.

I first discovered the wonder of Kentucky's landscape when I learned I could leave my office in downtown Lexington and, an hour later, be hiking under a natural arch in the Red River Gorge, running into people from around the world drawn by cliffs seemingly designed for climbing.

As the years passed, I made many more discoveries, some on my own time and some while (a-hem) on important story assignments.

Enjoying Kentucky's landscape can be as tame as driving down Old Frankfort Pike or as strenuous as a hike through the Clifty Wilderness. Sure, most of what Daniel Boone saw when he got here has been logged, paved, subdivided and strip-mined, but what's left is pretty special.

There is Pine Mountain, featuring Blanton Forest, the largest chunk of old-growth forest in Kentucky. Some trees there were saplings in the late 1600s.

Closer to Lexington are the Kentucky River Palisades, where, for 100 winding miles between Clay's Ferry and Frankfort, the Kentucky cuts a deep gorge through ancient limestone. It is best seen from a boat, but one of the several nature preserves along the way will do nicely.

Some of the state's best landscape is beneath the surface in Mammoth Cave, the largest known cave system on the planet. It should be on everyone's bucket list.

And there is the oddity called Madrid Bend: Look at a map of Kentucky and you will see a little cartographical afterthought on the left end.

You have to drive into Tennessee to get there because the Mississippi cuts it off from the rest of the state. It's worth a trip, especially if you consider all the other Kentucky landscape you will see on the way there.

Andy Mead, a free-lance writer, can be reached at

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