"From Paducah to Pikeville" is a phrase sometimes used to describe the breadth of Kentucky. But just as the Bluegrass State is more than bluegrass, its landscape is more than two alliterative points on a map.
If anything, Kentucky's landscape is 40,000 square miles of variety. There are lakes, caves and waterfalls; flat fields, thick forests and wetlands; shorelines, stone arches and sinkholes.
Kentucky has five major regions, and the geology and geography of each tells how the state was built from the ground up.
The Eastern Coal Field, dominated by the Appalachian Mountains, contains all or part of 35 of the state's 120 counties. Daniel Boone National Forest, covering 708,000 acres, is in 21 of those counties. Lilley Cornett Woods, a state-owned forest of about 550 acres in Letcher County, is the only remaining stand of virgin timber in Kentucky. Coal is found throughout the region, but level land is scarce.
Today, tourists are drawn to the area's scenic sites, which include Cumberland Falls, between Whitley and McCreary counties; Natural Bridge, a ridge-top arch in Powell County; and Cumberland Gap, in Bell County, which allowed early settlers passage through the mountains.
The Bluegrass is known for its rolling landscape, board fences and Thoroughbred horses. The region's limestone weathered down to form the fertile soil, which attracted the state's first settlers. The state's richest agricultural land is here, so it is no surprise that Woodford and Fayette counties rank highest in livestock receipts.
That's in large part due to the horse industry, which owes everything to the calcium and phosphorous in the soil that gives racehorses the strong skeletal framework to push themselves out of the starting gates and on to the finish lines.
The exposed limestone and dolomite also form the Palisades, the high rock cliffs cut by the Kentucky River.
The Bluegrass region takes its name from poa pratensis, a variety of grass. "It's not really blue — it's green just like all grasses," said Gregg C. Munshaw of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "However, in the spring the flower is a purplish-blue color, and if a field is covered up in Kentucky bluegrass flowers, it can sort of look blue."
The Pennyroyal region (which takes its name from the pennyroyal plant, a member of the mint family) extends from the Cumberland plateau in the east to the Tennessee River in the west, and north from Tennessee to the Ohio River. It might be best characterized by the karst landscape that has sinkholes, caves, springs and disappearing streams. Premier among the karst features is the more than 400-mile-long Mammoth Cave system, the longest in the world. The region is home to Lake Cumberland in southern Kentucky, and Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley marking its 50th anniversary this year.
The Western Coal Field is surrounded by the Pennyroyal region. Owensboro and Henderson are Ohio River ports, while Madisonville sits within the region's southern tier of coal-producing counties. The coal from the region is generally higher in sulfur and ash content than the coal mined in Eastern Kentucky. The region also is home to the Green River, a biodiversity hotspot with 150 species of fish and 70 species of freshwater mussels.
The Jackson Purchase consists of the eight counties in far Western Kentucky. It is named for Gen. Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans and later a U.S. president. It is made up of the Kentucky portion of lands that Jackson, as general, purchased from the Chickasaw Indians in October 1818. A series of massive earthquakes in 1811-12 caused dramatic changes to the region's topography, the most spectacular being the formation of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Part of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge extends into Fulton County. The region is best known for its politics. Alben W. Barkley was vice president under Harry Truman from 1949 to 1953. And the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is the traditional kick-off to Kentucky's political season.
Greg Kocher is a general assignment reporter who covers Central Kentucky. (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader