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A recreational paradise: Region offers many activities

By Abby Laub

Northern Kentucky has everything the sports and recreation recipe calls for. Fancy a solo trail bike ride? Check. Take in a professional baseball game with friends? Check. The region’s rich sports history has seeped into the rhythm of everyday life, creating an accessible and approachable athletics culture for every type of fan.

The latest addition, the Florence Y’alls, is unapologetically Northern Kentucky. The name, which was changed during a renaming contest from the former independent league baseball team known as Florence Freedom, pays homage to the iconic “Florence Y’all” water tower that welcomes Interstate 75 drivers to Northern Kentucky.

“It’s a very exciting time in our organization’s history,” said Y’alls General Manager Josh Anderson. “We have a name that is uniquely Florence, and on a larger scale uniquely Kentucky. We look forward to creating Y’alls culture on a nightly basis.”

The team, originally formed in 2003, also holds amateur and youth leagues, creating a unique small-town baseball culture.

And just a quick drive up the road is the big league cousin, Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds. The Great American Ballpark stadium is picturesquely nestled on the Ohio River and is an easy walk across the bridge from Northern Kentucky, where sports fans can often be found enjoying food or staying in hotels after the game. Sports fans in the region also can enjoy the National Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals or Major League Soccer’s FC Cincinnati, which is the most recent addition to the professional sports scene in the area.

In a typical year, sports fans can also take in collegiate sports, with the NCAA Division I Northern Kentucky teams, and Thomas More University’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics games. There are also sporting events at the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University.

COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on those sporting events in 2020, but Northern Kentucky sports enthusiasts still have plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities within reach.
The Ohio River is a centerpiece for much of the activity, and recent efforts spearheaded by Southbank Partners have upped the ante on the riverfront recreation vibe.

Construction of a 1,350-seat amphitheater on the Covington riverfront was nearing completion in late December 2020. It is part of the City of Covington’s portion of the Riverfront Commons project, an 11.5-mile trail that connects Northern Kentucky’s six river cities – Ludlow, Covington, Newport Bellevue, Dayton, and Fort Thomas – to the City of Cincinnati and other local trail systems.

The amphitheater project includes two hiking and biking trails of more than 2,800 feet connecting with existing trails, a cobblestone pier for paddlers and anglers, and upgraded overlooks and other amenities. It’s a $6.54 million project that is considered the “crown jewel” of Riverfront Commons.

In June 2020, Southbank Partners celebrated the opening of the Riverfront Commons Pedestrian Bridge, which connects the Taylor-Southgate Bridge to the Riverwalk level of Newport on the Levee. When Riverfront Commons is completed, the trail will seamlessly connect over the Purple People Bridge to trails in Cincinnati, the Licking River Greenway in Northern Kentucky and Devou Park in Covington.

Easy pedestrian access is a key highlight of Northern Kentucky. Bike-share programs like Devou Cycle and Cincinnati Red Bike offer opportunities to traverse around the entire region without getting into a car or public transportation.

Thoroughbred horse racing fans have first-class entertainment in Florence at the historic Turfway Park. The property was purchased in fall 2019 by Louisville-based Churchill Downs with sights set on a nearly completed makeover that will cost approximately $100 million.

Because of construction on the new Turfway Park Racing & Gaming property, spectators were not able to attend the live races in 2020 but could participate in simulcast wagering. The history behind Thoroughbred racing at Turfway Park spans three centuries. According to its website, the track’s roots reach from the first race at the original Latonia Race Course in 1883 in Latonia, Ky., 10 miles north of present-day Turfway.

“We are thrilled to welcome Turfway Park to the Churchill Downs racing family,” said Kevin Flanery, retired president of Churchill Downs Race Track. “Our team is poised to restore Turfway to its former glory, anchored by Northern Kentucky’s first historical racing machine facility. The result will be a first-class racing product fueled by increased purses that keeps high-quality horses in Kentucky year-round and appeals to horseplayers nationwide.”

In October 2020, Churchill Downs opened Newport Racing & Gaming, an extension of the racing license associated with Turfway Park. The facility has a historical racing machine gaming floor, bar and horse racing simulcast area.

Car racing thrill seekers for the last two decades enjoyed NASCAR racing at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. Although NASCAR is not on the schedule for 2021 in Kentucky, Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger has said the property will evolve into a multi-use facility, and plans for the future are still in the works.

For those who prefer to journey on their own two feet, the region boasts ample recreational opportunities, all within close proximity to the urban core and riverfront. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many homebound Northern Kentuckians outdoors to enjoy affordable, socially distanced entertainment. Each location has its own set of COVID-19 safety guidelines.

In Union, the eclectic Jane’s Saddlebag is located only a few miles from Big Bone Lick State Park and features a “hands on” historic educational experience, complete with the old restored “Saddlebag” home, original stone smokehouse, and a life-size replica of a 1700s-style flat boat.

The Licking River Greenway and Trails (LRGT) is a multi-phase urban trail project through the Licking River corridor, connecting the cities of Covington, Taylor Mill, Wilder and Newport. When complete, the multi-purpose trail system will span nearly 14 miles.

From Newport on the Levee, visitors and residents can enjoy a pedestrian-only walk high above the Ohio River on the iconic Newport Southbank Bridge (better known as the Purple People Bridge). The nearly half-mile bridge connects Newport to downtown Cincinnati and to trails along the river in both states. Originally built in 1886, it plays host to a range of festivals and celebrations, including weddings and other events.

In Cincinnati, the Great Parks of Hamilton County was created in 1930 and today boasts 21 parks and preserves. The largest, Miami Whitewater Forest, offers scenic trails, stand-up paddleboarding, golf, nature displays, disc golf, sports fields, picnic areas, a dog park, shelters, picnic areas and more.

Thrill seekers can ride the ziplines and stroll through the tree-top canopy at EarthJoy Tree Adventures, Northern Kentucky’s first professional tree-climbing company, the Screaming Eagle Zip Lines at the Ark Encounter in Williamstown; or Screaming Raptor Zip Line and Canopy Adventure Tours at the Creation Museum in Petersburg.

The Northern Kentucky riverfront and its surrounding foothills and countryside are chock full of many more opportunities to fit every season of life, COVID-19 or not.