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Exploring Kentucky: (State) Park It!

You don’t have to go far to enjoy a safe and healthy getaway

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Born and raised in Kentucky, I have made many memories at Kentucky State Parks over the years. The Bluegrass State is fortunate to have such an outstanding system of 45 of “the nation’s finest” parks that include state resort parks (SRP), state recreation parks, and state historic sites. History hangs thick at many of these park properties.

Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park (859-289-5507), for instance, is spread over 148 acres on the site of a Revolutionary War battle. Its Pioneer Museum tells the area’s story through a fascinating fossil collection and a diorama of the conflict.

In Bardstown, My Old Kentucky Home State Park (502-348-3502) features a grand antebellum house that inspired Stephen Collins Foster to pen our state’s song. These days, an outdoor drama, “Stephen Foster—the Musical,” is performed during the summer months in an amphitheater under the stars.

Columbus-Belmont State Park (270-677-2327), which rests high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi, is the site of a strategically significant fortification built during the Civil War. Gen. Leonidas Polk ordered a heavy chain stretched across the river to block Union gunboats, allowing Confederate control of this key river.

In addition to exquisite natural beauty, each park and site embraces its own traditions, stories and amenities.

To get you started, the focus of this column will be on a few of the 17 state resort parks—i.e., those that include overnight accommodations.
Kentucky’s first state park (1924), Pine Mountain SRP (606-337-3066) is known for its awe-inspiring mountaintop vistas and its challenging links. Wasioto Winds, its championship 18-hole course, was designed by Michael Hurdzan and was ranked fourth nationally by Golf Digest on its list of Best New Affordable Public Golf Courses and second on Golf Magazine’s Best New Challenging Courses list after it opened in the early 2000s.

Each of the park’s 30 lodge rooms has a private balcony with mountain views, or you can stay in one of its 21 cottages. Chow down on fried catfish or a scrumptious hot brown at its restaurant.

Carter Caves SRP (606-286-4411) in Olive Hill is home to an expansive system of underground caves, two of which are open in the winter months. Tours focus on local history, geology and cave ecology. Cascade Cave, one of the park’s largest, boasts highlights such as the Great Chandelier, the largest formation of stalactites in the cave; a 30-foot underground waterfall; and formations such as the Giant Turkey, the Pipe Organ and Headache Rock. Be careful around that last one! The other winter tour is of X Cave, which features a lovely reflecting pool and the spacious Dance Hall, where a previous owner held weekly dances.

Above ground, there are 33 miles of woodland hiking trails in addition to gem mining, mini golf, birding, rappelling and rock climbing for experienced participants. The park also features the 45-acre Smoky Valley Lake, Kentucky’s first trophy bass lake.

Accommodations include a 28-room fieldstone lodge and 12 cozy cottages.

Natural Bridge SRP (606-663-2214) is sheer nirvana for hikers, rock climbers and nature enthusiasts. Located in the 13,379-acre Red River Gorge area of Eastern Kentucky, it is an Archaeological District and National Natural Landmark in the pristine Daniel Boone National Forest. In addition to its popular outdoor square-dancing pavilion, Hoedown Island, the park lures fall leaf-peepers to ride its sky lift, kayakers to paddle beneath the earth on a remarkable Gorge Underground tour, curious explorers to climb its natural sandstone arches, fishermen to cast for the big one, and adventure-seekers to zoom on a zip line high above the vegetation.

Area accommodations include 35 park lodge rooms and 11 cottages, with scads more cabins and campsites in the area. While there, treat yourself to a made-to-order pizza at Miguel’s, a visitors’ hot spot directly across the road from Natural Bridge.

Bordered by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and home to the state’s two largest lakes, Kentucky’s Western Waterlands region boasts three SRPs—Kenlake, Lake Barkley and Kentucky Dam Village—all near the 170,000-acre Land between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
At Kentucky Dam Village, you can fish, motorboat, sail, waterski, tube, jet ski or kayak on the 160,000-acre Kentucky Lake; play 18 holes of championship golf; mountain bike 8.5 miles of certified trails; and stay in any of 72 lodge rooms or 61 cottages.

Due to COVID-19, keep in mind that hours and event schedules can change from day to day and from park to park, so be sure to call before making definite plans. Rest assured that all are following CDC and state-mandated government COVID protocols. Check out the specifics at parks.ky.gov/covid-19-information.

In addition to the aforementioned things-to-do, all Kentucky SRPs have wireless internet access in their lodges, state parks in general offer a 10% discount to folks 62 and over, and no park in the system charges an admission fee. For info on pet policies, golfing dress codes, and the Kentucky State Parks’ volunteer Friends groups, see the general Kentucky State Parks website (parks.ky.gov).
Pick one of these outdoor treasures, leave the confines of your house behind and get out in the fresh Kentucky air!