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Exploring Kentucky: A Living Laboratory

Experience nature’s artistry with a visit to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

By Matthew Moore

In 1929, a German immigrant named Isaac W. Bernheim arrived in America with only $4 in his pocket. Eventually, his Bernheim Brothers Distilling Co. produced a popular bourbon named I.W. Harper that made him a fortune in the Kentucky distilling business. In gratitude to the people of his new homeland for his success, Bernheim purchased a large tract of land in Bullitt and Nelson counties where Kentuckians could go to strengthen their connections with nature and seek inspiration from outdoor art.

Located south of Louisville in Clermont, the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest today serves as a guiding steward, a kind of “hero” of woods and land. Its lush green landscapes and towering trees stretch as far as the eye can see over 16,000 acres, home to 8,000 species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Visitors can hike through an array of environments along 40 miles of natural forest trails that range in distance and difficulty from an easy quarter mile to a 13.75-mile trail for experienced hikers only. The pathways wind around ponds, lakes, meadows and groves of trees, interspersed with works of art created over the past 40 years by participants in the organization’s artist-in-residence program.

To celebrate Bernheim’s 90th anniversary in 2019, Danish artist Thomas Dambo created three giant trolls throughout the arboretum using local scrap wood. Called “The Forest Giants in a Giant Forest,” the three enormous “visitors” will be at Bernheim until sometime in 2024. To find those magnificent trolls, simply follow the huge yellow footprints to each one.

With a goal of becoming a leader in educational and ecological stewardship, Bernheim is divided into two distinct parts: the 600-acre arboretum and an enormous expanse of natural areas featuring a 24-square-mile forest. Within the arboretum are a visitor center (which was the first LEED platinum-certified building in the state), a research building, garden pavilion, education center, and numerous indoor and outdoor meeting and event rental spaces. Those include the 200-seat Sunset Amphitheatre overlooking Lake Nevin; the colorful Garden Pavilion, with a 60-person capacity; and the Visitor Center’s Sassafras Room, designed to feel light and airy like a tree for a gathering of up to 75.

No matter your age—really!—this tree-filled treasure has a program to keep you busy learning about plants, wildlife and taking good care of the earth. Bernheim’s goal in its programming is to inspire learners to develop relationships with nature through programs that are creative, playful and grounded in the natural sciences. A new, 10-acre natural playground called Playcosystem was designed in harmony with nature to provide kids with play opportunities that support healthy development.

Field trips and group tours abound for adults and children. Those include Kids’ Discovery Days, Birding Strolls, Family Fishing Days, Creatures of the Night, and Nighttime Firefly Hikes. There’s even a program for families of kids with newborns up to 5 years old called Pollywalks, complete with stories, songs and nature explorations.

A Sensory Garden welcomes folks of all abilities. Interpretive signage with pictographs and Braille describes each sensory landscape bed. Its “Touch” space has tactile plants, a “Quiet” space offers a place to sit and be soothed by nature, and a “Hearing” space has water features where small animals come to drink and people can be soothed by the watery sounds. Buddy Benches, the dream of a local Cub Scout, offer safe places where those who have been bullied or perceived as “different” in some way can take a break from negative thoughts and commune with the sights, sounds and/or feel of nature.

You can bike on a designated route along Long Lick Creek, fish on 32-acre Nevin Lake, and bring your leashed dog on a real leg-stretcher. Hike, ogle the diverse wildlife and outside art, then eat veggies still warm from the sun at Isaac’s Café. A four-acre Edible Garden next to the café meets the most rigorous sustainable design standards. Its entire carbon footprint is offset using solar panels, naturally sourced water, locally sourced materials, and innovative organic gardening techniques. The vegetable plot was built with the intent to improve the natural environment and make it healthier.

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is open all year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. A $15 donation per car is suggested but not required. Find out more at bernheim.org or call (502) 955-8512.