Kentucky is known for many things: the Kentucky Derby, horse racing, the birthplace of bourbon, and the bourbon trail, to name a few. Hiking and outdoor adventures might not be top of mind -- but they should be. From Mammoth Cave National Park and Land Between the Lakes in the western part of the state to Daniel Boone National Forrest and the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky, the outdoor adventures and possibilities are endless. Kentucky features some of the best trails in the lower Midwest. The following are a compilation of some of my favorites from the past decade and beyond.
1. Honker Lake Trail, Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area
The jewel of western Kentucky is Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) and the two lakes that surround it, Kentucky and Barkley Lake. Boating is the optimal way to explore this man-made treasure, but the hiking in LBL is also some of the best in this part of the state. The Honker Lake Trail is 4.5 miles long and easy to moderate in difficulty. It goes around Honker Lake, an embayment of Lake Barkley. The trail is mainly flat, with dense forestland that winds in and around the lake. Expect to see lots of wildlife -- the birdwatching is excellent here, as bald eagles love this area, and keep your eyes peeled. Start your expedition at the Woodland Nature Station, which serves as a gateway to the 8,500-acre Nature Watch Area.
2. Gray’s Arch Loop, Red River Gorge
There are dozens of hiking options in the canyon system on the Red River, which is named Red River Gorge. Gray’s Arch Loop is a great hike to start exploring this intricate canyon system by taking the nearly four-mile path to see the 50-foot-tall and 80-foot-wide rock formation that is Gray’s Arch. The views are stunning, and there are rock formations and even waterfalls depending on the time of year. There are more than 100 natural sandstone arches in the Red River Gorge Geological Area, and it is great for both hiking and rock climbing. This isn’t the best hike to escape civilization, as it is usually populated and oftentimes crowded. There are a few spots that can be tricky, but having done it with both grandkids and novice hikers, I can safely say it’s a moderate hike. Make sure to wear the proper hiking boots; the gorge is no place for sandals and can be slick and/or muddy depending on the season.
3. Rock Bridge Trail, Red River Gorge
Easy and enjoyable, the Rock Bridge Trail in Red River Gorge is beautiful and on the shorter side if you fancy more of a nature walk than a hike. The 1.5-mile trail is mostly paved and has carved steps in the steep stretches. The reward waiting for you on this one- to two-hour hike is a beautiful waterfall and arch. This is a very popular hike due to its relative ease, and it has one of the few arches passing over water.
4. Panoramic Trail, Daniel Boone National Forest
This is an easy-to-follow hiking trail that’s just as scenic as the name suggests! This portion of Daniel Boone National Forest is about two miles south of Lexington and close to the Tennessee border. There are many hiking trails in this area of the forest, and 1.5-mile Panoramic Trail is one of the easiest and most enjoyable for all ages. Along the walk, you will see beautiful views and experience the vastness of Daniel Boone Forest. The best time to visit is in the fall when the trees are changing colors. In this part of the country, that generally happens later in the fall, toward the end of October and into early November.
5. Bark Camp Trail, Daniel Boone National Forest
Near Parkers Lake
As the name suggests, this hike is indeed dog friendly. This is a stunning hike that will make you forget you are in Kentucky and not in a rainforest! Most of the trail runs along Bark Camp Creek, weaving under rock shelters, cliffs, and small waterfalls. The waterfall at the end is nothing short of breathtaking and takes about an hour to get to. The moderately difficult 4.5-mile trail is in and out and from start to finish can take anywhere from four to six hours.
6. Eagle Falls Trail, Cumberland Falls State Park
Near Parkers Lake
One of my favorite hikes of recent memory is the Eagle Falls Trail. It’s the perfect blend of a moderate to slightly strenuous hike with a great payoff at the end. The trail is lollipop shaped and leads you to beautiful Eagle Falls on this mile-and-a-half-long trek. It’s mostly uphill, so if you are looking for a leisurely walk, this isn’t for you. There are stairs and plenty of places to maintain your balance, so don’t be discouraged by the moderate-to-strenuous difficulty. If you take your time to explore, you will notice many caves to check out along the way, and depending on the time of year, you’ll enjoy views of Cumberland Falls as well.
7. Dog Slaughter Falls Trail, Cumberland Falls State Park
If you take this hike on a hot day, you can hop into the water and cool off with a swim at the falls. The hike itself runs parallel to Dog Slaughter Creek and is both scenic and well marked. It’s an in-and-out type hike, so what you miss on the way in, you can check out on the way out. Along the moderately difficult 2.5-mile route, there are many large boulders and fallen trees, plus lush vegetation. Once you reach the falls, you will be viewing it from above. Watch for a path on your right that meanders down the hill to get to the bottom. Use the time at the bottom to swim, rest, eat lunch, and take photos. The proper hiking shoe is key on this hike as it can be slippery in spots, and I’ve seen snakes on it many times over the years. Ideally, you’d wear a hybrid type shoe that will let you wade in the water while also providing the right support.
8. Echo River And River Styx Springs Trail, Mammoth Cave National Park
Near Park City
I discovered the many trails and hiking possibilities during my most recent visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. Most people go for the caves themselves, but if you’ve already experienced them, don’t sleep on the dozens of trails in this national park. My favorite is the Echo River Trail. Its beauty and relative ease make it more like a leisurely forest walk than anything else, and it is dog friendly if you want your pup to tag along. The entrance is near the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center and easy to find, and the hike itself takes you through 3.5 miles of lush forests along the Green River and the River Styx Spring. It also passes a cave entrance, which is great for photo ops.
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