Kentucky Outdoors: Cave Exploration to Whitewater Rafting to Horseback Riding

Kentucky is the ultimate recreation destination.

Carol Cowan
On Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 09:57

From mild to wild, outdoor recreation options abound in Kentucky. From an idyllic horse farm to spelunking in Mammoth Cave, hiking a wooded trail or scaling a sandstone cliff, floating a houseboat on placid Kentucky lakes or whitewater rafting in countless rivers and streams, the Bluegrass State is an outdoor adventure.

Lovers of nature will find their bliss amid Kentucky’s rolling hills, sparkling waters and unspoiled wilderness.

Forests, Gorges, Rock Climbing in KY

The 700,000-acre Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky lays along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and stretches north to south virtually the length of the state.

More than 5 million people flock to it each year to backpack, camp, picnic and enjoy breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife.

Highlights include the rugged Red River Gorge, an area known for natural stone arches and soaring cliffs.

“Rock climbing has become a very popular attraction at Red River Gorge,” says Bob Adams, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Travel.

Trails for all-terrain vehicles also draw visitors.

“The ATV people, rock climbers and hikers all know this is a great desti­nation for their forms of recreation,” Adams says. “We’re really raising our profile as an adventure-tourism desti­nation.”

Kentucky Lakes

Some of the largest lakes in the east­ern United States are located in Kentucky. Thousands of miles of shoreline sur­round the waters of Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and Cumberland Lake, drawing hikers, boaters and fishermen.

The pristine Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is a popular spot for horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles and hiking, with water-sports enthusiasts making full use of the lakes, Adams says.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Historically, one of the state’s most popular attractions, Mammoth Cave National Park, welcomed a whopping 625,000 visitors in 2008.

More than half of that number go in for cave tours, which can range from short, self-guided walks to longer, more rigorous tours that showcase formations such as Frozen Niagara, the Drapery Room and Star Chamber. The 5.5-mile, six-hour Wild Cave Tour involves climbing, crawling and squeezing through the cave’s obscure underground passageways.

“The cave tours bring many people to the park, but a lot of folks come for the overland trails, which lead to geologic features that offer clues to the cave underneath,” says Vickie Carson, the park’s public information officer.

Some 85 miles of trails and 31 miles of river run through the park, making it a perfect destination for camping, picnicking, horseback riding, canoeing and fishing.

“It’s a great place to step into the woods for a quiet moment to reconnect with nature,” Carson says.

A designated World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, the park truly is a world wonder, and it’s less than a day’s drive from many of the major population centers in the eastern United States.

Kentucky Derby, Horse Park

Adventure of a different pace revolves around Kentucky’s horse industry. Events at Churchill Downs in Louisville, home of the fabled Kentucky Derby, and the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington bring thousands of visitors. For many people, a visit to the state would not be complete without a tour through horse country.

Kentucky Horse Tours is one of several companies in the state that offers private, customized tours of elite thoroughbred operations.

“To see these animals is absolutely breathtaking,” says Kentucky Horse Tours owner Mary Ann Squires. “We take you right into the farms to see the horses up close and personal.”


Carol Cowan began her writing career in 2006 as a staff writer for JournalCommunications.