Welcome to The Kentucky Wildlands. A magical place you’ve likely never heard of before. Expanding over 14,000 square miles, The Kentucky Wildlands is filled with many of the state’s natural wonders and endless opportunities for exploration. This is adventure tourism at its best.
In some ways, I hesitate to tell the world about this unspoiled wilderness, carved out of the rivers, canyons, peaks and valleys of the majestic Appalachians that’s managed to remain somewhat undiscovered for hundreds of years.
Having been born and raised in this special place, there’s a part of me that would selfishly like to keep it to myself. But then you wouldn’t know about or get to experience all the amazing adventures that one can have here. And that would be a shame. Because whether you’re a hiker, fisherman, climber, kayaker, mountain biker, off-roader, boater, white water rafter, horseback rider, birdwatcher, wildlife viewer, history buff, music lover, or you just like seeing some spectacular natural sights, there is a unique, unforgettable adventure in The Kentucky Wildlands for anyone.
Once I share a bit about this incredible region with you, I have no doubt you’ll want to add it to your travel bucket list. To start, you probably didn’t know that the South has its own Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls and that both can be found in The Kentucky Wildlands. This is also the land Daniel Boone first laid eyes on when he crossed into southeastern Kentucky near Pine Mountain at what is now Breaks Interstate Park more than 250 years ago. Thought to be the first person of European descent to discover this natural “break” in the Appalachians, Boone made his home and built his reputation in The Kentucky Wildlands. It’s not hard to imagine what he saw when he looked out over the Breaks, or “Grand Canyon of the South”, since it looks almost exactly the same as it did back in 1767.
The Daniel Boone National Forest is a hiker’s, mountain biker’s and horseback rider’s paradise, stretching over 708,000 acres from Morehead to the Tennessee border with more than 600 miles of trails. Teeming with wildlife, it’s home to 41 species of birds, 44 reptiles, 41 amphibians and 150 different fish.
The Red River Gorge, known for its world-class rock climbing, hiking and fishing, is a National Natural Landmark and treasure boasting an estimated 150 natural arches formed over millions of years. Located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the 29,000-acre Red River Gorge Geographical Area is home to steep cliffs, canyons, waterfalls, hiking trails, scenic rivers and the renowned Natural Bridge, a sandstone rock bridge 65 feet high and 78 feet long offering stunning views. Kayakers and canoers can spend days winding down the Red River in this little piece of heaven.
As for waterfalls, you’ll find hundreds (that have been counted so far) of magnificent cascading falls along forested and mountain trails, including Cumberland Falls, the “Niagara of the South”, where the only moonbow in the Western Hemisphere regularly occurs. Other equally impressive falls include Yahoo Falls (tallest in the state), Bad Branch Falls, Eagle Falls, Broke Leg Falls, Flat Lick Falls and Pine Island Double Falls.
Many trails leading to highland peaks, natural bridges and falls can be accessed from the 15 Kentucky Trail Towns located within The Kentucky Wildlands. These mountain towns and others throughout eastern Kentucky feature charming historic downtowns and main streets where you can browse in unique locally owned shops and artisan studios, grab a coffee or a local brew and catch a live theatrical or musical performance.
Allow me to brag a little about my hometown, Stearns, one of the Kentucky Trail Towns that was once the hub of a logging and mining empire. Rich in cultural history, Stearns is now the center of exciting outdoor experiences and a gateway to the awe-inspiring Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Imagine growing up with that as your backyard! From here, it’s easy access to the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, the longest trail in Kentucky and Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, as well as 40 natural arches and 25 waterfalls scattered across McCreary County. Here, you can also jump on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway for a memorable ride through the mountains.
In Corbin, you can taste the Colonel’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken at his first official restaurant, or rent a houseboat in Jamestown, Monticello, Nancy or Burnside on Lake Cumberland. You can visit a cut-through that moved a mountain and relocated a river in Pikeville, along with the sight of the notorious Hatfield and McCoy feud dating back to the Civil War. As for the Civil War, there are a number of historic landmarks and battlefield sights located in the area. Also, you probably don’t know that The Kentucky Wildlands is home to more country music legends and Grand Ole Opry stars than anywhere else in the U.S. The country and bluegrass legacy runs deep here along the Country Music Highway on U.S. 23.
Some of the best camping and lodging in the South can be found at any of the 20 incredible Kentucky State Parks located in The Kentucky Wildlands. From peaceful, quiet escapes to wet and wild outdoor adventures, there’s a wide range of activities geared to just about everyone. You can spend hours in solitude along miles of pristine forest and water trails perfect for hiking, mountain biking, mudslinging or paddling. You can cast into a sparkling lake or tee off on a world-class course atop a mountain. From Carter Caves State Resort Park with its cave tours, swinging bridges, trails, lake and gem mining and Natural Bridge State Resort Park with its skylift, climbing routes, fishing, canoeing and hoedowns to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park’s elk viewing, live theater, mountain biking, fishing and boating, there’s so much to see and do. Experience family-friendly white-water rafting at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. More challenging white water can be found at Breaks Interstate Park for Class IV, and the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River for Class V rapids.
Obviously, I could go on and on about this amazing place I’ve been fortunate to call home, but the only way for you to believe what may sound like a lot of hype is to see The Kentucky Wildlands for yourself. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed. You’ll be surprised this hidden gem has managed to stay under the radar for so long! We can help you plan and book your trip, so come see us soon!Tammie Nazario Director, The Kentucky Wildlands