From the Appalachians to the Mississippi, Kentucky offers stunning scenery, rich history and more for travelers.
If the only times you think about Kentucky are during basketball season or the Kentucky Derby,
this primer on the Bluegrass State will inspire you to visit My Old Kentucky Home* on your next
vacation. Read on to plan your Kentucky adventure.
Explore Kentucky by Region
The Cumberland (or Appalachian) Plateau dominates the eastern third of Kentucky. Home to forests, hills and mountains, here’s where you’ll find the state’s highest point, Black Mountain, at 4,139 ft.
I travel this region extensively for its exquisite beauty and because, as a motorcyclist, I’m always looking for a combination of twisty roads, rivers, and mountains. The Cumberland region never disappoints.
The human history of the region centers on its people’s hardscrabble living as mountaineers and coal miners.
- Visit the birthplace of country music legend Loretta Lynne, aka “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in Butcher Holler.
- Pike County offers a self-guided tour of sites made famous by the Hatfield-McCoy fued.
KOAs in the Cumberland Region:
Since the antebellum years, the region has been a center for breeding quality livestock, especially Thoroughbred race horses. While Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, comes top0fmind for horse racing, Lexington is the true heart of Kentucky horse country.
There are about 450 horse farms in the region (about 150 in Lexington/Fayette County alone). Click here for tour operators who will take you to the farms where the horses are bred, raised, trained and retired.
Definitely visit the Kentucky Horse Park, which celebrates all aspects of the magnificent and multifaceted equine. Start at the Breeds Barn Show where you’ll get to know 25+ breeds of horses from around the world. There’s even a kids’ barn with stories and activities perfect for young visitors.
The limestone that makes Bluegrass grow so beautifully is also responsible for some of the world’s most renowned whiskey. It’s said that Kentucky is uniquely suited to be the bourbon capital of the world because it sits on top of an ancient limestone aquifer, which filters iron out of the water. You can learn more about the process of turning corn into whiskey at many distilleries throughout the region.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail includes nine distilleries in an area bordered by Lexington in the east and Louisville in the west. Download a free map here. The Bourbon Trail’s organizers suggest taking three days to visit the nine distillers, allowing for time to travel from one to another, tour the plants, and (if over age 21) sample the wares. If you plan to imbibe, consider a group tour and leave the driving to Mint Julep Tours and R&R Limousine Service.
Speaking of distilled spirits, Louisville’s Whiskey Row/Museum Row is home to distilleries (and its own Urban Bourbon Trail). The family-friendly Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, and the Muhammad Ali Center are among other attractions along the waterfront with reciprocal discounts when you show your ticket from another attraction. Better yet, purchase the Main Ticket and visit six attractions with one ticket for an entire year.
For history buffs, the Bluegrass Region is home to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Visit the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, and the Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home, as well as other sites on the Lincoln Heritage Trail.
KOAs in the Bluegrass Region:
The Mammoth Cave area is the world’s longest cave system, with more than 400 miles explored with possibly 600 more miles yet to be discovered. Geologists estimate that the oldest part of Mammoth
Cave began forming around 10 million years ago. Home to Mammoth Cave National Park, the region is also dotted with caves owned by private operators.
Be sure to take an official tour and see why Mammoth Cave (along with Niagara Falls) was the preeminent tourist attraction at the turn of the twentieth century. As fascinating natural history of the region is, its human history is even more so: enslaved men explored and guided tourists through them before and after the Civil War. You’ll learn about these “slave guides” during your tour and if you’re lucky one of their descendants will be your guide.
Also in the region is Bowling Green’s National Corvette Museum. The Museum features over 80
Corvettes in periodic settings, including mint classics, one-of-a-kind prototypes and those of the modern day. Visitors of all ages will enjoy the interactive trivia kiosks and rotating exhibits.
KOAs in the Mammoth Cave area:
The Mississippi River flood plain includes one of my favorite places to visit: the “Land Between the Lakes” recreational area. Bordered by Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, it is a hilly, forested area of some 170,000 acres and is home to a herd of bison and another of elk. The area has been restored to what it would have looked like during the time of Daniel Boone.
KOAs in the Mississippi River flood plain:
I’ve only scratched the surface of the many delights to be found in Kentucky. For more inspiration and resources, download the official Kentucky Travel Guide. If you have a favorite Kentucky destination, please share it below in the comments to help others plan their Bluegrass vacation.
* “My Old Kentucky Home” is the official state song. You’ll hear it played before each running of the Kentucky Derby.
“American Road Trip Expert” Tamela Rich is an award-winning author, storyteller and adventurer. She began her love affair with the open road as a child, traveling with her family in the Vista Cruiser station wagon from Ohio to California every other summer. During her monthly TV appearances, Tamela shares family-oriented travel tips and itineraries for local, regional and national road trips. Visit her website: www.TamelaRich.com