In the Southeastern region, Kentucky is one of several states that’s also considered to be a part of the Upper South. Called the “Bluegrass State”, it’s most famous for its unique culture that includes horse racing, bluegrass music, Kentucky Fried Chicken, bourbon, and moonshine.
While the local culture is iconic throughout the United States, this southern state has a few hidden secrets as well. While most tourists head to Kentucky for a good time, food and drinks, the state’s natural attractions shouldn’t be forgotten. The diverse landscape includes major destinations like Mammoth Cave National Park, the Red River Gorge, and the Cumberland Gap.
Whether you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway, are in the area for a special event or want to stay a while, the diverse culture, geography, and activities make Kentucky a fun place to explore. For a taste of Southern charm, a trip to this state will be unforgettable.
History of the “Bluegrass State”
Archeologists theorize that humans have been living in Kentucky since before 10,000 BCE. However, there has yet to be any documented evidence to support that theory. What is known is that the hunter-gatherer way of life changed around 1800 BCE to rely more on agriculture.
European settlement of the land didn’t begin until hundreds of years later. The first permanent settlement in the area was established by James Harrod in 1774.
By 1792, true separation was granted. Kentucky became the 15th state to be admitted to the Union in June that year. During the 1800s, plantations were built to grow tobacco and hemp. While Kentucky relied on slave labor, the state would ultimately be a part of the Union, though it remained neutral during the American Civil War.
One of the most well-known historical events was the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud that spanned the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. The McCoys lived in Kentucky and the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side.
The feud was started with the death of Asa Harmon McCoy, who was murdered by William Anderson Hatfield (“Devil Anse”) in 1865. Two years prior to this, a friend of Devil Anse was killed, of which, Asa McCoy took credit – ultimately leading to the murder. Escalation of the rivalry occurred 13 years later in 1878, when the families were in dispute over the ownership of a hog.
Over the decades, the feud would continue to escalate with members of both families killed. Ultimately, the feud ended when the families were taken to trial. The courts sided with the McCoys and subsequently, eight Hatfields were handed life sentences and one death sentence for their crimes.
Since the end, the feud has gone down as legendary and is ingrained in American folklore. Films, television programs, music, and theater performances have all been made about the Hatfields and McCoys.
Capital City of Frankfort
Boasting a population of 28,602 as of 2020, Frankfort is the 4th smallest state capital in the nation. However, this compact capital city is filled to the brim with history with its roots tracing back to the late 1700s. Additionally, Frankfort’s small town feel makes it a charming destination, where visitors can leisure along either sides of the Kentucky River.
A few of the most prominent attractions are the New Capitol Building, Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, the Daniel Boone Burial Site and Frankfort Cemetery, Liberty Hall Historic Site, Old State Capitol Building, Kentucky Military History Museum, and the Capital City Museum.
To enjoy the outdoors, visitors should spend time at the Salato Wildlife Education Center, Cove Springs Park, the Riverview Park, or the Josephine Sculpture Park. All of the parks have numerous trails that are family friendly. A few are also dog-friendly. At the Riverwalk Park, special events include a summer Farmers’ Market and river boat tours.
Louisville, “Derby City”
With 246,161 residents as of 2020, Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky. Founded in 1778, it’s one of the nation’s oldest cities west of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s most famous for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, University of Louisville, and being the birthplace of famous boxer, Muhummad Ali.
Whether you’re planning to stick to city streets or you want to head out into the countryside, there are some outstanding attractions to keep tourists busy in Louisville. Some of them include Frankfort Avenue, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Cave Hill Cemetery, Big Four Bridge, Belle of Louisville, Conrad-Caldwell House Museum, and the Louisville Zoo.
Around the city there are outdoor spaces where travelers can relax, walk, and play. Close to the city, the Louisville Waterfront Park is well-known for its Promenade, Swing Garden, and the “Thunder Over Louisville” special event. Not too far from the city, places like the Louisville Mega Cavern and the Beckley Creek Park invite visitors to explore some of the city’s quiet countryside.
Lexington, “Horse Capital of the World”
Less than 90 minutes to the east of Louisville is Kentucky’s second largest city, Lexington. With 322,570 residents as of 2020, the city is well known for its horse paddocks with the nickname, “Horse Capital of the World”. Equine activities and attractions dominate the city and the local stables are renowned breeders and racers.
For those that want to go beyond the equine theme, there are plenty of other reasons to take a trip to this beautiful city. History, art, culture, and nature ensure that any visitor can find an activity that piques their interest. No matter where you go, you’ll learn a lot about this unique city and its storied past.
Equine lovers should see the Kentucky Horse Park, Keeneland, Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms, and Thoroughbred Park. Beyond horses, additional attractions include the Mary Todd Lincoln House, Fort Boonesborough State Park, Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, Kentucky Theatre, The Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, and the Aviation Museum of Kentucky.
Bowling Green, “Vette City”
One the capital of Confederate Kentucky, Bowling Green has shifted to become a small city dominated by manufacturing. Although there are just 72,294 residents as of 2020, it’s famed for its nickname as “Vette City”.
Since 1981, the Bowling Green Assembly Plant is where the famous Chevrolet Corvettes are built. Uniquely, it is the only place in the world where the cars are assembled. To learn more about the cars, visitors should head to the National Corvette Museum.
Corvettes aren’t the only reason that people vacation in Bowling Green. Beyond the manufacturing giants, the city offers plenty of historic and cultural value. There are a few stunning natural areas just outside of the downtown area where visitors can see unique landscapes like underground caves.
Places that are must-see for Bowling Green’s tourists include the Lost River Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Hobson Grove, the Baker Arboretum & Downing Museum, Kentucky Museum, Shanty Hollow Lake Hiking Trail, and Fountain Square Park.
Newport, “Sin City”
One of the smaller cities with a population of 15,273 as of 2020, Newport is a riveting destination. Travelers shouldn’t take its size and equate it to boring. Newport is a lively destination where visitors can enjoy the local culture without getting lost in the crowds.
The top attraction in the city is the Newport Aquarium, which is perfect for kids, teens, and adults. With plenty of exhibits including exceptional views of marine life, the aquarium frequently receives high reviews. Other places worth checking out are the Purple People Bridge, World Peace Bell, Newport on the Levee, Downtown Newport, and the East Row Historic District.
Held each year in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is the state’s most famous event. Typically held in the spring, on the first Saturday of May, the race is run at Churchill Downs. Three-year-old Thoroughbreds are used and they run a track distance of 1.25 miles.
While race day is a single event, a two week long festival is also held each year. Called the Kentucky Derby Festival, thousands of people travel to the city to celebrate prior to race day.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Found in Kentucky at the Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest known cave system in the world. Currently, the entire system has been mapped and surveyed to be 420 miles long. Some of the most notable chambers and areas of the cave include Grand Avenue, Fat Man’s Misery, Frozen Niagara, and the Rotunda Room.
The National Park Service does offer cave tours that vary in duration from 1 to 6 hours. Tour routes include electrically lit areas, as well as pathways where each visitor must carry their own paraffin lamp. More strenuous tours include mud crawls and tight tunnels. Outside of the caverns, visitors can enjoy above ground activities like hiking, camping, biking, fishing, boating, and horseback riding.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Shared between Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, was the original Gateway to the West. Te Cumberland Gap was used by Native Americans and settlers as they traveled across the United States. Highlights of the park that are on the Kentucky side include the Visitor Center and Hensley Settlement.
Within the park, visitors can camp, hike, and backpack. Tours of the park are also offered, specifically at the Hensley Settlement and Gap Cave (Virginia side). Led by park rangers, tours at the Hensley Settlement last for 4.5-5 hours and they showcase the historic buildings that have been preserved on site.
Daniel Boone National Forest
Named in honor of the explorer, Daniel Boone, this national forest is well known for its Red River Gorge Geological Area. Situated in a canyon, the Red River Gorge is acclaimed for its rock formations that include sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and natural bridges. These formations are world-famous and have become one of the best places in the world to rock climb.
In addition to the Red River Gorge, there are three parks managed by the state, a national recreation area and trail, as well as several wilderness areas. The best place to get more information about the forest are at the visitor areas. One of the most popular is the Gladie Visitor Center in Red River Gorge.
Lost River Cave
Just outside of Bowling Green, the Lost River Cave is a well-known tourist attraction that stretches for seven miles. The massive entrance to the cave is one of the largest in the Eastern United States. One of the most unique ways to see the cave is by taking a boat tour through the underground river that runs through the cave. Tours are given year round, but are closed for major holidays.
Within the cave and its river system, there is a blue hole that is 16 feet deep. However, the exact depth of the hole is debated and sometimes measured as 437 feet deep because the base of the hole links to another underground river system. Visitors can see the blue hole on their tour, but swimming is not permitted.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium
On the outskirts of Louisville, one of the darker and more obscure attractions in Kentucky is the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Opened in 1910 as a tuberculosis hospital, it closed in 1961 and was since abandoned. Much of the original construction has remained including the prison and body tunnel. Privately owned, historic and ghost tours are offered throughout the year.
Kentucky is an icon of the Upper South with millions of visitors traveling each year to see its landmarks, heritage, history, and culture. Whether you’re chasing the early days of the nation, love horses, enjoy nature, or savor food, this state is a captivating destination. Suitable for the whole family, couples, singles, or even groups, Kentucky will race its way to the top of your travel bucket list.