Stay Close, Go Far in Kentucky
If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s to appreciate what’s in our own backyard rather than always seeking out far-flung experiences. Kentucky’s backyard is pretty spectacular with its massive caves, mountains and waterfalls, so we sent a native son of Louisville to go check it out.
A travel influencer and photographer, Tyler Glass (@tylerwayneglass) ventures around the world, but he welcomed the opportunity to explore the eastern part of his state on a three-day trip.
“I’m always traveling out West, but it’s really nice to do some work here in my own state because I forget how beautiful it is,” Tyler said. “There are lots of spots here that can be captured in some pretty amazing ways. Something here would wow someone just as much as a Rockies photo.”
Editor's Note: Kentucky is taking measures to ensure visitors to the state can travel safe and travel smart. Visit the Kentucky health page to learn more information.
Read on to follow Tyler’s adventures around The Bluegrass State.
Red River Gorge Geological Area
Distance from Louisville: 2 hours (128 miles)
Tyler and his wife, Danielle, headed out on the road early one morning, en route to the Red River Gorge Geological Area, which lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest. The forest contains an estimated 500 miles of trails through rugged terrain made of sandstone cliffs and exposed limestock rock faces.
“It’s actually a world-renowned climbing destination,” Tyler said. “It’s not like Yosemite where people go to climb El Capitan because it’s so tall, but these gorges actually have some of the toughest routes in the world.” In fact, he noted, that some climbers will stay there all season, as there are showers and amenities available, as well as a host of restaurants, including “really amazing” food at Miguel’s Pizza.
Tyler wasn’t there to go up, but rather to go way down for some kayaking at The Gorge Underground, a former mine turned tourist attraction. Joining a small tour group with two guides, each person glided along calm water, with the only illumination coming from headlamps and the lights under the guides’ kayaks.
“I’ve done plenty of kayaking and spelunking before, but never at the same time,” Tyler said. “It’s not one of those claustrophobic things; you don’t feel closed-in too much. I would highly recommend this. It’s a cavern with massive pillars, so it’s pretty open, with arch pillars holding up the ceiling, but you can see for about 200 yards.”
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Distance from The Gorge Underground: 2 minutes (0.9 miles)
Heading back into daylight, Tyler made the short trip to the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, adjacent to the Red River Gorge Geological Area. It's normally a two-mile hike roundtrip around the 2,200-acre park, but Tyler and his wife decided to get a bird's-eye view instead from the chairlift, which takes about 15 minutes each way.
The park gets its name from a rock formation; you can walk under it, but many climb up to enjoy the view.
Not only is there hiking for various fitness levels at the park, but other activities include canoeing, bird watching and fishing. Plus, from May to October, the famous Natural Bridge Hoedowns take place, where you can learn Appalachian square dancing, line dancing, two-stepping and other dances.
"It's the biggest attraction in the area, as it's so accessible," Tyler said. "It was nice, since it wasn't overcrowded and the weather was perfect." Lucky for him as he was camping outside that night in the back country on the trail to Half Moon Arch, near Denniston.
London & Laurel River Lake
Distance from Natural Bridge State Resort Park: 1 hour 20 minutes (63 miles)
The next morning, Tyler and his wife packed up their camping equipment and headed for London, a city whose population is just over 8,000, but yet is the fourth-largest "London" in the world. "It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be," said Tyler. "All the buildings were full and businesses seemed healthy and thriving."
Picking up their mountain bikes from Capitol Bicycles, they headed over to Laurel River Lake. Part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the lake offers quiet coves and cliff-lined shores among its 5,600 acres. The lake is popular for boating, fishing for black bass and rainbow trout, waterskiing and scuba diving as it one of the deepest and cleanest lakes in Kentucky.
"I had no idea it was the cyclist center-point for the state," Tyler said, noting that large cycling events have been hosted here, such as the annual Redbud Ride which draws hundreds of riders from over a dozen states. Tyler had never mountain biked before, but he loved the experience. "I didn't think I would be as into it as I was, but I got hooked real fast."
"The lake was extremely beautiful," he continued. "There are no lake houses anywhere, only house boats."
The pair headed downtown for a quick bite at The Abbey Restaurant. "It's where you go for a nice beer," he said, noting they had the BLT and sirloin steak. "It's just like your local bar where people go to hang out."
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Distance from London: 40 minutes (30 miles)
Full of food, Tyler and his wife headed to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin. Known as a great place for horseback riding through an eastern Kentucky forest, the park offers guided trails rides for amateurs and experts. Visitors also come to the park to hike the 17 miles of trails; to see and hear birds like the pileated woodpecker and wood thrush; and to fish for bass, catfish and panfish.
Cumberland Falls is also one of the few places in the world where you can spot a moonbow in its mist on certain days each month, listed here through 2023. (A moonbow, also called a white rainbow or a lunar rainbow, is formed just like a rainbow, but produced by moonlight rather than direct sunlight.)
Tyler was here for the main attraction, the 69-foot Cumberland Falls, which is sometimes called the Niagara of the South. (For another view of the falls, see the picture at the top of the story.) The river below the falls is a haven for whitewater rafting and perfect for postcard-quality photos of standup paddleboarding.
Pine Mountain State Resort Park
Distance from Cumberland Falls: 1 hour 10 minutes (57 miles)
Opened in 1924 as Kentucky's first state park, Pine Mountain State Resort Park is located in the Kentucky Ridge State Forest. As legend has it, a massive boulder loomed over Pineville down below and the locals feared that it would come down and destroy the town, so they installed a 101-foot heavy-duty chain linking the boulder to the mountain itself. Thus Chained Rock came to be born, and is now one of the highlights of visiting the park. Birding for ruffed grouse and ravens is also popular here, along with golf as there is a championship 18-hole golf course called Wasioto Winds.
Staying overnight at the Herndon J. Evans Lodge, Tyler and his wife dined at the in-house Mountain View Restaurant, where he raved that "it was the best Hot Brown that we've ever had," referring to the Kentucky delicacy of an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce.
Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area & Harlan
Distance from Pine Mountain: 56 minutes (45 miles)
It was an early morning wake-up call, but something fun was awaiting at Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area in Harlan County. The company offers two-, four- and six-hour guided tours of varying difficulty through 150 miles of trails across nearly 7,000 acres of rugged mountain terrain. After signing waivers, Tyler and his wife did a two-hour ATV ride on the hardest levels, with a rough terrain and a 45-degree rock crawling situation.
"It’s worth the money," Tyler continued. "Even if you’re not doing the extreme stuff, it’s a beautiful ride through the mountains. You’re in the thick of it."
Coming down from that adrenaline high, the pair went to downtown Harlan. A former coal mining town, it's going through a rebrand as more businesses are filling up storefronts, fueled by out-of-town investors. "I had never heard of it," says the Kentucky native. "It felt like something out of West Virginia or Vermont, where you have these mountain towns surrounded by 4,000-foot mountains."
Having spent a few days focusing solely on his home state, Tyler waxed poetic about his love for it.
“A lot of parts of Kentucky, like the Gorges, are super underrated — not to people in Kentucky but to people outside of Kentucky who have never been here," he said. "If they took a trip to the Gorge to climb or to do some mountain biking, I think they would be super shocked to see what we have here in Kentucky as far as sandstone monuments and arches, massive caves and beautiful lakes.”
"There’s a reason I’m still here," he continued. "I do still love this state. I love the green pastures out in Lexington, the mountains of the Gorge and now I love the mountains a little more south that I hadn’t been to before; they’re a lot bigger than I thought they would be. It’s not the Italian Dolomites but it is home."