Adventure travel in eastern Kentucky
The Daniel Boone National Forest spreads across 21 counties in southern and eastern Kentucky. (Panoramic Images/Getty)
Hours away from the bluegrass music of Lexington -- the second-largest city in Kentucky -- and far from the state’s bourbon trail, is a wild and natural Kentucky few people even realise exists. Tucked unassumingly in the southern United States, the state is home to much more than stables and distilleries. With 52 state parks, more shoreline than Florida and the longest known cave system on the planet, Kentucky is also a hotspot for outdoor adventure, especially in the eastern regions of the state.
Channel your inner Spiderman
Rock climbers from across the globe head to Kentucky for its varied and plentiful routes, the supportive climbing culture that has been cultivated over the years and its unparalleled scenery; cascading waterfalls, thick tree canopies and colourful wildflowers make for a picturesque setting when you need a break from scaling the walls.
The world-renowned Red River Gorge, located almost entirely within the Daniel Boone National Forest, about 70 miles southeast from Lexington, is considered by many enthusiasts to be the premier rock-climbing destination in the eastern US, in part because there are thousands of climbs perfect for all skill levels. Also located in this part of the state, the three cascading waterfalls of Torrent Falls are popular with climbers who want to practice the sport of via ferrata, which uses fixed suspended cables and pathways to reach places that are generally inaccessible.
Tie on the hiking boots
Hundreds of miles of hiking trails snake across Kentucky, and in the eastern part of the state, hikers are treated to mountain landscapes and rocky terrain that rival the famous Appalachian Trail. The Daniel Boone National Forest, which spreads across 21 counties in southern and eastern Kentucky, has a number of trails of varying lengths, as do many of the state parks in this region. Natural Bridge State Park, one of the most popular, has a number of shorter trails (several less than a mile in length) that offer great views of the 65ft-high sandstone arch that gives the park its name. But those with more time will find longer, more strenuous and just as rewarding hikes on the park’s 7.5-mile Sand Gap Trail -- a difficult and usually isolated trail -- and the 3.75-mile Hoods Branch Trail, which crosses two small footbridges and follows along the base of cliffs. Keep in mind that Kentucky experiences extremes in weather, so be prepared for brutal sun and humidity or rain anytime you hit the trail.
Splish, splash, a Kentucky bath
Kentucky is said to have more miles of navigable water than any other state in the lower 48, so there is certainly no shortage of adventure opportunities for water enthusiasts. It is also a great place to get your feet wet if you are not ready to tackle the heart-pounding rapids of the New and Gauley Rivers in neighbouring West Virginia. Whether you like kayaking, rafting or prefer something a bit calmer such as canoeing, swimming or fishing, use Kentucky’s waterways -- which are protected under the Kentucky Wild Rivers Act from inappropriate use such as surface mining and construction of dams -- as a place to perfect your skills or find a passion for the paddle.
Below the 68ft-tall Cumberland Falls, about 110 miles south of Lexington in Cumberland Falls State Park, there are simple places to practice white water rafting -- most of the rapids are Class II or Class III, and the rapids are well spaced out. The Upper and Lower Blue Licks, (saline springs along the Licking River, a tributary of the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky) offer good floating opportunities for canoeists and kayakers – an all-day adventure would cover about 15 miles. Outfitters throughout eastern Kentucky, such as Sheltowee Trace Outfitters, provide gear and boat rental.
Start your engines
Though the sport of riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) is controversial for their harsh impact on the environment, the engines are revving across Kentucky. Abandoned mining sites and roughed-up forest roads provide nearly 1,500 miles of trails throughout the countryside. The state’s Harlan, Knott, Bell and Leslie counties in particular are known for their ATVing opportunities, and enthusiasts from around the country seek out the diverse but often challenging trails. Active ATV clubs meet regularly to traverse the terrain, and members are often more than happy to give a ride to passengers who want to give it a try. It is difficult to find outfitters who rent ATVs, however, so if you want to ride, plan on bringing your own wheels. To find the trails, the Harlan County Ridge Runners ATV Club, one of the biggest riding clubs in the area, is more than happy to help.