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Bikers Find Back Roads Lead to Unspoiled Kentucky

By Bob Adams

Throughout Kentucky, unspoiled back roads begging for exploration beckon to motorcycle riders. Bikers in the Bluegrass state know it offers some of the most interesting roads for touring in the eastern U.S. But up to now, word hasn’t spread far beyond Kentucky’s borders. This translates into lots of open pavement for riders psyched for some spirited adventure in a scenic and historic region that welcomes visitors.

Kentucky-based rider groups, including a half-dozen Harley Owners Group chapters around the state, organize a slew of tours, poker runs and charity rides, especially on weekends throughout fall, spring and summer. The Kentucky Adventure Riders, including BMW and other big adventure-touring bike owners, can be found year-round exploring roads -- both paved and unpaved -- especially in the mountainous eastern part of the state.

“Kentucky has great touring possibilities,” says Jeff Cooke, a 58-year-old former BMW Motorcycles dealer in Louisville who has been riding since he was a teen. “There are some really fun roads, especially in eastern Kentucky.”

Cooke, who bought his first Beemer bike when he turned 40, sold the dealership to Harley-Davidson of Louisville last year so he can boost the 8,000 miles a year of riding he’s been able to squeeze around his hectic work schedule. He says Kentucky roads match the best of any other states he’s ridden in, including North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana.

Harley riders sing the Bluegrass state’s praises as well.

“Kentucky has some of the finest scenic areas I’ve seen,” says Jay Huber, president of the Kentucky Motorcyclists Association/Kentucky Bikers Association, who has ridden in about half the 50 U.S. states.  

Huber, who hails from Independence in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati and rides an H-D Electroglide, likes the variety of roads in his native state. “You’ve got the twisty-turnies in eastern Kentucky, scenic routes in northern Kentucky with sweeping curves along the Ohio River, and the rolling hills of western Kentucky that are great for wide-open cruising.”

Huber, whose organization represents about 250,000 on and off-road riders throughout the state, says Kentucky’s welcoming roadside business owners and just plain friendly people make for a great climate for visiting bikers.

Nick Harrison, director of H.O.G. Chapter 2032 in Louisville, is a career Army man who’s toured on his Ultra Classic in all but seven of the lower 48 states. Currently based at Ft. Knox, Ky., Harrison especially likes touring roads connecting the distilleries clustered along central Kentucky’s famous Bourbon Trail. He says it beats the winery routes of California’s Sonoma Valley or New York’s Finger Lakes region.

“On any road in Kentucky off the main highways you’ve got beautiful scenery ranging from the horse farms to rustic living where people are just enjoying being where they’re at,” he says. “I pick out a road that looks interesting and just go.”

On a recent weekend, Harrison wanted to join up with a H.O.G. ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway in neighboring Virginia and North Carolina. So he turned on his GPS and navigated along I-64 east to Lexington and Winchester, where he picked up the Mountain Parkway through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Campton. There he ventured onto Ky. 15, one of eastern Kentucky’s great two-lane roads, and snaked along its twists and turns all the way down to Hazard.

“You’ve got to be a little watchful for coal trucks on some of the switchbacks. But one of the good things about riding in eastern Kentucky is there are lots of gas stations along side roads, so there’s plenty of places to stop. And the curves and mountains are just as good as North Carolina.”  

H.O.G. Chapter 2032 road captain Joe Welsh of Louisville likes the “twisty-turnies” of eastern Kentucky, but also relishes touring south-central and western parts of the state. Welsh, who rides an Ultraglide and keeps a Road King show bike in his garage, likes to cruise from Barren River State Resort Park southwest of Glasgow to Green River State Park near Campbellsville. The route includes U.S. 31E and U.S. 68, features a ferry crossing of the Green River and traverses Kentucky’s unique Amish country.

Harrison and Welsh’s favorite pit stops in Kentucky include the Wah-Bah in Bowling Green, where you can pick out your own steak and grill it yourself; Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, which has been serving good food and drink continuously since starting life in the 1790s as a stage coach stop; Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, a Bluegrass restaurant and bed and breakfast housed in a historic 1845 building; and Patti’s1880s Settlement in Grand Rivers on Kentucky Lake, where you can gorge on “mile-high” meringue pie, play miniature golf and browse a huge gift shop for Kentucky souvenirs.

Tony Cruise, a Louisville talk-radio host who rides a Suzuki V-Storm dl1000 Adventure Touring bike and a Honda ST1300 Sport Tourer, loves to cruise east parallel to the Ohio River along Ky. 22 through Crestwood, Eminence, Owenton, Dry Ridge and Falmouth to Ky. 10, where he snakes over to historic river towns Maysville and Augusta, childhood home of Hollywood stars Rosemary and George Clooney.   

“Riding down U.S. 421 from Bedford to Frankfort has some great turns and sights. Also check out the road to Lockport over the Kentucky River.”

Old Frankfort Pike, which links the Kentucky state capital with Lexington, is another scenic favorite. This historic road, Ky. 1681, is a designated Scenic Byway that meanders through horse farms outlined with picket fences and hand-laid stone walls dating to the early 1800s.

Cruise also motors U.S. 150 from Bardstown to Springfield and then Ky. 55 to Lebanon. “It’s awesome!” he says. Pikeville to Buckhorn along U.S. 80 is one of his favorite eastern Kentucky routes. “I guess I love it all.”
 
Sooner or later, bikers find their way to the Red River Gorge National Geological Area, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. This area boasts some of the most deeply forested terrain you can ride through anywhere on a paved road. One spectacular sight is the Nada Tunnel, a 900-foot stretch of Ky. 77. A dark one-lane passage through a towering mountain, the tunnel was blasted from solid rock in the early 1900s to permit timber hauling by narrow-gauge railroad. Bikers who venture into Nada are in for an exciting ride.

Kentucky’s 17 state resort parks, all of which feature lodges for overnight stays, are high on Kentucky bikers’ lists of favorite places to visit. Spread throughout the state from Jenny Wiley State Resort Park near Prestonsburg in the east to Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park on Kentucky Lake in the western tip, these parks welcome riders after a long day in the saddle with scenic settings and comfortable accommodations.

“I love riding to Pine Mountain State Park and renting a cabin, where they always have a rick of wood waiting for the fireplace,” says Joe Welsh of the eastern Kentucky park near famous Cumberland Gap.  

Other rider favorites include Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, an unspoiled tract teeming with wildlife that separates Kentucky Lake from Lake Barkley, and Mammoth Cave National Park, near I-65 in south central Kentucky.

For information about traveling throughout Kentucky, visit KentuckyTourism.com