By Marty Rosen
The Warrior’s Path. The Wilderness Road. Boone Trace.
These are trails that take us to the very heart of American history – and they all intersect in a special place: Knox County, Kentucky.
A place where you can still get a sense of the wilderness that greeted the first Europeans to find their way west of the Appalachians. A place where you can find a rugged landscape and outdoor activities complemented by small-town hospitality in the county seat, Barbourville. A place where you’ll enjoy plenty of amenities and enough events and festivals to bring a smile to everyone in the family.
A Look at the Past
First there were thousands of years of migrating game. Then came Cherokee and Shawnee warriors, lured by plentiful hunting grounds. Then, in the 1750s, European explorers and longhunters (so-called because their excursions in search of pelts often lasted six months or more) made their way through Cumberland Gap and found the land that would become Knox County.
The most famous longhunter was the iconic trailblazer Daniel Boone. But Boone’s friend and colleague, Henry Skaggs, hunted the area even earlier. And though the subject might be controversial among historians, folks in these parts say that if you want to see the place where all three of the legendary wilderness roads converge, you need to visit Daniel Boone Memorial Park in Flat Lick, named after an ancient salt lick that lured big game and the hunters that followed. It just so happens to be an enjoyable 10-mile drive from Barbourville on the Cumberland Gap Parkway (US 25E).
To be clear, two centuries ago Knox County was the crossroads of a newly opened wilderness, and the gateway to what would become the heart of a new nation. And it’s still a convenient base for exploring the outdoor riches of Southeastern Kentucky – Pine Mountain, Cumberland Gap, Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s conveniently served by US 25E, a north-south thoroughfare that follows the eastern route of the storied Dixie Highway.
But Knox County itself has enough appeal to keep you occupied for days.
Forests & Festivals
The legacy of those early explorers still lingers in this part of America. Just last year, Barbourville unveiled a life-size bronze sculpture of Daniel Boone wearing a broad-brimmed pioneer’s hat. In the first full week of October, when the forests of Knox County are ablaze with color, thousands of folks come to Barbourville for the annual Daniel Boone Festival, a grand community celebration that includes carnival rides, arts and crafts, parades, music and plenty of local color.
The first westerner to build a house here – a small log cabin, really – was Dr. Thomas Walker, who journeyed through the Cumberland Gap and staked England’s claim to some 80,000 acres of wilderness. You can visit a replica of his cabin at the Dr. Thomas Walker Historical Site, just southeast of Barbourville.
Later, Barbourville was also the site of the first Civil War battle in Kentucky where lives were lost, and the first Confederate victory in Kentucky – one that sent alarm bells ringing among Union leaders. The Battle of Barbourville is reenacted each year during the third week of September, just outside of town on the banks of the Cumberland River at Minton Hickory Farm.
History & Crafts
These days, Barbourville and Knox County are pleasant and peaceful. You can visit the Kentucky Community Crafts Village to shop for locally made artifacts or attend craft workshops. Visit the Knox County Historical Museum to learn about pioneer life and the region’s history, or spend a hot day splashing around Barbourville Water Park. On the gracious campus of Union College – the first college in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky – you can walk the grounds, take in theatrical and musical performances, or just drop in at the cafeteria or coffee shop.
And in mid-April, when the redbud trees of Appalachia spring to life in a vibrant spray of colors, Barbourville celebrates with its annual Redbud Festival & Heritage Living Event, one of Kentucky’s best festivals with storytelling, traditional music, a Miss Redbud Trails Pageant, artisan demonstrations, simple-living workshops, quilt displays and more.
Some 250 years ago, Barbourville and Knox County were among the first gateways to the heart of America. Visitors who come today will find that they still are.
Plan your own visit by calling the Barbourville Tourism Commission at (606) 545-9674 or visiting www.barbourvilletourism.com. An outdoor kiosk at 117 High Street also offers brochures and local travel information when the office is closed.
If You Go
Battle of Barbourville Civil War Interpretive Park, (606) 545-9674
Knox County Historical Museum, (606) 545-9674, www.cityofbarbourville.com
Dr. Thomas Walker Historical Site, (606) 546-4400, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/thomas-walker/
Kentucky Community Crafts Village, (606) 546-2295, www.ky-crafts.com
Daniel Boone Memorial Park, (606) 545-9674, http://www.barbourvilletourism.com/
Barbourville Water Park, (606) 546-3505
Union College, (800) 489-8646, http://www.unionky.edu/
Towne Square Plaza B&B, (606) 546-7256
Best Western Wilderness Trail Inn, (606) 546-8500, www.bestwestern.com
Thelma’s Place, (606) 546-4048
Country Village, (606) 546-2075
Battle of Barbourville, (606) 545-9674, http://www.battleofbarbourville.com
Daniel Boone Festival, (606) 545-9674, http://www.danielboonefestival.com/
Redbud Festival & Heritage Living Event, (606) 545-9674, http://www.redbudfestky.com/