5 Off-the-Beaten-Path Outdoor Adventures in Kentucky to Have on Your Radar
From Mammoth Cave to Cumberland Falls to Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky is home to several outdoor destinations that delight millions of locals and visitors every year. But sometimes it’s nice to move beyond the popular spots and explore remote destinations where you might have a slice of paradise to yourself.
The Commonwealth has several hidden gems, from secret swimming holes to remote hiking trails. To help you escape the crowds, we’ve highlighted five of our favorite off-the-beaten-path adventures in Kentucky.
1. Gabe's Branch Falls Swimming Hole
A visit to Gabe's Branch Falls is like stepping onto the set of a romantic movie that takes place in a forest paradise. Cool and shady, this spot is surrounded by picturesque rocky cliffs and cascading falls empty into a good-sized swimming hole that’s 8 to 10 feet deep. While this spot has been frequented by locals for generations, there’s a good chance you’ll have it to yourself for the day. The swimming hole is easily accessible from the road, and you just have to negotiate a couple of sets of stairs and a steep little hill. In this remote area there are no facilities, so plan ahead.
Find it: Gabe's Branch is on Abner Branch Road (CR 1133) in the northern mountains of Harlan County, near the Leslie County line. GPS: 36.966830, -83.250361
2. Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve Old Growth Forest
In Blanton Forest Nature Preserve you’ll get an idea of what Daniel Boone experienced when he entered the remote wilds of Southeastern Kentucky. Blanton Forest is a 3,510-acre preserve with approximately 2,000 acres of old growth trees, making it the largest old-growth forest remaining in the state and one of the largest in the East. The oldest known tree in the preserve is a 338-year-old chestnut oak, and many of the trees are 3 to 4 feet in diameter, rising 100 feet above the forest floor.
Since this forested area is far from the highway and nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, you might have all 4.5 miles of its trails to yourself. The main trails include two loops on Pine Mountain, including a fairly strenuous path that leads to Sand Cave, a large rock shelter where the limestone rock has eroded to form a sandy floor. The other loop is less difficult and leads to Knobby Rock and a spectacular view of the surrounding forest.
Find it: 4294 State Hwy 840, Wallins Creek, KY. GPS: 36.859170,-83.382129
3. Mantle Rock Preserve Trail of Tears
The highlight of Mantle Rock Preserve is a spectacular 30-foot-high natural sandstone bridge spanning 188 feet. While the arch alone is worth the visit, the experience is enhanced by the history surrounding it. Visitors can hike a 2.7-mile loop in the footsteps of the Cherokee that traveled through here from 1838 to 1839 during their forced relocation to Oklahoma. As you follow the path you can read informational plaques that detail their journey.
Along the trail you’ll encounter bluffs, shelters, a sparkling stream and extraordinary biological diversity. If possible, visit in spring when wildflowers dot the forest floor and you can examine a rare and fragile sandstone glade that hosts bluets and other delicate plants.
Find it: 1800 Lola Road, Smithland, KY. GPS: 37.366702, -88.387023
4. The Red River
In the Red River Gorge, paddlers of all levels and abilities can experience excellent whitewater in a remote, wild area of unparalleled beauty.
For those looking for a beginner or family-friendly option, try the Middle and Lower sections of the Red, which are rated Class I and also offer great fishing opportunities. Perfect for beginners, the Copperas Creek Canoe launch, located near the KY 715 bridge, is the most recommended paddle. This 10.5-mile section is mostly Class I and includes enough sandbars, riffles, and small ledges to keep the trip interesting. It takes about 6 hours to complete and camping is available in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Experienced paddlers can head to the upper Red River, where they’ll find a 10.8-mile section that’s considered one of the most challenging runs, and also one of the prettiest stretches of whitewater in the Southeast. After you put in at the Big Branch Canoe Launch near KY 746, the river winds through a series of Class III rapids and can be extremely dangerous during high water. In this remote location within the Clifty Wilderness, you’ll have no trouble finding solitude.
Find it: Locations will vary based on the adventure chosen. For information, start at the Gladie Visitor Center: 3451 Sky Bridge Road, Stanton, KY. GPS: 37.834056, -83.607588
5. Cub Run Cave
Some folks argue that this little-known cavern’s beauty rivals that of the grand dame of the area, Mammoth Cave. Cub Run Cave is not located off any of the major highways, so it’s a bit harder to visit. But, this makes it a perfect getaway for cave lovers looking for something unique!
Cub Run is one of only a smattering of caves in the country that have a rare honeycomb-like formation called boxwood, which is made up of calcite. In addition to boxwood, the roughly 1.5-mile tour includes other fascinating formations like cave bacon, cave popcorn, flowstone, rimstone dams, and a natural pool. Privately owned, the cave has only one tour guide who is known to be highly knowledgeable about the formations, and guests usually find themselves on a private tour.
Find it: It’s recommend to call ahead to reserve a space Wednesday through Sunday: 270-524-1444. GPS: 37.318017, -86.092190
Originally written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.