How to Have a Memorable Culinary Tour of Kentucky's Top Trail Towns
Blessed with fantastic forests, large lakes and wetlands, vast caves and majestic waterfalls, Kentucky is an ideal destination for trail lovers. In Kentucky, you can travel the trails on foot, bike or horseback, stay in a comfortable hotel or campground, and fill your belly with delicious food. You’ll never tire of the gorgeous scenery and the amazing diversity of flora and fauna.
We created a hiking and food trail that guides you to Kentucky’s best spots from the far western tip of the state to its northeast region. You can easily go in reverse and travel east to west on this 424-mile journey, but however you go, you’ll find gorgeous trails and plenty of places to replenish yourself with tasty grub, especially at our Kentucky Trail Towns.
LAND BETWEEN THE LAKES, GOLDEN POND & HARDING
Begin your journey in the far western side of the state at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, centered in Golden Pond. As the name suggests, the land is the area between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley and includes more than 170,000 acres of forests, open land and wetlands. It’s home to more than 500 miles of trails and 200 miles of scenic roads.
Hike: Check out the Honker Lake Trail, which is 4.5 miles long. It was originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps for waterfowl management, and it circles a lake, where you might see beavers, osprey, and lotus flowers. During certain times of the year you can rent a canoe to enjoy the lake.
Stay: The area includes four campgrounds, but if you prefer a more comfortable place to stay, try Kenlake State Resort Park or Lake Barkley State Resort Park, which offer lakeside accommodations with pools.
Eat: For years, The Pond (formerly known as Willow Pond Southern Catfish) has delighted visitors with its seafood served with hush puppies and navy beans. In Hardin, also check out Cindy’s on the Barge, which is beloved for its view of the lake and marina as well as its good food and low prices.
MAMMOTH CAVE & CAVE CITY
From Hardin, drive 140 miles east to Mammoth Cave National Park in Mammoth Cave, Ky.
The longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave has 412 miles of surveyed passageways. Its rich history includes fascinating tales from prehistoric times and modern days, including stories of lost and wounded adventurers and various families claiming ownership. Visitors can choose from a variety of cave tours that vary in length and suit certain ability levels. It’s best to make advanced reservations, and you should bring a jacket, because the cave stays around 54 degrees. In addition to touring the cave, you can explore park trails on foot or on horseback.
Hike: There are more than 84 miles of trails at Mammoth Cave, including 65 miles of backcountry trails starting from six trailheads. From the visitor’s center, you can access more than 10 miles of front-country trails, including the Echo River and River Styx Springs Trail, an easy 3.5-mile, out-and-back hike.
Eat: After a long day on the trails, get your fill of pulled pork, ribs and even steak at Bucky Bee’s BBQ in Cave City.
CUMBERLAND FALLS STATE RESORT PARK & CORBIN
From Cave City, drive 129 miles east to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin. Often called "The Niagara of the South," Cumberland Falls features a waterfall on the Cumberland River that was inhabited by Native Americans up to 10,000 years ago. It’s the only location in the Western Hemisphere that regularly hosts a moonbow, or lunar rainbow, which can be seen on or near a full moon on a clear night.
Hike: The 10.8-mile Moonbow Trail begins at Cumberland Falls and ends at the mouth of Laurel River. If you combine it with the Sheltowee Trail, you can do a 7-mile loop. Consider doing this on a full-moon night, so you can get a good view of the moonbow!
Stay: Overlooking the Cumberland River, the beautiful DuPont Lodge features rooms with roaring fireplaces and hemlock beams. It’s also possible to rent cabins in the state park, and you’ll find hotels in Corbin.
Eat: Kristin Smith, owner and chef at the Wrigley Taproom in Corbin, sources much of her food from her own farm and other local area farmers. On the menu you’ll find tasty burgers made with locally sourced beef, plus a black bean burger, brats, and a buffalo chicken sandwich. For beer lovers, there are 24 rotating taps and the Taproom also has an extensive whiskey menu.
RED RIVER GORGE & SLADE
From Corbin, drive 106 miles northeast to Red River Gorge near Slade, Ky. The Daniel Boone National Forest, which stretches from southeast to northeast through Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, includes Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge. These are fairly close to each other and offer great hiking and mountain views. There are more than 500 miles of hiking trails through rugged terrain, and the beautiful cliffs also attract many rock climbers.
Hike: Try the Gray’s Arch Loop, an easy 4-mile hike to see the spectacular Gray’s Arch. There are several great hikes—some long and some short—to see the unique arches of Red River Gorge. Consider sliding over to Natural Bridge State Resort Park to take the Original Trail to the bridge, a .75-mile moderate hike.
Stay: There aren’t many hotels in the area, unless you drive a bit to Winchester or Mt. Sterling. But, Natural Bridge State Resort Park has campgrounds, cabins and a lodge, or you can pitch a tent along a local hiking trail. Plus, there are lots of cabin rental companies in the area.
Eat: Miguel’s Pizza in Slade has been a favorite of hikers and climbers since 1984. It uses fresh, local ingredients to craft pizzas with just about any topping you can imagine. In the morning, those same ingredients can be used to make your omelet.
DANIEL BOONE NATIONAL FOREST & MOREHEAD
From Slade, drive 49 miles northeast to the upper end of the Daniel Boone National Forest and the college town of Morehead. The DBNF offers more than 600 miles of trails that intersect, giving you many options to hike and bike. The Morehead Ranger District has a visitor’s center near Cave Run Lake, which has campgrounds and recreational areas.
Hike: The Sheltowee Trace Trail stretches for 319 miles between Morehead and Big South Fork in Tennessee. If you’re staying in Morehead, you can take shorter loop trails that connect with the Sheltowee, such as the Carrington Rock and Carrington Branch trails.
Stay: Being a college town, Morehead has several modern hotels to choose from. Or you can camp in the DBNF, or even in campgrounds around the lake.
Eat: Soothe your trail-weary bones with ribs, fried green tomatoes, frog legs, and catfish at Pop’s Southern Style BBQ in Morehead. But, take note that this gem is only open in the spring, summer and fall.
If you drive this route and hit all these spots, you’ll encounter an ever-changing landscape that will delight all your senses. Kentucky’s rich topographical diversity makes it unique in the region. Enjoy your trip!
Originally written by Lisa Hornung for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.