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Enjoy the Elements in Kentucky


Few of us spend a lot of time tracking elk, climbing rock cliffs or paddling through rugged whitewater. Thankfully, Kentucky’s wise outdoor experts have devised ways to introduce the uninitiated to adventure in enjoyable, unintimidating ways.

Rafting trips aboard rubber rafts are tailored to travelers; Mammoth Cave, one of the state’s oldest attractions, is anything but old school, as it offers tours for everyone from the superfit to the wheelchair bound. A specialized rock-climbing site guarantees safety and independence for those who want to challenge themselves to reach new heights, and a naturalist-led tour promises a safe, easy way to see the state’s growing elk herd.

Whitewater Rafting at Cumberland Falls

Most people see Cumberland Falls from behind the protective railings, above and below Kentucky’s largest waterfall. Then there are those who hop into a raft and feel the falls’ power just downriver from its dramatic 68-foot drop as they embark on a whitewater rafting trip on the Cumberland River with outfitter Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort.

Sheltowee Trace, in business 33 years, has cabins, a campground and a zip line at its headquarters, five miles from the falls. But it is probably best known for rafting trips on the Cumberland River offered from mid-May to late October.

It’s a trip as suited to senior citizens as Boy Scouts, said Dania Egedi, general manager and daughter of founder Rick Egedi.

“A couple of things make this good for groups,” said Egedi. “It is entry level, so people don’t have to have any experience to do this. And it is adventurous, but it is something all ages and almost anyone can do.”

The first five miles of the guided trip are whitewater. At mile five, the Cumberland Star riverboat appears and takes paddlers aboard for the rest of the five-mile downriver cruise to where the river meets a lake. Lunch is served from a full-size canoe that’s been fashioned into a buffet. The riverboat also allows those who don’t want to raft or who can’t take the trip because of health or age to have fun.

People who’ve never rafted worry about the wild raft rides they’ve seen in movies, but that “is not what our trip is about,” said Egedi.

Sure, rafts do flip, but usually, only if paddlers request it, said Egedi. “If you want adventure, our guides are going to play hard. But if you don’t, well, your raft will be picking up the adventurous people.”

Elk Watching at Jenny Wiley State Park

One thing is guaranteed on elk tours that depart from Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg: You will see elk.

“We have had a great success rate on elk tours,” said Trinity Shepherd, park naturalist. “Normally, we have 100 percent success.”

Elk were reintroduced to the mountains of eastern Kentucky beginning in 1997. From the 1,500 animals brought to the state in the first five years, the population has mushroomed to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 elk.

Tours began in 2002 and, at first, were offered only in the early morning.

“After a few years, people said, ‘You know, if you didn’t have to get up at 5:30 in the morning, you’d probably have a lot more people,” said Shepherd. Now tours are also offered in the late afternoon. Early morning and dusk are when elk are most active, though.

Tours are seasonal, from September to March. September to October is rutting season, when males give their mating call or bugle. In the late fall and winter months, when trees are bare, it is easier to see the elk.

Tours last four to six hours, depending on where the elk are grazing. Breakfast sandwiches provide sustenance for early morning tours; sandwiches are toted along for afternoon trips.

Groups of all sizes can be accommodated in the park’s varied fleet of vehicles.

In addition to learning about elk and the reintroduction program, guides explain how elk benefit from the reclaimed surface mine land where they graze. They require a lot of grass — about 40 pounds a day. “The reclaimed land is the only place that can sustain that type of grazing without a negative impact or without supplementing,” said Shepherd.