Visiting a Kentucky park is so much more than just hiking through the woods.
Travelers at state and national parks throughout Kentucky can contemplate life while surrounded by nature or do something completely different, such as listen to show tunes, learn about Revolutionary War history or browse through a local art museum.
At the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, guests can hike during the day, then attend an outdoor musical theater in the evening. Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park and John James Audubon Park incorporate informative museums into their park experiences. Other parks at Lake Barkley, Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Falls contain natural wonders to complement their trails.
These Kentucky parks can offer groups memorable wildlife encounters and cultural experiences to enhance their time in the great outdoors.
John James Audubon State Park
Visitors standing very still inside the John James Audubon State Park in Henderson can sometimes hear the same bird calls that the famous ornithologist and artist once heard during his regular wanderings. The park protects 724 acres of rolling hills and wooded landscapes where Audubon found inspiration for his masterwork, “The Birds of America.”
Less than a mile south of the Ohio River, the park houses a museum and nature center in a 1930s-era Works Progress Administration building with incorporated French architectural elements. The museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of Audubon art as well as personal artifacts that explore the many difficulties Audubon overcame to create his extensive collection of wildlife artworks.
Audubon was born in 1785 in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain. He moved to France, then departed again for America at the age of 18 to avoid service in Napoleon’s military campaigns. Audubon opened a dry goods business in Henderson in 1810. After undergoing bankruptcy and other hardships, he found literary success with “The Birds of America” in 1827, which originated from Audubon’s dream of painting every bird in North America.
Groups can watch a film about Audubon’s fascinating life and the subsequent creation of the park at the museum’s Audubon Theater. After examining the museum’s collection, they can tour the nature center to discover the wildlife prominent in the area. Park staff conduct environmental and art education programs in the center. Downstairs, groups can browse through a gallery of local artists.
Several hikes start from the center. Groups can also golf, rent pedal boats and attend interpretive programs.
Mammoth Cave National Park
With jagged stalactites and stalagmites covering the limestone ceilings and floors, sections of Mammoth Cave can seem like something out of a science fiction movie. Created to protect the world’s largest cave system, Mammoth Cave National Park takes groups into the underground wonderland on tours that range from casual strolls to strenuous exploration.
For some of the cave’s most dramatic features, groups can opt for the two-hour Domes and Dripstones Tour or the more condensed Frozen Niagara Tour. Both routes pass impressive formations, such as the ornate Drapery Room and the Frozen Niagara, a waterfall-like feature preserved in limestone.
Mammoth Cave stretches over 400 miles, with more passageways discovered each year. Groups seeking to capture this sense of exploration can book the Wild Cave Tour for a physically challenging experience that involves crawling at some points.
Those looking to connect with the cave’s fascinating history can choose the Violet City Lantern Tour or the Star Chamber Tour. Guides on these tours lead groups underground with the flickering flames of lanterns while discussing the cave’s earliest human occupants.
Aboveground, groups can experience a more typical version of nature. Hiking trails, canoe rentals, horse rentals and bike trails offer various ways to explore some of the park’s 52,000 acres.
The park works with groups large and small, including those who don’t want to descend into the underground labyrinth. Groups can extend their stay by using the park’s accommodations, restaurant and gift shop.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Visitors can hear the rumble of the waterfall before they see it at the Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin. Within a few steps of the parking lot, guests can witness 3,600 cubic feet of water thundering down a 68-foot drop.
The resulting misty spray is one reason the waterfall was dubbed the Niagara of the South. Groups can admire the falls from above, below, further downstream or along Trail No. 9, which also leads to Eagle Falls. Whitewater rafting trips also come close to the base of the powerful falls, with routes that vary in difficulty.
Cumberland Falls is the only place in North America where a moonbow occurs. The park posts the full-moon dates, when a moonbow is possible, in case guests hope to time their visits with this unusual phenomenon.
Groups can stay at the DuPont Lodge for more vistas of the Cumberland River and the surrounding forests. The lodge’s Riverview Restaurant seats up to 200 guests and serves locally inspired dishes such as bourbon-glazed salmon and barbecued pork-chop sandwiches.
Other than gazing at the falls, groups can schedule guided tours, horseback rides, canoe trips and gem mining.
Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park
Mastodon bones, Native American artifacts and Revolutionary War memorabilia reveal Kentucky’s past at Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park. The park marks the spot where one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War took place in 1782.
During the battle, British and Native American troops routed Kentucky militiamen, killing 60 of the settlement’s 176 men, including Daniel Boone’s son, Israel. The park monument and Soldier Burial Site honor the soldiers who fought in the battle.
The park’s Pioneer Museum recounts the battle with artifacts and a diorama of the battle. Groups can also follow the history of the Blue Licks area from the Paleozoic Era into the 19th century with ancient fossils and pioneer artifacts.
The two-mile Blue Licks Heritage Trail winds past the endangered Short’s goldenrod and other native plants before reaching the Tanners Station Fort. The fort re-creates an 18th-century trade station that once sat at Blue Licks Springs in 1784. The reconstructed building illustrates life along the Licking River during pioneer times.
The park creates customized group packages that can include the museum, mini-golf, the 32-room lodge, Hidden Waters Restaurant and guided tours. Additionally, the park offers five hiking trails, a pool, a nature preserve and a gift shop with Kentucky-crafted items.
Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Large gates reminiscent of Jurassic Park swing open for vehicles exploring the 700-acre Elk and Bison Prairie at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Guests can then scan the scenery for signs of giant bison or elk, which sometimes walk right up to vehicles on the 3.5-mile paved loop.
Guests at Lake Barkley State Resort Park in Cadiz can easily access the elk and bison of the nearby 170,000-acre Land Between the Lakes, which sits between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake.
One favorite activity for groups visiting the area works for novice riders and horse lovers alike. The guided horseback adventures with Rocking U Riding Stables traverse a wooded area of Land Between the Lakes past creeks, lake shores and historic buildings.
If groups want to soak up the lake landscapes, they can rent a boat from the marina, which sits less than a mile from Lake Barkley Lodge. Those in search of a wildlife encounter can hike one of the numerous trails or head to the Woodlands Nature Station. The station runs educational programs and showcases the endangered red wolf, coyotes, fallow deer, owls and a bobcat.
The 120-room Lake Barkley Lodge features a wooden design and more than three acres of glass windows for views in every direction. Groups can enjoy Kentucky-sourced fare at the Windows on the Water restaurant, which overlooks Lake Barkley.
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park
Though the park’s name originated from a harrowing tale of an 18th-century frontierswoman who escaped Native American capture on foot, the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park now represents relaxation and entertainment. During the summer months, guests can enjoy evenings under the stars at the Jenny Wiley Amphitheatre.
Since 1964, the theater company has offered musical productions and other performances in the park. In 2014, the company opened an indoor theater in Pikeville so that the productions could continue year-round.
Groups can stay at the 49-room May Lodge, which features views of Dewey Lake, a selection of Kentucky handcrafts and the 224-seat Music Highway Grill. Ten miles of hiking trails take adventurers down towering pine-covered mountains.
Dewey Lake’s calm waters often draw leisure-loving visitors. Guests can rent pontoons, canoes or kayaks from the marina for hours of relaxation on the water.
After a 150-year absence, elk once again live in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Reintroduced in 1997, Kentucky elk now number an estimated 10,000. Guided elk tours at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park allow groups to see these creatures.
The tours travel to various spots frequented by large elk herds to create opportunities to see the sizable animals up close. Scheduled tours run September through March, but groups can arrange for custom tours at other times.