Kentucky is known for horses, bourbon, basketball, bluegrass music and fried chicken. Few other states can lay claim to as many cultural touchstones or treat guests to as many signature bucket list experiences.
From the excitement of Thoroughbred racing at one of the sport’s most hallowed venues to the natural wonders of Mammoth Cave or the thrill of viewing a moonbow, Kentucky has something for everyone. Here are just a few “Only in Kentucky” stops your group can enjoy on a tour through the Bluegrass State.
On the first Saturday in May, the eyes of the sporting world turn to Kentucky — specifically, to Churchill Downs in Louisville, home of the famed Kentucky Derby.
Renowned for its pageantry, the storied horse race is a bucket list experience for many travelers across the country. It’s only on Derby Day, after all, that visitors can experience the crowd singalong of “My Old Kentucky Home,” watch as the famed blanket of roses is presented to the race winner and revel in the stylish hats and high fashion of fellow attendees.
But even if you’re not able to attend the Derby, Churchill Downs merits a visit, particularly during live racing season, held on selected dates April through June and September through November. Group tours of the grounds and its history, including fun add-on experiences such as a jockey appearance, Derby hat-making or lessons on how to handicap a race, are available by reservation year-round.
No stop is complete without a visit to the on-site Kentucky Derby Museum, open daily, where guests can learn about famous Derby winners like Secretariat and American Pharoah, as well as noted trainers and jockeys and the rich roles African Americans and women have played in horse racing.
As the world’s longest known cave system, Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky has been named both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
With more than 400 miles of explored passageways and more still left to be explored, Mammoth Cave is twice the size of the next-longest cave system, found in Mexico.
The cave’s stunning formations have been wowing visitors for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that early Native Americans discovered and explored Mammoth Cave between 5000 and 2000 B.C. Modern, formal tours of the cave date to 1816, and the area became a designated national park in 1941.
Today, park rangers lead an array of tour types through the cave, from easy, hourlong strolls past famed dripstone formations including Frozen Niagara to all-day “wild” adventures for guests wanting to crawl their way through some of the cave’s smallest passages.
While in the area, groups can make the roughly 40-minute drive south to Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the world’s only Corvette manufacturing center. The on-site National Corvette Museum, open daily, offers guided group tours. Tours of the assembly plant may return when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
My Old Kentucky Home
Even out-of-staters readily recognize Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” written by Stephen Foster around 1852.
Groups can tour the Federal-style mansion said to have inspired the song at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown. There, guides in period costumes lead visitors through the lovingly restored residence, which is filled with furnishings and art from the 19th century, many original artifacts from the property. Group tours are available, as are special add-on experiences such as mint julep tasting, a picnic on the grounds or Southern biscuit-making.
During the summer, groups can enjoy a live performance of “The Stephen Foster Story,” a long-running outdoor musical drama that celebrates Foster’s life and many of his most famous songs. This year, performances are slated to run on select dates between June 12 and August 14.
After enjoying My Old Kentucky Home, groups can also experience the many central Kentucky stops along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, including Bardstown Bourbon Company and Heaven Hill Distillery, both in Bardstown, and Maker’s Mark in nearby Loretto.
In Williamstown, roughly halfway between Cincinnati and Lexington, groups can explore a lifesize replica of Noah’s Ark built to specifications outlined in the Bible.
At 510 feet long and 51 feet high, the ark includes three decks of explorable, interactive exhibits. Displays are meant to bring the Bible to life, with scenes depicting Noah and his family and how they may have lived and interacted with the animals on the ark.
In addition to the exhibits, guests can enjoy live animal encounters at the Ark Encounter’s Ararat Ridge Zoo, plus daily video presentations, live speakers and, on selected dates, live musical concerts and other special events.
Groups looking for outdoor adventure can add a zip-line experience at the on-site Screaming Eagle adventure course. Or they can opt for a combo ticket that allows for a visit to both the Ark Encounter and its sister attraction, the Creation Museum, located roughly 50 minutes away in Petersburg.
Moonbow at Cumberland Falls
As one of only a handful of places on Earth that routinely produces a “moonbow,” also known as a lunar rainbow, Cumberland Falls in Corbin regularly attracts visitors from around the world.
While the moonbow is visible only on clear nights with a full moon — see website for dates — Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is worth a visit any day of the year.
Sometimes called the Niagara of the South, the 125-foot-wide falls drop nearly 70 feet into the picturesque Cumberland River below. Groups can take in the view from well-paved paths and designated lookouts or enjoy a stroll along 17 miles of wooded hiking trails at the park.
For an unusual experience of the falls, book a Rainbow Mist Ride or a Moonbow Mist Ride through Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort. The park also offers opportunities for fishing, horseback riding, camping and more. In addition to the park’s 25 rentable cabins, the resort’s historic DuPont Lodge features 51 rooms, many with panoramic views, plus an on-site full-service restaurant.