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The Best Hikes in Kentucky for an Unforgettable Adventure

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The Best Hikes You Have to Do in Kentucky

If you’re like me, always on the lookout for breathtaking scenery, challenging trails, and a dose of that good ol’ Southern charm, then you’re in for a treat. Strap on those boots and get ready to explore the best hikes in Kentucky!

Kentucky may be known for horse racing and bourbon, but let me tell you, its hiking scene is an unsung hero. From rolling hills to lush forests, the diverse landscapes offer a little something for every type of adventurer. Whether you’re a seasoned trekker or just dipping your toes into the hiking world, you’re sure to find something on this list to suit your needs.

I’ve laced up my hiking boots and hit the trails to soak in the awe-inspiring views that the Bluegrass State has to offer. Now it’s your turn to learn about the most unforgettable hikes this beautiful state has to offer.

1. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park

Cumberland Falls at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Kentucky

Located in the heart of Kentucky, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is a gem of a hiking spot. If you haven’t had the pleasure of exploring the magic of Cumberland Falls, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

The main attraction in the park is the “Niagara of the South” — a jaw-dropping 125-foot beautiful waterfall that will leave you breathless. The most popular way to get to the fall is the 0.5-mile Cumberland Falls Trail.

Related: Stunningly Beautiful Waterfall Hikes You Have to See in Georgia

This short trail begins in front of Dupont Lodge and offers breathtaking views of the river and Gatliff Bridge. Another great option is the 1.5-mile Eagle Falls Trail. Not only is this the only trail that takes you to Eagle Falls, but it also offers one of the best views of Cumberland Falls.

Pro tip: If at all possible, try to time your visit during a full moon to witness the rare phenomenon of a moonbow casting its magical glow over the falls. This is an amazing sight that you can’t see anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere — talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Other top trails you should take time to explore in Cumberland Falls State Park include Moonbow Trail, Cumberland River Trail, Civilian Conservation Corps Memorial Trail, and Anvil Branch Trail.

2. Daniel Boone National Forest

If you’re craving a hefty dose of nature, a side of history, and some seriously breathtaking views, Daniel Boone National Forest is the place to go. Spanning 708,000 acres and 21 counties in eastern Kentucky, this protected land has over 600 miles of trails just waiting for you to explore.

The forest is separated into numerous unique areas, including the Cumberland District, the London Ranger District, the Redbird District, and the Stearns District.

If you’re exploring the London Ranger District, consider checking out Bark Camp Trail. This trail follows Bark Camp Creek as it passes under rock shelters and cliffs. There’s also a small waterfall with a beautiful series of cascades.

Here’s a little insider tip: Autumn in Daniel Boone Forest is like stepping into a painting. The vibrant fall colors will have you convinced that Mother Nature herself grabbed a paintbrush.

3. Mammoth Cave National Park

Sometimes, the best hikes take you beneath the surface. That’s why Mammoth Cave National Park is one of the best hikes in Kentucky!

Mammoth Cave is like the hidden gem of the hiking world. Sure, you’ve got your stunning landscapes up above, but what sets this park apart is what’s going on below your feet. The cave system here is mind-blowing, and taking a subterranean hike is an experience you won’t soon forget.

Now, don’t worry if you’re not a spelunking expert — Mammoth Cave offers a variety of cave tours suitable for all levels. The Frozen Niagara Tour is a personal favorite. Stalactites and stalagmites abound, and the formations will have you feeling like you stepped into another world.

But let’s not forget the surface trails. The Green River Bluffs Trail is a winner, offering panoramic views of the river and the surrounding hills. It’s a 1.3-mile moderate hike with just enough challenge to make you feel accomplished.

The 1-mile Cedar Sink Trail is another lovely hike that will let you explore cave springs, gorgeous panoramas, and a beautiful array of seasonal wildflowers.

4. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Sprawling woodlands, shimmering lakes, and a bounty of trails are just waiting for you to explore when you visit Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Located on 171,280 acres in western Kentucky and Tennessee between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, this area is a paradise for outdoor adventures.

First off, if you’re a water lover, this is your playground. The Canal Loop Trail is a fantastic hike that offers a mix of lakeside strolls and dense forest paths, providing the perfect blend of tranquility and adventure.

Now, for those wanting a challenge, the North South Trail is the real deal. At around 65 miles, it’s a thru-hiker’s dream. Don’t worry; you can bite off a smaller chunk if you’re not up for the full stretch. The variety of terrain keeps things interesting — from open fields to dense forest, you won’t get bored.

One unique trail you shouldn’t miss is the Hematite Lake Trail. Clocking in at just over 2 miles, it’s a serene hike around a beautiful lake. Perfect for hiking with young children or if you’re introducing a newbie to the joys of hiking.

And here’s a hot tip: keep an eye out for the wildlife. The elk and bison herds add an unexpected touch of the wild to your hiking experience.

5. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

View of mountains in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Located where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia border each other, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is a stunning area that combines unique history and breathtaking views of the Cumberland Mountains. It’s also an amazing alternative to Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you’re looking for a place with incredible mountain scenery without all the crowds.

Related: The Most Stunning Hikes You Have to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cumberland Gap is a hiker’s dream, offering a variety of trails that cater to every level of adventurer. One iconic trek is the Tri-State Trail, where you can stand in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee at the same time. It’s a short but sweet hike, perfect for a quick photo op and a dose of geographical bragging rights.

Now, if you’re up for a bit more challenge, the Sand Cave and White Rocks Trail is a must. Clocking in at around 7 miles, this trail takes you through lush woodlands, culminating in the mesmerizing Sand Cave. Trust me, the geological wonders here are worth every step.

For those seeking a historical touch with their outdoor exploration, the hike to the Hensley Settlement is a gem. It leads to an early 20th-century Appalachian mountain community frozen in time, offering a glimpse into the region’s rich history.

6. Carter Caves State Resort Park

Mammoth Cave National Park isn’t the only place in Kentucky where you can explore breathtaking caverns. Carter Caves State Resort Park in eastern Kentucky is another spot that offers lush landscapes, fascinating caves, and great hikes.

Let’s start with the caves because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a good spelunking adventure? The Cascade Cave Tour is a fantastic underground journey, taking you through tight squeezes, large chambers, and showcasing some seriously jaw-dropping formations.

When you’re ready to explore above ground, the park has around 33 miles of trails that traverse through the great outdoors. The 3.6-mile Three Bridges Trail is a personal favorite. It treats you to views of three of the park’s natural bridges, including the Smoky Bridge, the Raven Bridge, and the Fern Bridge.

If you only have time to see one natural bridge in the park, check out the Natural Bridge Trail. This trail takes you to an impressive natural limestone bridge that’s unique to the state since it’s the only natural bridge in Kentucky that supports a paved highway.

For those craving a bit more challenge, the 8.6-mile Kiser Hollow Trail delivers. This trail takes you through mature hardwood forests, a valley filled with lush vegetation, and old home places of Kiser Hollow. Be prepared to break a sweat, but trust me, the scenery is worth every step.

Also, keep in mind that many of the trails in the park are multi-use and open to mountain bikes and horseback riding. Therefore, it might be a good idea to brush up on the etiquette rules for sharing a trail if you can’t remember when to yield to other users.

7. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Waterfall in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Straddling the border between northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is an area of breathtaking untamed beauty. If you’re yearning for trails that weave through dramatic gorges, showcase sandstone arches, and treat you to some seriously jaw-dropping views, then this is your hiking haven.

Related: Gorgeous Hikes Near Knoxville, TN You Have to See to Believe

First off, the Twin Arches Upper Loop Trail is a crowd-pleaser for a reason. The centerpiece, as the name suggests, is not one but two colossal sandstone arches. These double sandstone arches are considered the largest natural bridges in Kentucky and Tennessee.

If you’re looking for an easy hike to a scenic waterfall, check out Yahoo Falls Loop Trail. With the exception of some steep metal steps, this 1.2-mile trail is an easy walk that offers lovely views of the 113-foot-tall Yahoo Falls.

8. Red River Gorge Geological Area

Princess Arch sandstone arch in Red River Gorge State Park in Kentucky

Red River Gorge Geological Area is a must-visit spot for every nature enthusiast out there. If you’re into jaw-dropping rock formations, lush forests, and trails that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a fantasy novel, this is your playground.

The Sky Bridge Trail is a personal favorite. This moderately challenging route starts at the Sky Bridge parking lot before taking you out to the iconic Sky Bridge — a massive sandstone arch.

It’s important to note that you will hike over the Sky Bridge while you’re on this trail. While the path is wide, there are no guardrails to prevent a fall. Make sure you keep a close eye on children and keep your dogs on a leash when you’re crossing.

The Rock Bridge Trail is another beautiful option in Red River Gorge. As you descend into a deep ravine on this paved loop trail, you’ll find yourself surrounded by towering hemlock trees and dense rhododendron bushes. There’s also a small waterfall upstream that’s a nice spot to take a break and soak in the sounds of nature.

Or you can check out the Double Arch Trail. Here, you’ll descend through a forest of bigleaf magnolias and giant hemlocks to a high sandstone cliff. Once you reach the end of the ridge, you’ll discover a breathtaking overlook underneath Double Arch. From here, you can see Courthouse Rock, Haystack Rock, and some of the other rock formations that make Red River Gorge one of the best places to hike in Kentucky.

9. Natural Bridge State Resort Park

If you plan on checking out the Red River Gorge Geological Area, consider setting aside some time to visit the nearby Natural Bridge State Resort Park. The star of the show here is the Natural Bridge itself (not to be confused with the Natural Bridge in Carter Caves State Resort Park!).

The most popular trail for hiking to the Natural Bridge is the Original Trail. This trail was first constructed in the 1890s by the Lexington and Eastern Railroad.

The trail starts with the steepest part in the beginning. Here, you’ll experience an elevation change of about 420 feet as you hike through a scenic forest of hemlock, white pine, tulip trees, and rhododendrons.

Fortunately, the trail levels off once you reach the top of the limestone steps. It ends directly underneath the span of the Natural Bridge — a perspective that will make you appreciate the sheer magnitude of this geological wonder.

If you’re a more experienced hiker and up for a challenging hike, the Sand Gap Trail is an excellent option. Clocking in at around 7.5 miles, this trail takes you through rock shelters, towering cliffs, and showcases the diverse ecosystems of the park.

10. Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail

The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail is an epic trek that should be on every hiker’s bucket list. If you’re ready for a journey that spans forests, ridges, and creeks, then lace up those hiking boots, because this one is a beauty.

Clocking in at over 300 miles, the Sheltowee Trace is like the lesser-known but equally awesome cousin of the Appalachian Trail. Now, I get it — not everyone has the time to tackle the whole thing, but fear not!

The beauty of the Sheltowee Trace is its versatility. You can pick and choose sections that suit your hiking style and time constraints.

If you crave some waterfall magic, head to the northern section around Cumberland Falls. The trail treats you to the mesmerizing sounds of rushing water and lush greenery.

Now, if ridge walks and panoramic views are more your style, the Red River Gorge section is a winner. The rugged terrain and stunning overlooks make every step worth it. Just be prepared for some elevation gain that will have your thighs singing.

Pro tip: Invest in a good map and maybe a GPS device. The Sheltowee Trace is a bit more rugged and less marked than your typical trail, so navigation skills are a plus.

The Best Hiking Trails You Can Only Find in Kentucky

I hope you’ve found a hike or two that’s sparked your wanderlust and maybe convinced you to lace up those boots and hit the trail. Whether you’re a casual stroller or a seasoned trekker, these best hikes in Kentucky offer a little something for everyone.

Remember, it’s not just about the destination; it’s about the journey, the memories made along the trail, and the connection to the great outdoors. So, grab your backpack, pack some snacks, and go explore the wonders that Kentucky’s trails have to offer.

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