As city-dwelling Kentuckians, it is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle; accept five lane, one-way streets as the norm; and forget that there is a different kind of life just a little way down the road from us in our own state. My family has landed in central Kentucky because it is halfway between the coalfields of Western Kentucky, where I grew up, and the foothills of Appalachia, where my husband grew up. It makes each family a few hours drive away. Before I started dating my husband, the only time I had spent in eastern Kentucky was the five weeks of Governor’s Scholar in high school. Basically, I knew nothing about eastern Kentucky and the beauty it has to offer. After spending time there, I am a firm believer that everyone needs to take some time to visit Appalachia in Eastern Kentucky. You may be surprised to find that there is more to those foothills and mountains that the stereotypes you hear in books and on the news. I would love to share with you a few places I think you should add to your bucket list and make Appalachian Kentucky a destination you plan to visit.
Carter Caves State Park is one of my family’s favorite places. My husband grew up just down the road and my father-in-law was a cave tour guide in high school. I have countless pictures of my toddlers playing in the creeks and caves. The cottages are excellent, and the dining hall food is country cooking at its finest for a heck of a good price.
The Red River Gorge is a tourist destination supreme. The hiking, rock climbing, and camping opportunities are endless. The food is a little less endless but there are a few famous staples around. Miguel’s Pizza is the top contender, with Red River Rock House and SkyBridge Station rounding out the best options. There are tons of cabin rental companies, or you can pop on Airbnb to rent some pretty unique dwellings, including treehouses!
Cumberland Falls is a dream come true. The sound of true waterfalls in the background, the hiking, and the beautiful forests. Plan a trip around the falls’ moonbows for an extra special treat. It is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Natural Bridge State Park offers a famous natural sandstone arch that is so impressive to see. Hiking again is the king here, but lots of places to have a picnic or sit and watch a beautiful sunset. No dogs are allowed at this state park if that is a deterrent for you.
Morehead… where to start? I spent five glorious weeks there the summer before I turned 18, with the Governor’s Scholars Program. I fell in love with the hillside historic buildings, the old-fashioned drugstore with ice cream counter, and Pasquale’s Pizza. Visit Morehead State University, that boasts the state’s only space system engineering program and offers one of the best vet tech programs in the country. Make a stop at a newly established but quickly growing clothing company, New Frontier, for some quality eastern Kentucky gear, then go on down the road to Cave Run Lake.
Pine Mountain State Park is Kentucky’s “first” state park. The views from the lodge and restaurant are breathtaking, and the hiking is great. If you are looking for a quaint, family-friendly woodsy weekend away, this is your place.
Paintsville and the surrounding areas boast some of Kentucky’s most well-known history. Come see Butcher Holler, the home of famous Loretta Lynn. Other famous artists from the area include Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers. Walk the Forest and Maxine Preston Memorial Pedestrian Bridge or experience an 1800s working farm at the Mountain HomePlace. If museums are your thing, both the US 23 Country Music Highway Museum and the Van Lear’s Historical Society Coal Miner’s Museum would be great additions to an itinerary.
The state of Kentucky has so much to offer, but so many people never take the time or make the trip to enjoy the wonders of eastern Kentucky. I am fortunate enough to have married into an eastern Kentucky family that loves their family, the land they grew up on, and the town they call home. Someday, I hope to be fortunate enough to call that place home, too. While I do not think that everyone needs to move to Appalachia, I do think that it needs to be a pin on your travel map. Start with this list and see what else you can explore.