Kentucky: Tall Trees, Taller Tales, Unspoiled Nature

(Story previously published in Winnipeg Free Press)

When Alan Jackson sang the country hit Tall Tall Trees he just might have been singing about Kentucky.

While you may envision thoroughbred horses and bluegrass music, there’s much more to this mid-eastern U.S. state. With mountains, swamps and everything in between, from massive lakes and flatlands to the west, rolling bluegrass of the heartland, to the hills and forests in the southeast, there’s something to behold in every nook and hollow.

An adventure playground sure to satisfy the most spontaneous spirit, Kentucky offers 17 resort parks – more than any other state. They were developed to bring comfort, convenience, and outdoor recreational opportunity to a landscape rich with unspoiled nature. Each one features a full-service lodge and dining room, expansive outdoor recreation region and other attractions, earning Kentucky the growing reputation of having the nation’s finest state park system.


Situated near the Kentucky-Virginia border on the crest of Pine Mountain at an elevation of 823 meters, Kingdom Come is Kentucky’s highest state park. It is a vast expanse of unspoiled wilderness, home to bat-caves and roosts, sandstone bridges, and extraordinary formations including Raven Rock – an 88-meter rock exposure that juts up from the earth at a 45-degree angle.

Kingdom Come was described by a local park ranger as being a mesophytic forest, one of the most biologically diverse eco-regions in the world. Also known as the ‘Heinz 57’ of forests, it is home to the likes of deer, bobcats, coyotes, warblers, woodpeckers, and wild turkeys, and a vast mix of hardwood and softwood including hickory, birch, walnut, elm, maple, pine, and even tulip trees.

Did I mention the trees were tall? In fact, the only things taller in Kentucky are the tales.

There’s a local legend that tells how Kingdom Come got its name. Seems a man named King came to the region, settled on the mountain, and bought up 22,000 acres of land. Later, when new settlers arrived, they were told not to bother looking for land because “King done come here” already…

In actuality, the park’s name was taken from the famous Civil War novel by John Fox Jr. called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, the first Kentucky book to sell one million copies.

There are 14 hiking trails of varying lengths and skill level that crisscross the rugged mountain terrain. Little Shepherd Trail is a narrow road that winds 61 kilometers along the top of Pine Mountain south of Whitesburg. This roundabout route is a favourite for bikers and off-road vehicles, offering several scenic rock outcroppings and four stunning overlooks. Black Mountain Gazebo offers a spectacular view of Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak at 1,263 meters, and the town of Cumberland below.

With hiking increasing in popularity in Kentucky, Kingdom Come’s hiking trails are being incorporated into the planned Pine Mountain Trail, which will eventually stretch 177 kilometers to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on the Tennessee border.


John Denver once wrote a song about West Virginia, another of Kentucky’s bordering states. When he sang that “life is old there older than the trees” he may also have been referring to Kentucky – where the trees are as old as they are tall.

Within Kingdom Come State Park lies the Lilley Cornett Woods, one of the largest protected tracts of old-growth forest in Kentucky, and likely the only surviving tract in the Cumberland Mountains. A national natural landmark and state wildlife refuge, Lilley Cornett Woods covers 554 acres, with 252 acres of that being old-growth forest.

Shortly after World War I, a man named Lilley Cornett purchased the first of five tracts of land that today comprise the natural area that bears his name. He had many offers over the years to sell the old-growth forest for timber, but refused.

A walk though this tranquil retreat of towering trees takes you back in time, allowing you to see and touch the same growth that Daniel Boone and other early American explorers would have seen. With more than 60 species including white oak, chestnut, red maple and hickory, some of the trees are as old as 600 years, sporting a height and girth greater than anything I’ve witnessed. If these trees could talk, I’ll bet they would have the tallest tales around.

These woods also offer more than 530 species of flowering plants, including rare flora like red azalea, ginseng, spotted mandarin and sweet pinesap. Large predatory birds like the red-shouldered hawk and barred owl call Lilley Cornett home, as do a variety of reptiles and amphibians, and large mammals like white-tailed deer, bobcats, and fox.


Even though Kentucky lies adjacent to seven neighbouring states, they say there are only two directions in Kentucky – up and down.

So first we went down, into the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest. At this unique geological area, the Red River carves a deep canyon as it flows westward over the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, winding its way to the Kentucky River.

Composed largely of sandstone, shale and limestone, the gorge contains more than 200 arch-like natural bridges – the second most concentration in all of the U.S. Dominant species in the forest include pine, oak, beech, hemlock and sycamore, with gigantic magnolias and rhododendrons scattered about. This area provides habitat for 90 per cent of the wildlife native to eastern Kentucky.

We drove into the Red River Gorge following the national scenic byway through the Nada Tunnel – hand carved in the early 1900’s to transport logs out of the gorge, first by rail and then by logging truck. This 274-meter tunnel allows for one-lane traffic only, with motorists waiting unassisted at each end to take their turn to traverse.

And then we went up, along the rugged and scenic Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. This multi-use trail extends for 433 kilometers through the eastern Kentucky highlands, traversing the entire length of Daniel Boone National Forest. Features include rim rock cliffs, waterfalls, and natural rock shelters. On our 6.5-kilometer stretch of the Sheltowee Trace, one of the most unique places encountered was just off the trail.

The Indian Staircase consists of a 60-degree vertical scramble using natural handholds and footholds – rounded depressions that look like they were scooped right out the rock. The climb can be done without any special gear, and is thrilling enough to make you hold your breath. It’s also relatively easy so long as you keep moving and don’t look down.


For a more challenging climb, you’ll want to visit Torrent Falls Resort near the Red River Gorge, to experience a unique climbing adventure. Based on the European system of assisted rock climbing called via ferrata, it is the first climbing venue of its kind in the U.S.

Translated, via ferrata means “iron way.” Installed on the face of a large horseshoe-shaped natural amphitheatre in Daniel Boone National Forest, a via ferrata is an engineered vertical pathway offering an adventure sport that combines rock climbing, rung climbing and hiking.

The route is made up of iron rungs and safety cables drilled directly into the rock, anchored using industrial epoxy rated to hold more than 4,300 kilograms. Climbers can use these hand and footholds to ascend the vertical cliff, or scale the rock face itself.

The via ferrata allows you to feel the exhilaration of what it’s like to be a real rock climber, without the need to have climbing experience. Sections of the course are geared towards different skill levels – from the very beginner to the expert climber. All you need in order to clamber about a via ferrata is a love for the outdoors, a sense of adventure, and nerves of steel.

In order to gage capability and courage, guides take participants to a training wall that offers climbing orientation and a short practice course. It is only a few meters off the ground, but enough to test the level of skill – and anxiety – in any climber. Those that are comfortable with the practice climb will proceed with the course, which ranges in height from 15 to 37 meters, and includes sections that wind behind a real waterfall. Those overcome with trepidation may want to stay on the ground and explore the area on foot.


Another resort area that offers a wide range of activities for the entire family is Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park. Overlooking a scenic lake enclosed by undeveloped forest, Buckhorn Lake is a true escape deep in the heart of the mountains, and a place where time forgot amidst natural unspoiled beauty.

Located just northwest of Hazard, on the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest, it is ideal for hiking, biking, swimming, boating, bird-watching, and wildlife viewing. It is also a favourite for fishing, with an abundance of bass, crappie, bluegill, channel catfish, and musky.

There are tennis courts, miniature golf course, volleyball and basketball courts, marina, and numerous trails on site. The park offers a lakeside lodge where every room boasts a spectacular view from private balconies or patios.


Scattered throughout southeastern Kentucky are historic accommodations that offer a step back in time in addition to the warm hospitality of the region. The Benham Schoolhouse Inn was built in 1926 as a school for coal camp children. Restored in 1990, the inn serves as a premier tourist stop in the region. It still looks and feels like a school, with the classrooms converted to guest rooms, now decorated with old-fashioned furnishings and equipped with fireplaces.

While in Benham be sure to visit the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum. An original coal company commissary, the museum offers dozens of displays from early coal mining communities, Loretta Lynn exhibit, mock mine, and various interactive displays.

Another great historic inn of the same era is located in Hyden. The Wendover Big House was built in 1925, and is the former home of Mary Breckinridge, founder of the Frontier Nursing Service that brought maternal and infant healthcare to Leslie County. Early nurses traveled on horseback in rural eastern Kentucky before there were roads to many of the settlements, saving many sick and ensuring babies were given a healthy start in life.

Today, Wendover offers a family nursing and midwifery school. It is also a national historic landmark and distinctive bed and breakfast. You can tour the home and grounds of Mary Breckinridge, and even sleep in the same bedroom that was once hers. Antique furnishings, books, and photos provide a glimpse into what life was like for Breckinridge and the nurses who worked under her guidance, while delicious meals like meatloaf and mashed potatoes make any traveler feel at home.


There is so much to see and do in Kentucky that the most challenging part of any trip is to decide where to go. It seems that every small town offers a fascinating story or significant site; every back road leads to another tourist attraction or outdoor adventure. Regardless of where you wander, while driving around the Kentucky countryside, be sure to listen to the radio.

Appalshop Radio, or 88.7 WMMT FM, is a mountain community radio station based out of Whitesburg, and dedicated to preserving and cultivating the richness of Appalachian culture. For the best in bluegrass, rockabilly, and traditional mountain music, tune into this station when in southeastern Kentucky (or online any place else in the world). If you love music, you won’t be disappointed.

And if you love adventure, Kentucky is sure to please – tall tall trees and all.

Tour Southern and Eastern Kentucky 1-877-TOUR-SEKY
Kingdom Come State Park & Benham Schoolhouse Inn
Lilley Cornett Woods
Daniel Boone National Forest
Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail
Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure
Wendover Big House & Frontier Nursing Service
Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
Appalshop Radio
www.appalshop.orgThe world’s longest cave, Mammoth Cave, was first promoted in 1816, making it the second oldest tourist attraction in the U.S., preceded only by Niagara Falls.
More than $6 billion worth of gold is held in the underground vaults of Fort Knox, Kentucky – the largest amount of gold stored anywhere in the world.
The public saw an electric light for the first time in Louisville, Kentucky, when Thomas Edison introduced his incandescent light bulb to crowds at the Southern Exposition in 1883.
Middlesboro, Kentucky, is the only city in the U.S. built within a meteor crater.
The first automatic tri-colour traffic signal was invented by Kentuckian Garrett A. Morgan in 1923.

The first observance of Mother’s Day was in Henderson, Kentucky, by teacher Mary S. Wilson in 1887 – it was made a national holiday in the U.S. in 1916.

Muhammad Ali (boxer)
George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Lee Majors (actors)
Dwight Yoakum, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs (singers)
John Fox Jr., Hunter S. Thompson, Harry Caudill (writers)
Abraham Lincoln (President of the United States)
Duncan Hines (restaurant critic and writer of recipe books)
Colonel Harland Sanders (founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken)

Kentucky Woman (Neil Diamond)
Old Kentucky Home (Johnny Cash)
Blue Moon of Kentucky (Patsy Cline)
Kentucky Rain (Elvis Presley)
Kentucky Gambler (Dolly Parton)
Blue Kentucky Girl (Loretta Lynn)