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Eastern Kentucky an Outdoor Paradise: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Nestled within the Appalachian Mountains, Eastern Kentucky offers a captivating blend of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. From the remnants of its coal mining past to the flourishing Bluegrass heritage, this region is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. In this guide, we'll take you on an adventure through Eastern Kentucky, covering its history, best times to visit, accommodation options, hiking trails, the iconic Red River Gorge, rock climbing spots, biking areas, waterways for kayaking and fishing, and thrilling OHV trails.

A Glimpse into Eastern Kentucky's History:

Eastern Kentucky has a storied history, primarily known for its coal mining industry. The extraction of coal from the Appalachian Mountains fueled the region's economy for generations. While the coal industry has seen declines, the legacy of the miners and their families continues to shape the culture and resilience of Eastern Kentucky.

Embracing the Bluegrass Culture:

Eastern Kentucky is a cradle of Bluegrass music, known for its soulful tunes and lively festivals. The annual Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop and the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration in Rosine are must-visit events for music enthusiasts.

Best Time to Visit:

The best time to explore Eastern Kentucky's outdoor wonders is during the spring and fall when the weather is mild and the landscape bursts with vibrant colors. Summers offer pleasant hiking conditions, while winters provide unique opportunities for birdwatching and solitude.

Where to Stay:

Eastern Kentucky's rugged beauty and outdoor adventures beckon travelers from all over. Whether you prefer the comfort of lodging or the simplicity of camping, this region offers a range of options to suit your needs. In this article, we'll explore some of the best lodging and camping areas in Eastern Kentucky, ensuring you have the perfect base for your outdoor escapades.

1. Natural Bridge State Resort Park:

  • Lodging: This park offers a variety of accommodation, including cozy cabins and the Hemlock Lodge with stunning cliffside views.

  • Camping: Campers can choose from both developed and primitive campsites, all within the park's natural beauty.

2. Red River Gorge:

  • Lodging: Cabins, cottages, and lodges can be rented from various providers in and around the gorge.

  • Camping: The Red River Gorge Geological Area has several campgrounds, including Koomer Ridge Campground, where you can pitch a tent or bring an RV.

3. Daniel Boone National Forest:

  • Lodging: There are cabins and vacation rentals available throughout the forest, providing a secluded and rustic experience.

  • Camping: The forest boasts numerous campgrounds, such as Zilpo Campground on Cave Run Lake or Twin Knobs Campground, ideal for lakeside camping.

4. Yatesville Lake State Park:

  • Lodging: The park offers both cottages and lodge rooms with serene lake views.

  • Camping: Choose from campsites with electric hookups or enjoy primitive camping near the lake.

5. Breaks Interstate Park:

  • Lodging: Stay in cozy cabins with scenic overlooks at the park's rustic lodge.

  • Camping: The park features campgrounds with modern amenities and beautiful mountain vistas.

6. Jenny Wiley State Resort Park:

  • Lodging: Visitors can book rooms in the May Lodge or enjoy a cottage by Dewey Lake.

  • Camping: Campers can choose from both developed and primitive campsites within the park.

7. Cave Run Lake:

  • Lodging: While not directly within the park, you'll find cabins and vacation rentals in nearby communities.

  • Camping: Several campgrounds are situated around Cave Run Lake, such as the Twin Knobs Campground and Zilpo Campground.

8. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area:

  • Lodging: Stay in charming cabins near the Big South Fork River or opt for nearby hotels.

  • Camping: Enjoy both backcountry and developed campgrounds for a true outdoor experience.

9. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park:

  • Lodging: While limited, lodging options include historic accommodations within the park.

  • Camping: Camp in the park's campgrounds and explore the rich history of the area.

10. Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area:

  • Lodging: While not directly within the off-road area, you can find accommodations in nearby towns.

  • Camping: Primitive camping is available for those who want to stay close to the action.

Top Hiking Spots:

Eastern Kentucky is a hiker's paradise, offering a wide range of trails with diverse landscapes and levels of difficulty. Here's a guide to some of the best hiking trails in Eastern Kentucky:

  • Distance: 319 miles (across Kentucky)

  • Highlights: The longest trail in Kentucky, it offers a variety of terrains, including dense forests, rugged ridges, and riverbanks. The Red River Gorge section is particularly popular.

2. Red River Gorge Geological Area:

  • Multiple trails with varying lengths and difficulty levels.

  • Highlights: Visit the iconic Natural Bridge, explore the Double Arch Trail, and take in the stunning views along the Auxier Ridge Trail.

3. Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail:

  • Distance: 120 miles (across Kentucky)

  • Highlights: This trail traverses the entire length of Pine Mountain and offers panoramic views of the Cumberland Plateau.

4. Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway:

  • Distance: 32 miles

  • Highlights: Known for its challenging terrain, this trail is perfect for experienced hikers looking for a rugged adventure in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

5. Jenny Wiley State Resort Park:

  • Multiple trails with varying lengths.

  • Highlights: Hike along Dewey Lake, explore the Fern Garden Trail, and enjoy the natural beauty of this park.

6. Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve:

  • Distance: Approximately 2 miles

  • Highlights: This short but rewarding trail leads to a beautiful waterfall, making it perfect for a quick nature escape.

7. Kingdom Come State Park:

  • Multiple trails with varying lengths and difficulty levels.

  • Highlights: Hike along Ridge Trail for stunning overlooks or explore the Lonesome Pine Trail, named after the famous novel.

8. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park:

  • Multiple trails, including the Gap Cave Trail and the Ridge Trail.

  • Highlights: Discover the historical significance of the area while enjoying scenic hikes with views of the surrounding mountains.

9. Breaks Interstate Park:

  • Multiple trails with varying lengths and difficulty levels.

  • Highlights: Explore the Grandview Rim Trail for breathtaking views of the "Grand Canyon of the South."

10. Bad Rock Trail at Cave Run Lake:

  • Distance: Approximately 5 miles

  • Highlights: This trail offers a serene hike through the woods, leading to a viewpoint overlooking Cave Run Lake.

Rock Climbing:

Eastern Kentucky is known for its outstanding rock climbing opportunities, with rugged sandstone cliffs and a variety of routes for climbers of all skill levels. Here's a guide to the best climbing areas in Eastern Kentucky:

1. Red River Gorge:

  • Muir Valley: A privately-owned climbing area with numerous routes and beautiful scenery.

  • PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve): Offers a wide range of climbing grades and some of the best sport climbing in the region.

  • Fruit Wall: Known for its classic lines and unique formations.

  • Phantasia: Offers challenging sport and trad routes, including the famous "Table of Colors."

2. Natural Bridge State Resort Park:

  • Sky Bridge Area: Features both sport and trad climbing routes with stunning views.

  • Purple Valley: Offers a mix of sport and trad routes with a range of difficulties.

  • Bald Rock: Home to some classic moderate sport climbs.

3. Muir Valley Nature Preserve:

  • A beautiful climbing area with a mix of sport and trad routes, including routes suitable for beginners.

4. Muir Valley’s PMRP:

  • Offers a range of climbing experiences from beginner to expert levels.

5. Miller Fork Recreational Preserve:

  • A newer climbing area with potential for development and a mix of sport and trad routes.

6. Eastern Kentucky University's Climbing Wall:

  • Located in Richmond, this indoor climbing gym is a great option for training and learning climbing skills.

7. Breaks Interstate Park:

  • Offers climbing opportunities on sandstone cliffs with spectacular views.

8. The Zoo:

  • Located near Natural Bridge State Resort Park, it features high-quality sport and trad routes.

9. Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve:

  • Features a small climbing area with a handful of routes suitable for beginners and intermediates.

10. Martins Fork Lake:

  • Offers climbing opportunities on rock faces overlooking the lake.

Climbing Tips:

  • Check the current access and parking regulations for climbing areas, as some require permits or have restrictions.

  • Always climb with proper safety gear, including a helmet, harness, and climbing shoes.

  • Familiarize yourself with the local ethics and guidelines for climbing in the area.

  • Be prepared for changing weather conditions, especially in the gorge.

Local Resources:

  • The Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition (RRGCC) is a valuable resource for up-to-date information on climbing in the region.

  • Local climbing shops like Miguel's Pizza and the Red River Outdoors Climbing Shop provide gear, information, and guides.

Best MTB Trail Systems:

Eastern Kentucky offers a wealth of mountain biking opportunities with its diverse terrain, from challenging singletracks to scenic rail-trails. Here's a guide to the best mountain biking trails in Eastern Kentucky:

1. Sugar Camp Mountain:

  • Sugar Camp Mountain Trail: A challenging 12-mile loop trail with steep climbs and exhilarating descents, offering a true backcountry biking experience.

2. Waverly Park, Pikeville:

  • Waverly Park Mountain Bike Trail: A well-maintained, intermediate-level trail system featuring 12 miles of flowy singletracks and scenic overlooks.

3. Cave Run Lake, Morehead:

  • Cave Run Lake Trails: A network of trails around the picturesque Cave Run Lake with options for all skill levels. The Zilpo and Sheltowee Trace Trails are popular choices.

4. Pine Mountain State Resort Park, Pineville:

  • Chained Rock Trail: A challenging and technical singletrack that leads to a rewarding viewpoint overlooking the surrounding landscape.

5. Laurel Lake, London:

  • Laurel Lake Trails: A mix of trails suitable for various skill levels, including the 14-mile Holly Bay Loop and the 12-mile Laurel Lake Loop.

6. Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, Prestonsburg:

  • Jenny Wiley State Resort Park Trails: A range of trails with varying difficulties, including the 15-mile Jenny Wiley State Park Loop and the 8-mile Bob Amos Park Trail.

7. Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park, Buckhorn:

  • Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park Trails: Explore the 12-mile Big Buck Trail or the shorter trails around Buckhorn Lake.

8. Dawkins Line Rail Trail, Hagerhill:

  • Dawkins Line Rail Trail: A 36-mile rail-trail with a crushed limestone surface, suitable for mountain biking, hiking, and even horseback riding.

9. The Railyard, Hazard:

  • The Railyard Bike Park: An urban bike park with features for riders of all skill levels, including pump tracks and dirt jumps.

10. Clay County Park, Manchester:

  • Clay County Park Trails: A growing trail system with a mix of singletracks and wider paths for various skill levels.

Rivers and Lakes:

Eastern Kentucky offers a variety of kayaking opportunities, from serene lake paddling to exciting river adventures. Here's a guide to kayaking in Eastern Kentucky:

1. Yatesville Lake:

  • Location: Lawrence County

  • Highlights: Paddle along this 2,300-acre lake, known for its calm waters, and explore coves, islands, and wildlife-rich areas. Yatesville Lake Marina offers kayak rentals.

2. Cave Run Lake:

  • Location: Rowan County

  • Highlights: Navigate the 8,270-acre Cave Run Lake and take in the beautiful surroundings. You can launch your kayak at various points around the lake.

3. Red River:

  • Location: Red River Gorge

  • Highlights: Experience the thrill of paddling through the stunning Red River Gorge. The river offers a mix of calm sections and Class I-III rapids.

4. North Fork Kentucky River:

  • Location: Breathitt County to Perry County

  • Highlights: Enjoy a scenic float along this river, surrounded by forested hills and sandstone cliffs. It's suitable for kayakers of all skill levels.

5. Russell Fork River:

  • Location: Pike County

  • Highlights: For experienced kayakers, the Russell Fork River offers challenging Class IV-V rapids during the annual "Russell Fork Rendezvous."

6. Big Sandy River:

  • Location: Pike County to Johnson County

  • Highlights: Explore this tranquil river with calm stretches and occasional riffles. Keep an eye out for wildlife along the way.

7. Elkhorn Creek:

  • Location: Fayette County to Scott County

  • Highlights: While not in Eastern Kentucky, Elkhorn Creek is worth mentioning for its scenic beauty and paddling options, offering a peaceful escape from city life.

OHV Trails:

Eastern Kentucky boasts a variety of OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) trails, providing enthusiasts with opportunities to explore rugged terrains and enjoy thrilling rides. Here's a guide to some of the OHV trails in Eastern Kentucky:

1. Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area:

  • Location: Harlan County

  • Highlights: With over 150 miles of trails, Black Mountain offers something for every level of rider. You'll find everything from scenic forested paths to challenging rocky climbs.

2. Rush Off-Road:

  • Location: Boyd County

  • Highlights: This massive off-road park offers diverse terrain, including mud bogs, rock crawling, and wooded trails. It's a popular destination for OHV enthusiasts.

3. Wildcat Adventure Off-Road Park:

  • Location: Laurel County

  • Highlights: Known for its challenging trails, this park features steep hills, creek crossings, and rocky paths. There are trails for all skill levels, including some suitable for beginners.

4. Mineshaft Gap ATV Trail:

  • Location: Breathitt County

  • Highlights: This trail system features a mix of wooded trails and open spaces, offering riders the chance to explore the scenic Appalachian landscape.

5. Bear Wallow Trail System:

  • Location: Bell County

  • Highlights: This trail system includes the challenging Bear Wallow Trail, which features steep climbs and rocky sections. It's a favorite among experienced riders.

6. Matewan ATV Trails:

  • Location: Pike County

  • Highlights: Explore the rugged terrain around the historic town of Matewan. The trails offer scenic views and a mix of challenges.

7. Holly Bay OHV Area:

  • Location: Laurel County

  • Highlights: Located within the Daniel Boone National Forest, this area provides a mix of trails suitable for OHVs and motorcycles.

8. Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway:

  • Location: Daniel Boone National Forest

  • Highlights: While not exclusively an OHV trail, this byway offers off-road enthusiasts a chance to explore scenic backcountry roads and trails.

OHV Trail Tips:

  • Always wear appropriate safety gear, including a helmet and protective clothing.

  • Ensure your OHV is properly maintained before hitting the trails.

  • Respect trail rules and regulations, including posted speed limits and vehicle restrictions.

  • Check for trail conditions and any closures before heading out.

  • Pack essentials like water, tools, a first-aid kit, and a map.

Eastern Kentucky is an outdoor adventurer's paradise, blending its rich history, vibrant culture, and natural beauty into an unforgettable experience. Whether you're hiking in the Red River Gorge, scaling cliffs, biking through lush forests, or enjoying water activities, Eastern Kentucky offers endless opportunities to connect with nature and immerse yourself in the unique heritage of the region. Plan your visit to this hidden gem and discover the wonders of Eastern Kentucky for yourself.


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