During some vacations you just want to relax. But, on others you might like to spend some of the time challenging yourself and packing as much as possible into a day. Maybe you dream of tying into a rope and climbing to new heights to check out the forest you just traversed. Or, you might want to paddle down a the river that you saw while mountain biking.
If you’re interested in a multi-sport day of adventure, you’ll find plenty of options in the wilds of Kentucky. From the depths of dark caves to high rocky outcrops, you can enjoy a wide range of landscapes and activities during a Kentucky day. To help you plan your next heart-pumping journey, we’ve highlighted a few of the best places to do multiple outdoor activities in a day.
1. Red River Gorge Geological Area
Begin your day on the Red River, floating through the heart of Kentucky’s rugged wilderness. As you explore the 8-mile lower section of this National Wild and Scenic River, you’ll pass sandstone cliffs that rise from the forest and encounter deep green foliage that dips into the water. It’s an otherworldly place with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. To launch this portion of your multi-sport day, head to Red River Adventure to rent a canoe or kayak and arrange shuttle services. If you have your own boat, you can arrange for Red River Adventure to pick you up at the take-out.
When you’ve finished floating, get up close and personal with the rock walls you just passed and scale the red sandstone cliffs and giant amphitheaters hidden in the heart of the forest. The high-quality rock climbing in the gorge attracts people from all over the world, and your ascent will provide a bird’s-eye view of the dense forest and the intricate network of cliffs. Southeast Mountain Guides offers guided rock climbing and rappelling, and no experience is necessary. Kentucky Rock and Adventure Guides also offers guided rock climbing as well as classes where you’ll learn climbing basics like knot-tying, belaying, and equipment use.
2. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Flanking the Land Between the Lakes peninsula, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley form a kayaker’s dream, with endless coves, wetlands, and more than 300 miles of shoreline to explore. For your first adventure of the day, kayak the Ginger Bay Water Trail or any of the many scenic water trails in the area. As you glide past forested shores, bluffs and rocky outcroppings, keep an eye out for bald eagles.
You can rent a canoe, kayak, or fishing boat at the Lake Barkley State Resort Park Marina. Also, the Energy Lake Marina rents canoes, and you can rent a canoe or kayak from the Woodlands Nature Station at Land Between the Lakes. Situated between Honker and Hematite lakes, the Nature Station offers plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to kayak away from some of the bigger motorized watercraft of Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. The Nature Station also offers affordable guided tours with a park naturalist. Head out on the sunset tour or the eagle-watching kayak tour for lots of chances to see wildlife.
You can rent a luxury pontoon boat or fishing boat from Green Turtle Bay Resort, beginning at $75 for a half-day on the water. Buzzard Rock Marina, Big Bear Marina, and Shawnee Bay Marina all rent pontoon boats, paddleboats and jon boats, starting as low as $47 a day.
After a peaceful morning, turn it up a notch and mountain bike through the lush forest of Land Between the Lakes. The Canal Loop Trail is the most popular and scenic mountain biking path, traversing 11 miles of singletrack in a large loop, with multiple opportunities for viewing the lakes. There are three different connectors from the main loop, so you can cut it short if it's too long, or just do a 1-mile loop.
The Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail is 11 miles one-way, and the first 2.5 miles are paved, with gentle grades and great lake views, making it a good option for families or beginners. For those who want more of a challenge, continue for the next 8.5 miles of ridges and hills through the hardwood forest.
If you don't have a bike, rent one from Wood-N-Wave Bicycle, a family-owned rental shop that's conveniently located at the northern entrance to Land Between the Lakes.
3. Big South Fork National Recreation Area
Launch your day with a ride among Big South Fork’s sandstone bluffs, pausing occasionally at rock outcrops to enjoy beautiful views of the river below. The mountain biking in Big South Fork is on the rugged side, and it’s a choose-your-own-adventure of sorts. You’ll find rides anywhere from just a few miles long all the way to quad-busting 35-mile loops. A favorite ride is to the John Muir Overlook, beginning at Peter’s Mountain Trailhead. You’ll ride past rock outcroppings with panoramic views of the forest plunging into the Big South Fork River Gorge—a truly memorable sight. From the overlook, turn around to complete the shorter ride, or keep going to continue the whole 35-mile loop.
After an adrenaline-filled ride, relax in the afternoon with an awe-inspiring hike to the sandstone rock arches of Big South Fork. As you stroll through the forest, you’ll get glimpses of these unique formations that seem to rise out of the forest unexpectedly. Some arches are so high and large that they were once used for wagon roads. Check out Wagon Arch, or if you want to hike to a waterfall, try Yahoo arch, accessed from the Yahoo Falls Scenic Area. Another good destination is Split Bow Arch, a high, thin formation that is accessed by a scenic half-mile hike from the Bear Creek Overlook.
4. Cave Run Lake
Get your heart rate going with a run on the woodland trails at Cave Run Lake, where a network of trails allows you to complete a loop of almost any distance or difficulty. You can hug the lake on the the 2.5-mile Twin Knobs Shoreline Trail, or ascend the 1.5-mile Knob Overlook Trail to enjoy lofty views. For a more rugged adventure, make your way to the backcountry Sheltowee Trace Trail, Kentucky’s longest trail where you can explore miles and miles of narrow, steep, wooded ridges and quiet creeks.
After your run, grab a paddleboard or kayak, or even rent a pontoon boat, and head out to enjoy a sunny afternoon on the water. Cave Run Lake is large, with 8,000 acres and plenty of shoreline to paddle, and there are lots of places to relax and fish. Bring your rod and cast a line for trout, catfish, bass, walleye, or even the elusive muskie. See if you can break the record for the largest Muskie caught in Kentucky, which weighed almost 50 pounds.
5. Carter Caves State Resort Park
Begin the day at Carter Caves State Resort Park, winding through narrow, subterranean passageways and exploring caverns with fantastic geologic formations. Depending on how ambitious and daring your are, you can choose from a variety of cave excursions.
The 75-minute Cascade Tour is the longest and most difficult, covering three-quarters of a mile of rolling terrain and stairs. It's worth it, though, to see the underground 30-foot-tall waterfall and the unique cave formations.
X-Cave is rated as moderate, as it’s 45 minutes long and only a quarter of a mile. But, there are lots of stair steps, narrow passages, and places where you have to stoop. It's unique in that it takes you through two vertical passages that form the shape of an "X," with lots of stalactites and other cave features.
Saltpetre Cave is 60 minutes long, and is fairly easy, covering only about a half-mile of flat terrain. Along the way you’ll learn about the fascinating history of saltpetre, one of Kentucky's first industries, and a vital ingredient in the gunpowder used during the War of 1812.
After your underground adventure, explore the surface. Carter Caves State Resort Park has a variety of wooded trails, many with interesting geologic features. The Natural Bridge Trail and the Raven Bridge Trail both feature sandstone arches, and the Natural Bridge Arch is so large that it even supports a paved road. Check out three of the main sandstone arches in the park by hiking the 3.5-mile Three Bridges Trail.
Written by Jacqui Levy for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.
Featured image provided by Laurel F