Essential Kentucky RV Travel:
Taking in the Spirited Charms
of the Multifaceted Bluegrass State
by Suzanne Wright
Kentucky is a green embrace. Soft focus and rounded edges. Undulating hills. Appalachian-tinged Southern accents. Oyster-moist skies. Meadows ripe with the tang of damp hay. Sure, Kentucky is known for bluegrass, bourbon, and horseracing. But the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Abraham Lincoln, and Loretta Lynn is also home to the world’s largest cave system, hospitable cities steeped in arts and crafts that span generations, “the Niagara of the South,” and rare lunar rainbows. So roll down the windows, breathe in deep, and let’s roll!
Horse & Bourbon Country
Kentucky is synonymous with horse racing, and Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World. The most magnificent horses on the planet graze on Kentucky’s famed bluegrass. Every day is Derby Day at the Kentucky Derby Museum, where the long history of the high-stakes race comes alive. In Lexington, place your bets at classy Keeneland Race Course, and admire the many picturesque horse farms. If you’re into architecture or intrigued by ghosts, join a guided tour of the exceptional Victorian mansions of Old Louisville. Baseball fans will want to swing by the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, while boxing fans can check out the Muhammad Ali Center. No trip to Louisville is complete without visiting the landmark Brown Hotel, a bastion of Southern gentility. Have a mint julep and a “hot brown,” a variation of the Welsh rarebit sandwich that was invented on this hallowed ground. An adventure is waiting outside of Louisville, the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, 16,140 acres of land. The Walk Across Kentucky at the State Botanical Garden is a two-mile paved pathway through 80 acres of wild-collected native plants that represent the mosaic of regions that span the state, from the Appalachian plateau to the Cumberland Mountains. America’s original elixir, bourbon, benefits from the limestone-fed spring waters that nurture its character. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a celebration of that triumph. Outfitters will ferry you between distilleries so you can indulge in your favorite brown liquors safely.
Where to Stay:
As the largest city in Kentucky, Louisville has many convenient options for camping. Right next to Churchill Downs, Derby Park & RV Campground is a 24/7/365 option for those who want to be at the center of the action. Part of the expo center features bars, a flea market, live music, and a restaurant. There are 200 back-in and pull-through sites with full hookups; for serenity, book Camp Nelson RV Park east of town. It’s located on the Kentucky River and is heavily forested, with full and partial hookups, a boat ramp, bathhouse and laundry facilities. The resort-like Kentucky Horse Park Campground in Lexington offers 260 spacious paved, back-in sites with 50/30/20 amp electric and power. There’s a junior Olympic-size pool, tennis, volleyball, and a 12-mile bike/walk trail leading downtown.
With more than 400 miles of surveyed passageways, Mammoth Cave National Park is the world’s longest known cave system. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, it’s a fascinating underground ecosystem. Above ground, you can explore the park by horseback or amble along the easy, 3.5-mile out and back River Styx Spring Trail. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin is known as "The Niagara of the South” for its dramatic falls that plunge into a boulder-strewn gorge. The park is also one of only two places in the world where you can see a lunar rainbow or “moonbow.” On clear, full moon nights, it’s thrilling to see this unique phenomenon as moon light is refracted through water droplets in the air. Foodies can sample the honest, locally-sourced comfort food at The Wrigley Taproom. If fast cars get your motor revving, head over to The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, where every muscle car model has been manufactured since 1981. In nearby Munfordville along the Green River, you’ll find a lesser-known gem called Johnson Springs. The surreal emerald-green color is attributed to karst, limestone that dissolves in water.
Where to Stay:
Located only a half-mile from the Nada Tunnel entrance, 4 Guys RV Park @ Red River Gorge is big-rig friendly. There are 60 sites with full hookups, Wifi, and picnic tables, bath and laundry facilities, and a pool.
Daniel Boone Country
Legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone declared, “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.”The state’s premier backdrop for adventure, the rugged Daniel Boone National Forest stretches southeast to northeast through the Appalachian Mountains. It’s studded with lakes, rivers, and streams for year-round boating, fishing, and swimming. There are also more than 150 miles of OHV trails. Kentucky boasts the largest population of elk east of the Mississippi River, so watch for these magnificent creatures, along with black bears, eagles, peregrine falcons. The Red River Gorge National Geological Area and Natural Bridge State Resort Park are popular units of the forest. Grab a paddle and ply “The Red” by canoe or kayak. Natural Bridge attracts climbers and rappellers galore, with one of the largest collections of sandstone arches east of the Rockies. Or simply drive the resplendent 46-mile Red River Gorge Scenic Byway, one of America’s most scenic, wild rides. There are plenty of points of interest and pull-offs for picnicking and photography.
Where to Stay:
Peaceful Sheltowee Cabins and RV Park sits near the highest point in Rowan County, Limestone Knob. There are just eight extra wide and long gravel sites with full hookups, Wifi, and picnic tables. In fall, Outpost RV Campground is a kaleidoscope of brilliant color.
The late Bill Monroe is credited as the father of this musical genre, distinctive for its “high lonesome sound.” There’s an unmistakable vigor to bluegrass music, reverberating with quick picking on stringed instruments. It’s religion in these parts. Located in Owensboro, the Bluegrass Music Hall attracts national talent. In the northeastern corner of Kentucky that borders West Virginia, the tuneful stretch of Highway 23 rambles 127 miles through the storied hills and hollers of Appalachia. Highlights include the Loretta Lynn Homeplace—Butcher Holler for insights into her mountain childhood; the Kentucky Opry at the Mountain Arts Center; and the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum. If you want to further immerse yourself in the region’s lore, take the Hatfield-McCoy Feud Driving Tour from the Pike County, Kentucky, home of the McCoys, to the Mingo, West Virginia home of the rival Hatfields.
Where to Stay:
One of Kentucky’s most popular (and budget-friendly) recreation areas is Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg. Nestled on Dewey Lake, it offers a bonanza of recreational options including biking, boating, fishing, elk viewing tours, and hiking. There’s also an onsite outdoor amphitheater and a restaurant at May Lodge. There are 121 sites with hookups, a shower facility, and a grocery store. The park is part of the State Park Plates Trail that highlights dishes made from locally sourced meats and produce across the state.
Kentucky has a rich heritage of arts and crafts that dates to pioneer days when settlers handcrafted everything they needed and wanted. Those skills have been proudly passed down through the generations. Today’s furniture makers, glass blowers, metal workers, musical instrument makers, painters, potters, quilters, sculptors, and textile artists are thriving across the state. About 40 miles south of Lexington, Berea is the “Folk Arts and Crafts Capital” of Kentucky. More than 800 artists display their goods at the Kentucky Artisan Center, which frequently offers demonstrations and performances. They welcome RVers with ample parking. Paducah, in western Kentucky, has been designated a UNESCO Creative City, from the historic floodwall murals that invigorate the riverfront to the eclectic studios of the Lower Town Arts District. The Kentucky Folk Art Center (KFAC) at Morehead State University is a special spot. Housed in the historic Union Grocery, KFAC showcases more than 1,400 pieces of joyful and meaningful self-taught art.