Rolling plains with horses grazing in Kentucky

Kentucky: The US State With Caves of Mammoth Proportions

Dana McMahan

Dana McMahan

April 12, 2024

9 min read

Known around the world for a particular fried fast food, Kentucky also conjures visions of bourbon flowing and gleaming horses nibbling lush bluegrass. And yes, those scenes are accurate—other than the grass not actually being blue.

But the curious traveler who peeks beyond the postcard images will find a state (technically a commonwealth, though there’s no actual difference between the two) overflowing with geologic wonders and epic outdoor recreation with more miles of running water than any other lower-48 state, an arts tradition deeply woven throughout its nearly 40,000 square miles, and a welcome so warm you’ll feel like maybe you’ve just arrived at your own old Kentucky home. 

Hugging the west side of the Appalachian Mountains and tracing the Ohio River’s meandering path, Kentucky lies at the geographic and cultural crossroads of the North, South, and Midwest (in its pioneering days, it was even considered the West). That calibration results in a population who will roll out the southern hospitality; you’ll probably find yourself sipping bourbon on the porch with a new friend before you leave. Chef-driven restaurants showcasing the longstanding agricultural bounty of the state, acclaimed performing arts, and sophisticated events—ever seen a foal sold for a million dollars or watched a six-million-dollar horse race?—may surprise the newcomer, but locals know exactly the treasure they call home.

Bourbon is life

Barrels of bourbon stacked up in Kentucky

Bourbon is a booming industry now, worth more than $9 billion a year to the commonwealth. However, it began with 18th-century farmers with extra corn on their hands and stills they’d use to distill the excess grain into whiskey. Shipping the whiskey down the Ohio River in barrels gifted the fiery spirit with a smooth caramel flavor and aroma. After surviving Prohibition and the rise of clear spirit popularity, bourbon came back with a vengeance in the twenty-teens.

Today more than 11 million barrels are aging in rickhouses across Kentucky, flowing into the supply that provides 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. It doesn’t have to be made here, but Kentucky’s bourbon is the best, as locals will tell you.

Tour a legacy distillery like Maker’s Mark in Loretto, a historic revival of one like Castle & Key in Frankfort, or an urban showcase like Michter’s in Downtown Louisville for an immersion into the art and alchemy of Kentucky’s native spirit. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail offers itineraries for visits to dozens of distilleries dotted throughout the countryside, as well as urban sites. In Louisville, explore the way of whiskey along the Urban Bourbon Trail, hitting bars and restaurants with a deep well of knowledge—and even deeper bars. 

Note to visitors: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. To be bourbon, whiskey must meet criteria such as aging in a new, charred oak vessel (usually barrels), having no added colors and flavors, and containing a “mash bill” (aka recipe) of at least 51 percent corn.

Caves of mammoth proportions

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

This, well, mammoth cave system is vast, as it’s the world’s longest known cave system, but there’s more to Mammoth Cave National Park than underground marvels. The UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve is home to peak Kentucky. There are romantic rolling hills, forests and sinkholes, river valleys, an abundance of plant and animal life, not to mention a few thousand years of human history. 

This is no stuffy field trip destination either. The acoustics of the caves made a Yo-Yo Ma concert otherworldly, while tours run the gamut of an up-close look at its “Frozen Niagara” to a hands-and-knees off-trail crawl in an intro to caving. Wheelchair-accessible tours are also available.

Beyond adventuring underground, visitors can stargaze with ranger-led night programs, go off-road on two wheels or four hooves, or canoe or kayak two rivers winding their way through the park.  

Don your hat and place your wager

A jockey races a horse in Kentucky

Dating back to the speedy steeds that pioneers from the East brought when they settled the West (as Kentucky was considered then), thoroughbred racing in Kentucky has deep roots. A trifecta of favorable odds led the commonwealth to its status as a (the?) world-renowned racing destination. The limestone-filtered water that makes the bourbon so good, the moderate climate with distinct seasons, and the rolling hills of well-drained bluegrass terrain lend themselves to raising thoroughbreds that go on to become champions. 

Just how perfect is Kentucky for racehorses? 111 out of 145 Kentucky Derby winners have been bred here. Today, there’s one horse for every 18 people in Kentucky, and you can see the best of the best (from here and around the world) across the state.

While the ultimate experience is found at “the greatest two minutes in sports,” aka the Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May (not to mention the two-week party leading up to it), this isn’t the only game in town. Keeneland's genteel track in Lexington (one of our selects for Where To Go in 2024) is known not just for racing but its horse sales, where promising colts and fillies sell for seven figures plus. Nearby, the working horse farm that is the Kentucky Horse Park offers a chance to explore our relationship with horses in a very up close and personal (think stall-side) way.  

Wilderness wonderland

A beautiful natural photograph with changing leaves in Kentucky

Nearly half of Kentucky is blanketed in forestland, and more than 12 million acres of forests across the commonwealth contain some of the most diverse hardwood species in the country. Among the best adventure spots is the rugged Red River Gorge. Grab your climbing shoes to scale the sandstone on countless crags that draw legions of sport climbers, and head afterwards to Miguel’s Pizza, a beloved scruffy campground and pizza spot that’s known around the world (case in point, I’ve seen Miguel’s stickers across the globe). 

Hundreds of miles of (official and not) hiking trails wind through the massive biome that is Daniel Boone National Forest and adjacent Kentucky Natural Bridge State Park; hikers can experience this canyon system’s waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, and more than 100 natural sandstone arches. Canoe the river, kayak through an underground (flooded) limestone mine, sleep in a treehouse, or just go for the local, seasonal, and blissfully delicious food at Red River Rockhouse

Kentucky’s natural wonders aren’t limited to the Gorge; Pine Mountain State Resort Park is extra special when redbuds and mountain laurels bloom in the spring, and wildlife abounds at Green River State Park.

A slice of Shaker heritage

Shaker Village in Kentucky

If the simple perfection of Shaker culture—including functional design and sustainable and innovative agriculture—fascinates you, Kentucky offers the chance to immerse yourself in the traditions of this way of life. Beginning in the early 19th century and sticking around for about a century, the Bluegrass was home to one of the largest such communities in the country, with nearly 500 Shakers calling the area home in the 1820s. 

Today, visitors can experience the architecture, inventions, and even cuisine of Shakers at Shaker Village in Central Kentucky, just south of Lexington. The working village is host to farmers, historians, and naturalists who carry on Shaker legacies. With innovative farming the heart of the original Pleasant Hill Shaker community, the garden, orchard, livestock, and apiary are central to today’s village. Freshly grown produce fills the Trustees’ Table, where visitors can dine on seed-to-table fare.

History is also alive here, with several dozen restored buildings exemplifying the iconic architecture and craftsmanship of the Shakers. And it’s all set within a 3,000-acre campus starring streams, forests, fields, and native prairies. While Shaker Village certainly makes for a fine field trip, the adventure can go all night when you stay at one of the rooms, suites, or cottages of The Inn

Rivers run through it

A waterfall in Kentucky

The “Niagara of the South,” 1,200 miles of shoreline, and a houseboat haven are part of the legacy of Kentucky’s rivers, particularly Cumberland River, whose 687 miles traverse southern Kentucky and north-central Tennessee. However, it wasn’t always an outdoor recreation dream; damming the river in the 1950s for hydroelectric power created Lake Cumberland, now known as the Houseboat Capital of the World.

The South’s own Niagara is officially known as Cumberland Falls, and if you plan your trip around a full moon, you’ll have the chance to glimpse its elusive moonbow (one of just two of these lunar rainbows—yes, rainbows in the dark—on Earth). For daytime thrills, try a whitewater rafting trip below the towering falls with Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort.

Or, live your best houseboat life with a rental from one of the many marinas lining Lake Cumberland—bonus points if your boat boasts a waterslide and jacuzzi! Pontoons and fishing boats can also be rented, or you can BYOB (bring your own boat) to explore the coves, fishing holes, and wide open stretches of the Cumberland River just begging for a pair of water skis. 

Camping, glamping, and RV park options are found in abundance, and lake towns like Somerset and Burnside have long been destinations for in-the-know water-lovers.

Art by the people

Woven throughout Kentucky’s history is a flourishing handicrafts and artisan tradition, and across the state are an abundance of fine institutions showcasing the work of Kentucky artists. 

Smack dab in the heart of the state is the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, where more than 800 Kentucky artisans’ work is showcased. And not just visual arts, look for music, books, film, and specialty foods. Head east for the Appalachian Artisan Center. Not only a place to see traditional arts and crafts of the region, such as ceramics, weaving, blacksmithing, and string instruments, the center supports artists—and the economy of Eastern Kentucky—with assistance in building successful businesses by providing studio space, training, and education. 

Anchoring the western side of the state in UNESCO Creative City Paducah is the National Quilt Museum, celebrating the stories behind the stitches with a collection featuring several hundred of the best in contemporary quilts.

Fried chicken beyond the bucket

Fried chicken in Kentucky

While one Kentucky dish may be best known from the international fast food conglomerate peddling drumsticks by the bucket, fried chicken is serious business in these parts. Classically trained chefs in trendy restaurants serve up their versions to discerning diners while drive-thru local joints draw lines that wrap around the parking lot for an alternative to the corporate bird. 

In Louisville, fans who know head to Shirley Mae’s for piping hot wings fried in lard dished up with hot water cornbread (cash and carry-out only), or to Chicken King, an institution worth the often lengthy wait. A refined yet whimsical version awaits at Nami Modern Korean Steakhouse, where acclaimed chef Edward Lee tops spicy rice cakes with a sizzling hunk of “bear claw” fried chicken. 

If you’re hankering for the OG KFC, get yourself to Corbin where you can dig in at the birthplace of the Colonel’s (that’s an honorary title, by the way, not military) fried chicken legacy, Sanders Cafe. Make your own fried chicken trail by following that up with dinner at Claudia Sanders Dinner House—originally called The Colonel’s Lady—in Shelbyville, where Colonel Sanders and his wife Claudia opened their doors in the late 1960s, after he sold his chain of restaurants. 

And, of course, a true fried chicken enthusiast can’t miss the World Chicken Festival (complete with the World’s Largest Stainless Steel Skillet) in London, Kentucky, which takes place the last full weekend of every September. 

Good to know

Is Kentucky expensive? 

The cost of living in Kentucky is about 11 percent lower than the national average, which translates to lower prices for travelers. Aside from Kentucky Derby weekend in Louisville, when prices skyrocket the first weekend in May, visiting Kentucky can be quite affordable, especially if you’re into camping. Standard hotels can be found in the low $100s outside the bigger cities, while a nice place in, say, Louisville will start in the $200s, jumping to the thousands for Derby weekend. Dinner at a nice restaurant in Louisville can set you back $150+ for two with drinks, but you can grab a family box of fried chicken at a local joint for less than $20. That said, options are available for high-end experiences, especially when it comes to touring bourbon country. 

Best time to visit Kentucky

Kentucky has all four distinct seasons, and each offers its own appeal. Visit from April to May for activities centered around the Kentucky Derby and May through September for lake and outdoor activities. Spring and fall are most comfortable temperature-wise, and summer, with its heat and humidity, is best spent on the water.

What languages are spoken in Kentucky?

English is the main language spoken in Kentucky. 

Kentucky with kids

With 49 state parks and historic sites, loads of festivals and events, and kid-specific attractions like water parks and museums, Kentucky is super family-friendly.

Kentucky public transportation

Viable public transportation is scarce in Kentucky outside of bus systems in the bigger cities. You’ll need wheels to get most anywhere.

Is Kentucky safe?

The US ranks #131 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. Among the states, Kentucky falls about in the middle. Visitors should use common sense and exercise caution, especially in cities, crowded places, and if they've been enjoying a drink or two.

Kentucky ranks #42 with a score of 65/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index. While more rural areas are about what you’d expect for a conservative state, Kentucky is making strides in LGBTQ+ equality. Louisville and Lexington have both earned accolades from a number of publications and organizations for their exuberant welcome of LGBTQ+ visitors and residents. 

Getting to Kentucky

Other southern US destinations

Dana McMahan

Dana McMahan

Freelance Writer

Dana McMahan is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was the longtime dining and drinks columnist for the Courier Journal. A Certified Bourbon Steward and a Kentucky Colonel, she has contributed to Esquire, Condé Nast Traveler, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Rachael Ray magazine, and other national outlets, and hosted United Airlines’ Three Perfect Days: Louisville. Find her at @elleferafera on Instagram.   


Published April 12, 2024

Last updated April 12, 2024

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