Kentucky bills itself as a place of Unbridled Spirit. After numerous RV trips around this diverse state, I have to agree.
Lexington and Georgetown
Horses, the royalty of Lexington, live in barns of beauty surrounded by velvety green fields of Kentucky bluegrass. Miles of fences and traditional hand-laid limestone dividers partition the farms where they reside. A few horse farms even open their doors to visitors—truly a worthwhile stop.
The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington showcases thoroughbred equines with live horses in numerous venues and informative exhibits in the American Saddlebred Museum. Retired racehorses reside in the park and they and their histories are introduced to visitors. Costumed equestrians ride various breeds around an outdoor ring during the Parade of Breeds show, accompanied by commentary.
Visitors have an opportunity to take photos, pet the horses, and chat with the riders at the end. Guests can board a horse-drawn wagon for a tour and catch a glimpse of the sculptures that dot this 1,200-acre working farm.
The Kentucky Horse Park Campground offers 260 campsites with electric (50, 30, 20 amps) and water hookups. All sites are 55-foot paved back-in spots. In addition, some electric-only and primitive sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Two dump stations are provided.
The campground makes a great base for exploring the Lexington area which boasts one of the largest concentrations of horse farms in the world. Driving along the Bluegrass Country tour route takes you past many of them. Intricate iron entrance gates and impressive homes stand on many farms in the rolling green countryside.
On a morning visit to the Keeneland racecourse, you can rub elbows with equestrians during breakfast in the Track Kitchen and observe the athletes’ workouts on the track. This famous and historic horseracing arena attracts visitors year-round. Even when races are not in session, Keeneland’s significance and extensive history make it a popular Lexington destination. Horses began racing at Keeneland, one of the top Lexington attractions in 1936 and since then, annual races have become a traditional event.
Keeneland is also host to practice meets for jockeys and horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby as well as a series of horse auctions throughout the year. Visitors to Keeneland can view the racecourse, visit the indoor facility, and tour the sales complex. Keeneland’s website offers a calendar of upcoming events and ticket-purchasing options.
The Kentucky Horse Park Campground’s proximity to nearby cities and towns also proved to be very convenient. Interested in seeing how cars are manufactured? Explore the visitor’s center at the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, the largest Toyota manufacturing facility in the world which offers free 45-minute tram tours on weekdays (reservations required).
Georgetown boasts more than 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places making it an interesting and visually appealing place to stroll. Download the walking tour map or pick one up at the visitor’s center.
On the northern edge of Georgetown the Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is a symbol of friendship between the nation of Japan and Kentucky State. As a four-season garden, travelers and locals alike are welcome to visit the Yuko-En on the Elkhorn all year round. Access to the park is via the Tokugawa Gate along Cincinnati Pike which will lead visitors into the lush 5.5-acre garden.
The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is a farm for retired Thoroughbred horses that encompasses nearly 140 acres. The unique home for horses offers an opportunity for guests to get up close to several Thoroughbreds including winners of the Kentucky Derby like War Emblem and Silver Charm and Breeders’ Cup Champions Amazombie and Alphabet Soup as well as stakes winners Ide and Game On Dude. The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm offers daily public tours for a fee, private tours by appointment, and a visitor center.
Frankfort and Harrodsburg
A flower-lined boulevard in Frankfort leads to the Kentucky State Capitol building. Its murals, sculptures, and columns artfully combine to make it one of the most beautiful capitals in the United States. Broad steps ascend to the entrance which leads into a grand rotunda under a seven-story dome where a large Abraham Lincoln statue greets you.
Marble staircases lead to the judicial floor and the Supreme Court chambers which are adorned in rich mahogany and burnished with gold leaf. The Senate and House of Representatives chambers occupy opposite ends of the third floor.
Near the capitol rotunda is a doll display depicting each of Kentucky’s first ladies in her inaugural ball gown. It is incredible how fashion has changed through the centuries.
On the grounds of the state capitol stands the beautiful Floral Clock. Its face stretches 34 feet across and is covered by flowers exclusively grown in the state of Kentucky. Beneath the clock is a pool of water that is often used as a wishing well and the coins thrown into the well are used to fund scholarships. The Floral Clock is one of the most-visited attractions in Frankfort and is open to the public every day from dawn until dusk.
Visitors also can tour the Old Capitol Building in Frankfort which served the state legislature from 1830 until 1910 when the larger capitol was built in south Frankfort. The old and new capitol buildings have striking differences. The old capitol was constructed in 1830 in the Greek revival style. Of architectural interest is the curved, self-supporting stone staircase. The first-floor library houses old books, implements, and furnishings from the 1800s.
Rebecca Ruth’s is home to the famous bourbon balls, a treat that mixes chocolate with Kentucky’s best-known liquor. The candy factory and museum is open for tours Monday-Saturday for a $5.00 admission fee. Children 5 and under get in free. After the tour, guests can purchase these sweet treats to take home with them at the company store.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill founded in Harrodsburg in 1805 by members of a celibate religious sect allows visitors to immerse themselves in Shaker culture.
About 45 minutes south of Frankfort in Harrodsburg, visitors can enjoy a glimpse into the lives of the Shaker people. In 1805, members of this celibate religious sect established Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill which grew to 500-plus members.
Today, there are 34 surviving buildings of the 260 that were constructed during 105 years. In the Shaker faith, men and women had equal status—but everyone still had gendered roles, even eating on different sides of the dining rooms. Self-guided and staff-led tours of the village are available.
State and national parks
Feeling energetic? Hike up the trail at Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade. To get to the top of the bridge, you squeeze through a narrow fracture and climb some steps. For an easy ascent, you can take the skylift. Once at the top, you will be within walking distance of the 30-foot-wide sandstone structure known as Natural Bridge. If you want to extend your adventure, follow the 1,200-foot flat trail to Lookout Point for an incredible view of the bridge and the valley. Choose from among a dozen hiking trails that range from one-half mile to 7.5 miles.
Plenty of other fun activities beckon in and near the park. Lively music fills the air at outdoor hoedowns that take place at Hoedown Island within the park as dancers perform line dancing, Appalachian square dancing, two-stepping, and other lively dances. Throw in a fishing line or go canoeing on nearby Mill Creek Lake—maybe you will catch a largemouth bass.
Two campgrounds in the state park offer a total of 52 sites with electric hookups plus several primitive sites for tents. While here, drive to the adjacent Red River Gorge geological area for an immersion into nature. The Red River is Kentucky’s only National Wild and Scenic River. The erosive forces of wind and water have sculpted 100 arches in this area. Some of these natural phenomena will show themselves to you on the 70 miles of hiking trails.
One of the most popular attractions in Kentucky is Mammoth Cave National Park. Kentucky lays claim to the longest known cave system in the world—Mammoth Cave National Park. Before tourists started coming to the cave, mining saltpeter to make black gunpowder was conducted in the 18th century. Park rangers give cave tours that range from 30 minutes to six hours long. Some are strenuous, requiring many steps and steep grades.
Visitors can negotiate tight tunnels and view huge domed spaces, slot canyons, and historic structures in the park. Enjoy the waters of the Green and Nolin rivers by going fishing, canoeing, or kayaking. Or ride a bike along the 9-mile Railroad Bike and Hike Trail to visit scenic overlooks and historic sites. Other hiking trails ranging from 0.1 to 1.3 miles lead to a variety of sights.
Backcountry trails beckon adventurers to miles of forested hikes and horse trails. Everyone can find an outdoor trek that suits them. Two campgrounds here offer sites that accommodate RVs up to 40 feet with limited electric and no water hookups.
Cumberland Gap offers stunning scenery. Nestled on the border of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park which offers an attractive campground. Pioneers heading west traveled through this natural pass in the mountains.
Volunteers leave the visitors center at 9:00 a.m. to lead a four-hour tour of Hensley Settlement, a remote mountain enclave founded in 1903 and occupied until 1951. After riding a shuttle up a steep gravel road through the woods, visitors embark on a stroll around the historic Appalachian farm community. Split-rail fences outline plots Hensley family members called home. The reconstructed one-room schoolhouse and log homes will transport you to simpler times.
Bourbon in Bardstown
Kentucky’s second-oldest city, Bardstown was first settled in 1780. Nearly 200 buildings in the historic downtown district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places including a 1779 stagecoach stop that today is the Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest bourbon bar in the world.
Bourbon distilleries are synonymous with Kentucky. Some offer tours and others offer only tastings.
The Bourbon Capital of the World is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.
While staying at My Old Kentucky Home Campground in Bardstown we stopped at Heaven Hill Distillery and toured its small museum which tells the story of the only original U.S. spirit.
The Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loredo. After deciding on Maker’s Mark Distillery for a tour, we sipped coffee mixed with bourbon while gazing over the lush landscape. We then bought a gift bottle and hand-dipped it in the company’s traditional red wax.
Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark are among the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Kentuckians add this spirit to many dishes. On Route 49, to and from Bardstown, large buildings house hundreds of thousands of barrels of aging bourbon—barrels that are used only once by the distilleries.
The Kentucky Derby in Louisville
Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, in Louisville. Choose from several behind-the-scenes tours for an up-close look at this legendary track and the equine athletes who thrill spectators here. On the 30-minute Historic Walking Tour included with admission you visit the paddock and grandstand to learn about the history of the track and horses.
A second tour visits such non-public areas as the workers village, Millionaires Row, and the Turf Club. Stable operations begin as early as 5:00 a.m. and these beautiful animals are treated like royalty.
Watching The Greatest Race on a 360-degree screen gives you the feeling that the horses in the Kentucky Derby are galloping straight at you. Colorful exhibits regarding jockeys, Derby attendees, and horses fill the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Something for Everyone
Kentucky is fortunate to have so many attractions worth visiting. It seems as though there is an attraction for everyone. Quilters can visit the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, sports-car enthusiasts can tour the Corvette factory and museum in Bowling Green, bluegrass music fans can visit Owensboro, history buffs will appreciate Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, and there are plenty of national parks such as Mammoth Cave and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
Visitors to this beautiful southern state will be rewarded with happy memories of the unbridled spirit of Kentucky.
Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.