Kentucky is a land of caves, culture, spectacular river gorges, and more. While people might stop by for the Kentucky Derby, or the state’s other big events, I’d suggest at least trying to spend a week here exploring across the state. This is a good place to start, if you’d like to get a good taste of what Kentucky has to offer. I’ve designed this Kentucky itinerary to include key historic and natural sites, and while it is only scratching the surface, it includes some spectacular places and paints a nuanced picture of the story of this place. If you are wondering what to do in Kentucky for a high-energy week, this is the post for you.
I would suggest this active itinerary for spring or fall, as summers can get hot and winters can be snowy. My plans here do not account for either, although I think summer would be somewhat doable with planning for hydration and staying cool.
This is also designed as a road trip so you will need a vehicle and a safe driver(s) handy for this trip.
Day 0: Arrival
I flew into Nashville, Tennessee when I traveled to Kentucky, because it was much cheaper from my home airport. Depending on where you are coming from you might fly into Nashville, Louisville, or Lexington. You can just adjust this itinerary to fit your starting airport, and consider driving in a clockwise (or counterclockwise!), circular route. I also like building travel days into my itineraries in case of delays or long travel days. You will also want some energy for this itinerary, so it’s good to get some rest.
STAY: In the city of your arrival.
Day 1: Land Between Two Lakes and Lost Cave
Since I got started in Nashville, which is south of Kentucky, I started my journey in the lower southwestern corner of the state. Take a peek at a map with rivers and terrain, and you will see why I wanted to visit the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area when considering what to do in Kentucky. It just looks cool! And it is! There are tons of recreational activities in this area. Of course, I went hiking, and I discuss the trail that I explored in detail in my hiking in Kentucky post. But you can hike, fish, boat, and learn about nature at the park’s visitor centers.
It will take about 2 hours to drive from Nashville to the Woodlands Nature Station, which is in the northern section of the park.
Honestly, for nature lovers, you could spend an entire day enjoying this area on your Kentucky itinerary. I include it in mine for the hiking, but you could easily walk in the morning, have a picnic lunch and then spend a lazy afternoon out on the water and/or fishing. Just make sure you check out the official website for information on fishing and hiking permits. If you have any questions, you can always stop by the visitor center as well.
For me, I spent about half a day here and then I headed east to Bowling Green. Being the kind of person who loves riding boats through caves, I was super excited to head up to the land of caves. The small city of Bowling Green has you covered with Lost River Cave. This is a great way to end the day, as their tours are pretty relaxed. You will just walk down into the preserve with your tour group and then take a short boat ride in and out of the cave.
It takes about two hours to drive from Woodlands Nature Station to the Lost River Cave. Check Lost River Cave’s tour times to make sure that you arrive there before they close!
Stay the night in Bowling Green, KY.
Day 2: Mammoth Cave National Park
It is about a 40 min drive from Bowling Green to Mammoth Cave National Park, and this is probably my favorite part of my Kentucky itinerary.
Plan to spend AT LEAST one full day in Mammoth Cave National Park. There is so much to do in this park. Top of your list, unless you are scared of caves, is to go on a cave tour. There are several different options in the park, and if you like caves you can try to do a couple. Mammoth Cave is so large that if you do two (or more!) tours you can see different parts of its depths. Just plan ahead, because you will likely want to get reservations. Check out Recreation.gov to plan out your tour reservations.
There is also hiking at Mammoth Cave National Park! So, you can tour the cave and explore the forested lands above. If you want some more details on the park, check out my Caves in Kentucky Post. Caves are essential to one week in Kentucky.
There are a few options of places to stay tonight. Bowling Green is a great option for a second night or staying in Cave City is a good alternative; you might also consider camping at Mammoth Cave NP if that is something you would enjoy.
Day 3: Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace and Louisville
Day 3 could be a bit of a down day for your Kentucky itinerary, depending on your energy level. But if you’d like a little more to do, you might consider revisiting Mammoth Cave National Park for the morning.
Either way, definitely plan on stopping by Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace. This is a small, historic national park unit, and it is free. Spend some time visiting the monument, learning about Abe’s life, and walking the grounds. It could take anywhere from 1-2 hours to thoroughly explore. You can learn a bit more about this spot in my post on History in Kentucky.
After that, drive up to Louisville and consider relaxing in the city for the evening. When considering what to do in Kentucky there is tons of good food here and plenty of places to stay. It’s about an hour from Bowling Green to Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace, and an hour from Birthplace to Louisville.
Stay in Louisville.
Day 4: Louisville
Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky, and it is full of history and culture to be explored. So, it is a must-visit for any Kentucky itinerary. I would suggest making sure that you do two things while you are there. (1) Walk through one of the city’s beautiful parks, and (2) visit some of the city’s museums.
For us, we wanted to explore the Waterfront Park so that we could walk across the Big Four Bridge to Indiana. This park had a lot of different amenities. These included some bathrooms (which were not in full operation when we visited because they had been overloaded by a huge event the night before). There are playgrounds for the kids to frolic in, bikes for rent, and swings for adults. The Big Four Bridge is also a pedestrian bridge, so it is really nice to walk across. On the other side, in Indiana, there are restaurants and biking paths as well. You could easily spend half a day just exploring and enjoying the park.
There are also LOADS of museums in Louisville, so really when planning one week in Kentucky, you likely won’t be able to visit them all. We visited the Muhammad Ali Center, which I would highly suggest and which I talk about more in my Exploring the History of Kentucky post. But there is also a bourbon museum, and plenty of great museums for kids.
After you’ve spent a day exploring the city, spent another night here.
Day 5: Camp Nelson and Lexington
Camp Nelson might not be at the top of most people’s what to do in Kentucky lists, but for me it is essential. I am trying to visit as many national park units as possible, and it also covers history that you won’t see in many others places. I would suggest getting an early start to this day, so that you can arrive at Camp Nelson as soon as the visitor center opens at 9a. It is about a 1.5 hours drive from Louisville to Camp Nelson National Monument.
The visitor center is only open from May 30th to September 5 each year. Unfortunately, we visited outside of their season, so we missed learning as much about this site as we could have. Camp Nelson, however, is an important site related to the Civil War and the fight for African American freedom in Kentucky, which had a complicated relationship with the Union.
It is then an hour drive from Camp Nelson to the International Museum of the Horse, which would be my number one suggestion for a place to visit in Lexington, KY. The museum is open 9-5p every day EXCEPT Mondays and Tuesdays, when it is closed. This is easily a half day experience at least, so make sure to plan for this when timing out your day.
I talk more about this museum in my Exploring the History of Kentucky post, but you have the opportunity to learn about the history of horses in Kentucky in an indoor museum. There is also an outdoor section of the museum where you can visit with real horses. I think this museum should be on everyone’s Kentucky itinerary; horses are a major part of Kentucky culture and they are also amazingly cool animals.
Stay this night in Lexington.
Day 6: Red River Gorge
There are days worth of activities in the Red River Gorge area for folks who like hiking and camping. But in this Kentucky itinerary, I will suggest two activities for a single day. It is an hour drive from Lexington to Red River Gorge.
First, I would suggest visiting the Natural Bridge State Resort. Here, you can do a variety of things including plenty of hiking, or riding a cable car up to the natural bridge there. We hiked up to arch from the river and I cover the details of the trail that we took in my Hiking in Kentucky post.
Second, I would suggest taking the 715 loop. You can just do this drive and stop to see some breathtaking views along the way. There are deep gorges, beautiful rivers and natural arches, and a very cool tunnel that the road passes through. When we visited this area, we took the driving tour, and coupled it with an easy hike to a suspension bridge. That Hiking in Kentucky post covers that trail in more detail.
Along with hikes and beautiful views, there are lots of little outdoor communities in this area with food and cool shops. I’d suggest spending the night in this area in a town like Campton, or in one of the more remote hotels. There are also campsites in this area if that is something you like doing.
Alternatively, you could use part of your day to drive back to where you will be flying out of. It is 4 hours to Nashville and 2 hours to Louisville.
Day 7: Start Heading Home
Start your journey home on this final day of the Kentucky itinerary, whether that is by car, plane, or both. After your one week in Kentucky, I hope you will think about coming back to learn more and explore more in this fascinating state.
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