If you are looking for hikes across rolling green hills, and through lands of stone archways and underground rivers, Kentucky hiking trails are what you are looking for. This guide is not even scratching the surface of the adventures on trail that you can have in Kentucky. But if you only have a few days, these are some great options across from across the state and at varying levels of difficulty.
Digests de Español para los senderos de Kentucky: En este blog, trato usar mi Español en pequeño “digest” sobre cada sendero. Lo siento para mi gramática!
- 0.1 What is the best hiking in Kentucky?
- 0.2 How I Found Kentucky Hiking Trails
- 1 Kentucky Hiking Trails
- 1.1 Star Gap Arch
- 1.2 Honker Trail
- 1.3 Red River Drive and the Suspension Bridge
- 1.4 Mammoth Caves National Park Trails
- 1.5 Bonus: Walk To Indiana from Louisville
What is the best hiking in Kentucky?
As a West-coast folk who grew up exploring the wilds of Arizona, I never thought about Kentucky as a hiking destination. Even after I learned about its exceptional caving scene, I honestly still didn’t realize that this state had some really great hiking options. So, obviously, I am not an expert in Kentucky hiking trails. I was just a visitor. But I will outline some of the things that I was looking for on the trail in this beautiful state.
So, what makes for the best hiking in Kentucky in my opinion?
(1) The trail showcases the unique natural elements of the state. For Kentucky, this includes exceptional stone formations, rivers running to and from cave systems, and verdant rolling hills.
(2) Water features! Kentucky is the land of caves which means that it is also a land of water. Being from the desert, I think water along the trail is always an additional benefit for the experience of the hike. Sometimes it does add an additional challenge as well. But for the trails included here waters makes the trail interesting with dam crossings, and rope bridges!
(3) High quality trails which cater to all kinds of explorers, and which are connected to vibrant and welcoming gateway communities.
How I Found Kentucky Hiking Trails
When I was looking for Kentucky hiking trails, I used a few different strategies. Depending on what criteria you use to define the best hiking in Kentucky, you might consider modifying these for your own use.
(1) Check out the maps!
I like to peek around the map of where ever I am going, as I plan out my road trip. Through this, I see if there are any areas that look like they might have some character. Land Between the Lakes was my major map find. I loved the way that there was a big peninsula between the lakes. I was even more excited to see that this was a national recreation area.
(2) Look for national parks or forests, and state parks
National park units are always at the top of my list, because I collect the little stamps that they have at the parks, and I want to visit as many of them as I can. Of course, they are also exceptionally beautiful and have amazing amenities. Mammoth National Park was the big destination that came from this method of searching.
(3) Internet sleuthing
I like to look through as many blogs as I can when looking for hiking trails. I especially like bloggers who focus on hiking in many of their posts, so they have some credibility in terms of measuring difficulty and the quality of the trail. For Kentucky, the Red River Gorge was the main find that I uncovered through this method. Most blogs mentioned this place.
[MAP WITH TRAILS]
Kentucky Hiking Trails
Star Gap Arch
Mileage: 2.33 miles
Total Ascent: 574 feet
Bathrooms: Yes, but they were locked when we visited on the weekend, during regular hours. I have no idea when they are open.
4WD needed? No
Star Gap Arch is what I would consider some of the best hiking in Kentucky because of its exceptional attraction, the arch, and the quality of the trail itself. This is a high tourism area, however.
There are multiple ways to get up to the Star Gap Arch. This includes multiple trails, and a chair lift. We opted to take an easier trail from the parking lot across the river from the resort. My travel partner was new to hiking and found this trail challenging but doable. For me, as an experienced hiker, I really enjoyed the variability of the trail. We crossed a suspension bridge, squished down a little stone passage way, and got to stand on the arch.
From the parking lot, you will go down some stairs and then walk along the river. You will see the resort on the far side of the water. Eventually, you will come to a suspension bridge. After you cross, this is where you will pass a gift ship and bathrooms. From here, follow the trailhead up the mountain.
As you ascend, there are multiple trail options. There are easier and harder options. We selected the easy option and were able to follow the good signage and well-maintained trail up the hill through the woods. Towards the top, you will see the arch come into view. Make sure to enjoy this beautiful formation from the bottom.
Then you can follow the trail up, and through a narrow passage through the stone. This is a very cool spot and a bit busy when folks are trying to pass both ways. Then you will finish off your ascent with some stairs to the top of the arch. You can go back the way you came, like we did, or continue hiking. Overall, this is one of the most unique Kentucky hiking trails for folks who might not be in the state for very long.
Digest en Español Pequeño
Este camino es muy especial porque tiene el arco de piedra muy grande. Hay un camino a el arco, y también hay un “chair lift.” Nosotros usamos el sendero. Es un poco escarpado, pero es muy interesante con arboles, un puente colgante, y un parte adelante del arco. Esta sendero, con el ruta de nosotros, es 3.75 km.
Rating: Easy with potential for water crossings an additional challenge.
Mileage: 5.4 miles
Total Ascent: 328 feet
Bathrooms: Yes, at the visitor center and at the picnic area down the hill.
4WD needed? No, I suggest parking at the visitor center.
This trail is located in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
This was my first hike in Kentucky, and as I mentioned above, I picked this spot off a map. At the more granular scale, I selected Honker from the many Kentucky hiking trails in the area because I liked the look of the dam crossing. When I went in early spring, this trail did not disappoint. Do prepare to potentially get your feet wet on this hike.
When I did this trail, I left from the visitor center and I walked clockwise. From the visitor center, you will walk down, and then start trekking through the forest. I really enjoyed this part of the trail in the spring. The trail is pretty flat as it winds through the woods, and there was plenty of water flowing between the trees. Besides the budding greenery, there were also little wildflowers blossoming in the shade. The only challenge in this section of the trail, before you hit the dam/lake, is that there are a few stream crossings and some of these can be a little rouged depending on tree fall and trail maintenance work.
Then you will come to the lake and the dam crossing, which is what makes this some of the best hiking in Kentucky, in my opinion. The views of the lake are exceptional, and the water crossing here is difficult but lovely. When I visited, there was water flowing across the dam. So, I had to take off my shoes and walk across the slippery concrete in the water. This definitely could be dangerous if the water is too high. When I crossed, it wasn’t even up to my ankles, but the dam was so slippery, I almost fell several times. Please be careful here.
After you cross this section, you will climb some intriguing, concrete stairs and traverse a small wooded island. On the other side, there is another crossing, but this is a large, robust trail, so no wading. There were loads of people fishing and relaxing along the water here. I overheard that the parking in this area can get very busy at times, so another good reason to park at the visitor center.
After you cross the lake, you will re-enter the woods and continue along the edge of the water. The trail here can get a little soggy depending on the time of the year. I ended up completely soaking my shoes in one of the creek crossings. As you get closer to the visitor center, you will start following the trail upwards again. Expect a little bit of elevation gain until you get back to the trailhead.
Digest en Español Pequeño
Este sendero es una ruta con un bosque muy tranquilo, y con cruzas de un lago. Muchas partes del camino es plano, pero cerca del lago, necesitas cruzar una presa. Porque el sendero esta resbaladizo y mojado en estos tiempos. Me gusta mucho este sendero porque el lago es muy bonito y interesante. Este camino de Kentucky es 8.7 km.
Red River Drive and the Suspension Bridge
Rating: Easy with some slippery and narrow parts of the trail.
Mileage: 1 mile
Total Ascent: 89 feet
Bathrooms: Yes, outhouses.
4WD needed? No, however, the turn down into the dirt parking lot is a little tough for smaller cars. We made it in a Corolla.
We stumbled on this trail while doing the Red River Gorge drive, and I am so glad that we did. This was honestly one of the most wild Kentucky hiking trails that I was able to do on my trip. This little walk is part of a great network of trails, but the section that we did (from the parking to the suspension bridge) was perfect for beginners. Due to that, hiking in the Red River Gorge area is some of the best hiking in Kentucky because it is absolutely beautiful and has options for the beginners for the backpackers among you.
You will park in the dirt lot right off the Red River Gorge road, and then you will follow the trailhead sign to the trail that follows along the side of the river. This trail is fairly flat, but a little rough in places. It isn’t a challenging walk in terms of elevation gain, but for real beginners who aren’t super sure on their feet, this could be a little hard. It gets slippery, and can be narrow as well, forcing hikers to climb over roots and large stones.
But the walk is through the woods along the beautiful blue water. So, the sights are just splendid. And we turned around after crossing a beautiful suspension bridge that crosses the water. From there, we went back the way we came.
What’s extra great about this trail, is that you can tack it onto a short road trip through the Red River Gorge road. You can enjoy the many sights, drive through the tunnel, and hike along the way! For those looking for a harder hike, combine this one with another trail or two.
Digest en Español Pequeño
Este sendero de Kentucky es fácil y hermoso. Camine cerca del Rio Rojo (la agua es azul, entonces yo no entiende el nombre), y cruce el puente colgante. Este sendero es sobre 1.6 km largo.
Mammoth Caves National Park Trails
Rating: Varies; Styx river is easy although there is some elevation gain.
Mileage: 1.8 miles
Total Ascent: 348 feet
Bathrooms: Yes, at the visitor center and marked parking lots.
4WD needed? No.
There are loads of Kentucky hiking trails in Mammoth Cave National Park. I didn’t even scratch the surface. In fact, after we toured the caves, we just took a nice stroll down the River Styx trail. From here, we could check out where the underground river comes to the surface, and we also walked to the Green River.
Of course, some of the tours of the caves are also long enough to be considered a hike, in my humble opinion. We walked through the depths for about an hour on ours. So, I would consider the trails, above and below ground at Mammoth National Park, to be some of the best hiking in Kentucky. You really can’t beat this strange and wonderful world of caves.
Digest en Español Pequeño
El Parque Nacional Mammoth Caves es un parte mas especial en Kentucky, porque hay muchas cuevas aquí. El las cuevas de Kentucky es muy famosas para su talla grande. En el parque hay muchos viajes de las cuevas, y también hay muchos senderos. El Rio Styx Camino es un sendero corto con vistas de dos ríos- el Green River y River Styx. River Styx es un tipo de rio que tiene partes baja del piso. El Rio Styx Camino es un sendero de Kentucky es 2.9 km.
Bonus: Walk To Indiana from Louisville
So, this last entry I wouldn’t consider a hike, except that it was a very long and beautiful walk. Consider it an extra entry here. There is a bridge that crosses the river from Louisville, Kentucky into Indiana. It’s a beautiful walk, and one the Louisville side, there is a massive park on either side of the bridge. If you are hanging out in the downtown area. This is a must-do walk.
Digest en Español Pequeño
Hay un bridge entre Lousiville, Kentucky y Indiana. Es muy bonito y tiene un parque grande en Lousiville. En Indiana hay algunos restaurantes.
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Wow, there are a lot of hiking trails. I like the varied scenery and the generally flat grades.
It makes it a great place for beginners – or at least these particular trails were.
I’m not usually into hiking, but this blog entry may have temped me…
And these are great options for folks who don’t hike alot but want to get out into nature!
I just was in Kentucky and missed out on taking all of these routes! They look great! I had no idea that one was a Walk To Indiana from Louisville. Very interesting read!
Too bad! I am sure that you had a lovely time though. Kentucky was so beautiful when we were there.
I never really thought of Kentucky as a hiking area either. Years ago I was at the Mammoth Caves, and I loved it. I didn’t do much hiking as I had 3 babies with me at the time, but the property was huge and you could easily spend an entire day hiking there.
Oh wow! Yes, I wouldn’t be doing much hiking with 3 babies either! The caves are really exceptional though, so it’s great you got to explore those.
The walk from Kentucky to Indiana sounds right up my alley! My family and I love doing things like that.. even if it takes a while! So worth it 🙂
If you park in the right place, it’s not a long walk at all! And the park is beautiful.