Kentucky isn’t the most famous of America’s states, and it might not be on the radar of many international or even domestic tourists. However, this state is rich in history and natural beauty. Of course, it is host to the famous Kentucky Derby. It is also home to the world’s longest cave, which can be readily visited at Mammoth Cave National Park. And it may come as a surprise to some, but this is also the birth state of several famous people including Abraham Lincoln, and Muhammad Ali. Kentucky is also the traditional territory of many Native American Tribes including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Delaware, Mosopelea, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Yuchi, among others. Learn a little bit more about the nature and history of Kentucky below and explore Nightborn Travel’s posts about the state.
Type: US State
Region: North America
Official Languages: English
Population: 4.5 million (2020)
Currency: US Dollar
Power Outlet: Type A and B. The standard voltage is 120 V and the standard frequency is 60 Hz.
How to Get There
Kentucky is a landlocked state, but there are a variety of airports with access to the state. These include the Louisville International Airport (SDF), Lexington’s airport (LEX), and Cincinnati’s airport (CVG). And I actually flew into the via the Nashville airport.
Of course, you don’t need to fly into Kentucky. You can drive there easily from any of the surrounding states.
Nature in Kentucky
The land that we now know as Kentucky is a complex place when it comes to its ecosystems (or the assemblage of plants, animals, and climatic characteristics). There are four primary ecological regions in the state; from west to east these are part of the Mississippi Valley plains, the interior river valleys and hills, the interior and Western Allegheny plateaus, and the southwestern Appalachians. While a traveler across the state will notice a varied landscape, my experience with Kentucky is that the rolling, forested hills and the river valleys are the most major elements of the landscape that you will see. These create some of the most beautiful hiking that you can explore across the state.
What this doesn’t capture is the complex hidden world of Kentucky, because under the forests and hills of the state are some of the most exceptional caves in the world. The crowning jewel of Kentucky’s caves is Mammoth Cave, which is the largest in the world. In fact, currently 400 miles of the cave have been mapped and this doesn’t capture the entire cave system. You can visit this cave in the Mammoth Cave National Park. And Mammoth isn’t the only cave! There are many smaller caves that you can visit near Bowling Green, KY.
The living land and the geology of Kentucky also contribute to some of the most exceptional natural bridges. Red River Gorge and the surrounding area is a great place to experience these marvels of nature. These can be visited via drives and hikes.
Our Posts on Kentucky’s Nature
Finding Kentucky Hiking Trails When You Only Have a Few Days: This guide will help you identify some really exceptional trails to explore while visiting the state.
A Traveler’s Guide to Caves in Kentucky: The caves in Kentucky are world-class, and they are accessible to anyone who can afford to visit. In fact Mammoth Cave National Park has accessible tours, and combined with the smaller caves in the surrounding areas, there are caves for every kind of explorer. Learn more in this guide.
Culture and History in Kentucky
Humans have been living in Kentucky, most likely, since before 10,000 BCE. That means there is so much human history on this land that we will never know. What we do know, however, is that ancient humans explored the state’s caves, they painted in the caves, and used them for a variety of materials that they traded across the land.
In more modern times, 8 different indigenous tribes called what is now known as Kentucky home, although permanent settlements were rare. These include the Cherokee, Shawnee, Osage, Chickasaw, Tsoyaha, Miami, Quapaw, and the Lakota/Dakota. There are no federally recognized tribes left in Kentucky now. Although many of these cultures live on elsewhere, and other descendants of these people remain in Kentucky as well.
European exploration of Kentucky was initially started by the Spanish in 1543, and the territory was primarily explored by Euro-Americans through the famous Cumberland gap beginning in the 1700s. The land attracted settlers due to its fertility, however, there were deadly struggles between the indigenous people who had called those lands home for thousands of years, and the new colonists. This eventually ended when Kentucky’s militia attacked several Shawnee villages in 1786. Eventually, Kentucky became a US state in 1792, the first state on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains.
During the US Civil War, the state was “neutral,” until the invasion of Columbus, Kentucky by the Confederacy. When Kentucky did join the Union, it was a hold out for the legalization of slavery, and with sun-downer towns, and other racist legacies, this place remained a dangerous state for African Americans for many decades. In fact, the hometown of Kentucky Fried Chicken was a sun-down community. Segregation was ended in the 1960s, after the state passed a civil rights bill in 1966. There are many people working to carry positive and equitable change forward.
Besides its indigenous history, colonization by Europeans, and its complex relationship with racism, Kentucky has been home to many black people who changed the course of history. This includes the famous cave explorer, Stephen Bishop, who revolutionized caving through his detailed maps and legendary navigation of cave sections thought to be impassable – all while enslaved. In more modern times, world-famous Muhammad Ali also called Kentucky home.
Like anywhere, the story of Kentucky is not always a peaceful or easy one, but we can learn from difficult legacies, and appreciate the land and culture that is there today.
Our Tips for Experiencing Kentucky History via Travel
One Week Kentucky Itinerary for History and Nature Lovers is the perfect trip for history and nature buffs.
A Traveler’s Guide to Exploring Kentucky History will help you build out your own trip with some of the coolest historic spots in the state.
Resources for Learning More About Kentucky History
A New History of Kentucky (2018) by J. C. Klotter and C. T. Friend
Kentucky Geneological Society’s Discover Kentucky History
History of Lexington – Athens of the West
Spend 7 adventure-filled days exploring the natural and cultural worlds of Kentucky in our Week-long Itinerary.
Where We Have Been
More Information from Around the Web
Check out the Exploring Kentucky pinterest board!
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