14 Must-Do Outdoor Adventures in Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park hiking in Kentucky.
Mammoth Cave National Park hiking in Kentucky. Michael R. Hicks
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Kentucky offers a rich and diverse outdoor playground ripe for adventure. You can explore deep underground caverns, paddle winding rivers, and hike forested pathways. Because there is such variety, it's hard to decide where to begin. Here are 14 experiences that cannot be missed to get you started.

1. Climb at Red River Gorge

Come hangout! It's Friday! Photo of @drumack5 by @nathanwelton

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With hundreds of routes to choose from, Red River Gorge in Muir Valley is a climber’s paradise. Bruise Brothers Wall, Pebble Beach, Sky Bridge Ridge, and Roadside Crag are just a few popular climbing sections.

2. Kayak to an Abandoned Ghost Ship

Kayak along Taylor Creek to see the ruins of the USS Sachem (originally the Celt), a 180-foot steam-powered luxury yacht that set sail in 1902. The Celt has had many owners, the last being Robert Miller of Lawrenceburg, KY, in the 1980s who purchased her for $7,500. About the same time, the ship provided a backdrop for Madonna’s music video "Papa Don’t Preach." Since then, she’s been all but forgotten, rusting away near the Ohio River. The only way in without trespassing is by kayak.

3. Summit Kentucky’s Highest Peak

Day 2: Kentucky's Highest Point

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Black Mountain, located in Partridge and sitting 4,145 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in Kentucky. Before you go, be sure to obtain, sign, and mail in a waiver to the property owners, Penn Virginia Resources. Know, too, that the mountain lies over mine shafts prone to collapse.

4. Brave Tombstone Tourism

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Cemetery hunting is an unique way to explore the outdoors while also embracing the darker side of local culture and history. Taphophiliacs—"lovers of tombs"—can visit Eastern Cemetery, an abandoned place of entombment with a sordid past of bodies being buried on top of bodies since the 1840s. The mistreatment of graves led to urban legends and ghost stories.

Then, stop at nearby Cave Hill Cemetery to visit the grave of Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame and Harry L. Collins of Frito-Lay. In Frankfort Cemetery, you can pay your respect tso frontiersman Daniel Boone.

5. Go Out on a Limb

My monkeys and me #earthjoytreeadventures

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Visit EarthJOY Tree Adventures and, with the help of ropes, climb several species of trees, including Maggie the White Oak and Casper the Sycamore. At EarthJOY, learn how to ascend, tie knots, navigate the hazards of trees, and maneuver while aloft. When you’re finished, book their Treehouse Off the Grid, a nature-lover’s haven, built by notorious Pete Nelson, treehouse master on Animal Planet.

6. Summit Three States at Once

Find the meeting point of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia at the end of a 2.3-mile hike in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The path follows the start of 300-mile Cumberland Mountain Trail en route to the summit of Tri-State Peak.

7. Paddle under the Full Moon

Under a full moon, take a stand-up paddleboard equipped with underwater lights for a magical float. SUP Kentucky in Lexington also offers SUP tours through dark caves, which will delight spelunkers and paddlsports enthusiasts alike.

8. Backpack the Sheltowee Trace Trail

Sheltowee Trace Trials Day 6: Our last view of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It feels like saying goodbye to your family on the holidays. We leave with new memories with these old friends, but it tears at the heart to say farewell. It's not goodbye really though, it's we'll see y'all later. @keltybuilt --------------------------------------------------#Sheltoweetracetrials #sheltoweetrace #exploreappalachia #explorekentucky #sheltoweetracetrail #redrivergorge #kentucky #easternkentucky #traillove #hiking #hikingadventures #appalachia #outdoors #outdooradventures #wanderlust #outdoorculture #wildernessculture #landscape #nature #travel #exploremore #keepitwild #journeywild #trailslife #wild #backpacking #backpacker #keepexploring #mountainlife #mountaingirls

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Known as the "backbone" of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the 319-mile Sheltowee Trace Trail meanders through deep hemlock gorges and craggy summits. “Sheltowee,” meaning “Big Turtle,” is the name given to Daniel Boone when he was adopted by the great warrior Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee tribe.

9. Explore Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park is the world’s longest known cave system with vast chambers and sophisticated labyrinths. Above ground lies a dense forest, rivers, and streams. Paddle some of the 25 miles of the Green River or six miles of the narrower Nolin River within the national park.

10. Bike the Red River Rally

Kentucky's oldest continuously organized bike ride has four great routes through the Red River Gorge to choose from, ranging from 34 to 50 miles. The shorter routes are scenic through rolling terrain, while the longer routes include tougher climbs.

11. Paddle the Big South Fork

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Big South Fork is one of Kentucky’s most popular rafting destinations. For a different twist, try the "River and Rails" all-day tour with Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort. First, ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway through romantic backwoods, then paddle five miles from Blue Heron to Yamacraw between boulders and high cliffs.

12. Ride like a Jockey

Twilight and Woodrow had a blast #GiddyUp 🏇

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Home of the Kentucky Derby, the Blue Grass State is the perfect place to embrace your inner equestrian. Some stables that offer riding include Whispering Woods Riding Stables in Georgetown, Wrangler’s Riding Stables in Golden Pond, Big Red Stables in Harrodsburg, and Cable’s Riding Stables in Campton. Or take a tour of top-notch stables around Lexington, the "Horse Capital of the World."

13. Rise Above It All

Catch the Kentucky Derby Festival Great BalloonFest in Louisville, and then charter your very own balloon through Kentucky Ballooning. Float above trees, beaches, farms, fields, and vineyards. The best way to take in Kentucky’s breathtaking landscape is at 2,000 feet above ground.

14. Land Between the Lakes

The best all-in-one stop for adventure is Land Between the Lakes, which consists of over 170,000 acres of forested and protected land and over 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline. The possible activities include camping, boating, kayaking, fishing, wildlife spotting, horseback riding, and hiking.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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