Kentucky's Must-Visit Paddling Towns (and What to Do in Each)

Kentucky’s Trail Towns are filled with paddling adventures.
Kentucky’s Trail Towns are filled with paddling adventures. Chris Breeze
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It takes a lengthy application process to become an official "Trail Town" in Kentucky—towns have to demonstrate a wealth of outdoor activities, as well as tie in cultural, historical, or agricultural experiences. But when you put all that together, you have a list of pretty solid destinations for outdoor adventurers. And because the amount and variety of water in Kentucky is staggering–from lazy, meandering floats to white-knuckle whitewater—many of the Trail Towns offer access to amazing paddling opportunities. We dug through the list and came up with the 11 towns offering the best of Kentucky paddling.

Dawson Springs

Dawson Springs in the southwest was Kentucky’s first certified Trail Town. The classic adventure here is the 7-mile stretch of class I water on the Tradewater River. If that isn’t enough for you, though, there is a total of 82 navigable miles to explore. (Have your camera ready for Dripping Rock, a massive outcropping overhanging the river!)

The 13-mile Pennyrile Nature Trail is beloved by hikers and bikers, connecting town to the larger trail systems in the Pennyrile Forest State Park.

Olive Hill

Olive Hill, in the northeast corner of the state, is an excellent place to start in terms of beauty, difficulty, and fun. The 12-mile section of Tygarts creek from Olive Hill to Kentucky 182 is an instant favorite. The stream averages 25 feet wide and runs at class I/II, through perhaps the most scenic and interesting limestone gorge in the state.

Carter Caves State Park is also worth a visit, with 26 miles of hiking trails, and the 45-acre Smokey Lake. The lake is a great spot if you prefer flatwater paddling, or want to cast a line and try your luck at reeling in a trophy bass, bluefish, catfish, or crappie. Stick around for the whole weekend at the onsite lodge, or pitch a tent at the park’s campground.

Morehead

The sheer amount of outdoor recreation to be had in and around Morehead is dizzying—the nearby Daniel Boone National Forest is home to more than 600 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails alone! Add to that the 319-mile backcountry Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, and 100 more miles of trails at Cave Run Lake, and you’ve got a lot to choose from. If you want to get some paddling or fishing in, Cave Run covers 8,300 acres of open water and is known as the muskie fishing capital of the South. You can also access the class I Licking River from the lake.

Elkhorn City

Elkhorn City is THE place to go for whitewater adventures.
Elkhorn City is THE place to go for whitewater adventures. Michelle Zornes

The 16 miles of northeast Kentucky’s Russell Fork River between Haysi, Virginia, and Elkhorn City is simply THE place to go for whitewater, and is home to one of the country’s classic creek runs. In general, the upper section runs between class II-IV, while the lower stretch is good training ground for intermediates with plenty of playspots here and there. During the dam release in October, paddlers from near and far come to test themselves on the class V Breaks Gorge section to sample the epic whitewater and stunning beauty of the 1,600-foot "Grand Canyon of the South."

London

London rests in the southern part of the state, adjacent to both the Daniel Boone National Forest and the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. Here, you can paddle or fish on the Rockcastle and Laurel Rivers, as well as Laurel River Lake.

If you’re into cycling, check out the annual Redbud Ride. This popular event pedals through some of the most bucolic horse country with rolling hills, white fences, and blooming redbud trees along the route. If you’re in town on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, check out the local offerings at the farmers market.

Livingston

Paddle along the crystal clear waters of the Rockcastle River from the town of Livingston.
Paddle along the crystal clear waters of the Rockcastle River from the town of Livingston. Spalding Hurst

The quaint hamlet of Livingston lies entirely within Daniel Boone National Forest, and is a premier paddling destination in the state. The crystal clear waters of the Rockcastle River meanders deep into Daniel Boone, making it one of the most scenic and wild areas in eastern Kentucky. Its 16-mile length, class II rating, and many sandbars make it perfect for an overnight adventure. If you want a real challenge, take on the 3-mile section between Old Howard Place and Bee Rock Campground for legit class IV rapids. Livingston also sits at the halfway point of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, and you can try horseback riding and caving at the Just Kik-N-It Ranch.

Manchester

Manchester: home of historic swinging bridges, and a hotbed of canoeing action. Explore the winding Goose Creek River for 30-plus miles of class I/II and some of the best muskie fishing in the state. You can also get on the Red Bird River or some of the 63 miles of the South Fork of the Kentucky River for an epic multi-day float.

Get a sense of Appalachian heritage at Manchester's restored Salt Works Pioneer Village or the swinging bridges over Goose Creek. The original bridge washed away in 1947, but it was said that Daniel Boone himself once used the bridge. The area is also home to the Redbird District of Daniel Boone National Forest, with the Redbird Crest ATV trail and 25 miles of hiking trails.

Jamestown

At the southern part of the state, Jamestown lays claim to Lake Cumberland, known as the Houseboat Capital of the World. At 101 miles long, it’s one of the largest man-made lakes in the nation. The Cumberland River feeds into the lake, and is one of the premier trout fishing spots in the Southeast. From the dam to Winfrey’s Ferry, you’ll find 16 miles of relaxed flatwater—perfect for beginning canoeists and kayakers to float and fish the day away.

Munfordville

Munfordville is the gateway to the Green River.
Munfordville is the gateway to the Green River. Tom Gill

Poised right along the banks one of the most popular paddling rivers in Kentucky, Munfordville is the gateway to the emerald water of the Green River. Glide into the heart of Mammoth Cave National Park, past dramatic cliffs and streamside caves—all under the shady canopy of old-growth hardwood forest. Munfordville to the take-out at Dennison Ferry is 22 miles and runs at class I/II.

Columbia

If you’re looking for solitude on the water, check out Russell Creek in scenic south central Kentucky. With more than 25 peaceful miles of easy class I, you’ll be able to relax and take in the nature all around you. The Russell then dumps into the popular Green River, if you want to extend your paddle.

Stearns

Just about anyone can enjoy a paddle along the Big South Fork.
Just about anyone can enjoy a paddle along the Big South Fork. Anthony

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Stearns has something for any level paddler, from casual afternoon floats to multi-day trips with class IV rapids. With so many options, you can design your own trip based on how far you want to go and how difficult (or not!) you want it to be.

If you have kids along (or just want to take a ride through the recreation area), the Big South Fork Scenic Railway ride with lunch at the Whistle Stop is a fun activity. The depot also pulls double duty as the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail’s main trailhead, just before it crosses into Tennessee.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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