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Kentucky has a rich history and tons of natural beauty. It’s a prime destination for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs.
From the rolling hills of the Appalachians to the bustling cities of Louisville and Lexington, the Bluegrass State has something to offer everyone, including national parks. But are the national parks in Kentucky worth visiting?
Today, we’re looking at the parks you can enjoy when you visit this beautiful state. Ready to learn more?
What Are National Parks?
National parks are protected areas of land in the United States designated by the government for their unique natural, cultural, or recreational resources. The National Park Service (NPS) protects and manages these lands intended for public use and enjoyment.
The overarching goal is to preserve their resources for future generations to enjoy.
While the 63 designated national parks get a lot of attention, the NPS has more than 400 units. Each offers unique value to guests. You wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so don’t judge a park by its designation.
How Many National Parks Are in Kentucky?
Kentucky has nine national park units, ranging from birthplaces of important historical figures to battlefields used during the American Civil War. However, it only has one designated as a national park. If you’re a fan of history, this state has plenty of NPS units that you’ll enjoy.
Additionally, the state is also ripe with opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. A hike on a national historic trail or walking through the longest known cave system in the world is a nature and outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
No matter which type of park you visit, you’re in for a treat. The state offers plenty of opportunities to make adventurous memories with your loved ones.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Kentucky?
The best time to visit Kentucky is during the summer. These tend to be the dryer months with better weather for getting outdoors.
In addition, summer provides longer days, so you’ll have more time to explore. You’ll have opportunities for swimming, fishing, boating, and other aquatic activities.
In a close second, fall is another fantastic time to visit Kentucky. If you can time it right, the fall foliage is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The bright oranges, yellows, and reds are nothing short of stunning. While the temperatures might be slightly cooler, and you can get a few more showers, it’s still a great time to get out and enjoy nature.
About Kentucky National Parks
Mammoth Cave National Park is the only designated national park in Kentucky. However, it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences you’ll encounter. Let’s look at this fantastic NPS unit and why you should visit it.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is near the town of Cave City. It is home to the longest known cave system in the world, with over 400 miles of explored passages.
It was established in 1941 to protect the caves and their unique geology and preserve the surrounding forest and wildlife.
Mammoth Cave National Park visitors can explore the caves through ranger-led and self-guided tours. However, the available tours constantly change, so check their available cave tours and make a reservation before visiting.
In addition to the caves, you’ll have various outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, fishing, and horseback riding.
The park also has a visitors center and museum, which provides information on the geology and history of the caves and the wildlife and plants found in the surrounding area.
Mammoth Cave National Park is open year-round and is a popular destination for visitors of all ages, with something to offer everyone. Stop and check this park off your list!
Explore Other National Park Designations in Kentucky
Some of the best NPS units haven’t and will never receive the designation of a national park.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth visiting. Let’s look at the other national parks worth visiting in Kentucky.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park sits in Hodgenville, Ky. It marks the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It was established as an NPS unit in 1916 to commemorate the life and legacy of President Lincoln.
You can visit a memorial building and a replica of the cabin where Lincoln was born. You’ll find educational programs, ranger-led tours, and other activities to learn about Lincoln and his impact on American history.
Additionally, you can enjoy walking trails, a picnic area, and a gift shop on the grounds.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is a protected area in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was established in 1974 to preserve the natural beauty of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries.
The park covers over 125,000 acres and includes rugged gorges, sandstone cliffs, and scenic plateaus. The area is popular for outdoor recreational activities, including hiking, camping, fishing, and horseback riding.
Visitors can explore over 150 miles of trails, take scenic drives, and visit historical sites. And you have opportunities for rafting, kayaking, and canoeing on the Cumberland River.
The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is a unique destination for those seeking a wilderness experience or a peaceful escape from the city.
Camp Nelson National Monument
Camp Nelson National Monument is a historical site in Jessamine County, Ky. It became a national monument in 2018 to commemorate its role during the American Civil War and the Civil War Era.
Camp Nelson was a major supply depot, training center, and hospital for Union soldiers. It also served as a recruiting center for African American soldiers and a refuge for their families.
The monument encompasses over 300 acres and features several historic structures, including the Camp Nelson Earthworks, the Quartermaster’s Warehouse, and the Camp Nelson Cemetery.
Visitors can also explore hiking trails, picnic areas, and educational exhibits. It offers ranger-led tours, living history demonstrations, and other programs to help visitors understand the history and significance of Camp Nelson.
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Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is a protected area in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.
It was established in 1940 to preserve the Cumberland Gap, a natural break in the Appalachian Mountains used as a passage by early settlers, Civil War soldiers, and Native Americans for thousands of years. It covers over 20,000 acres and includes hiking trails, scenic drives, and historic sites.
Visitors to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park can explore the park’s numerous trails, including the 70-mile Cumberland Gap National Historic Trail.
They can also visit the Hensley Settlement, a former coal-mining community, and the Pinnacle Overlook, which offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that took place from 1804 to 1806. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail covers over 4,900 miles and passes through 11 states, including Kentucky. In Kentucky, the trail follows the Ohio River and extends approximately 140 miles.
Visitors can explore historic sites, such as the Falls of the Ohio State Park and the Clarksville Lewis and Clark Museum, and learn about the expedition and Kentucky’s role in the journey.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is a significant piece of American history. It provides a unique opportunity to learn about the great expedition.
Mills Springs Battlefield National Monument
Mills Springs Battlefield National Monument is a national monument in Nancy, Ky. The site was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1993, proposed as a national monument in 2019, and became a national monument in 2020.
The site is significant because it marks the location of the Battle of Mill Springs, fought during the American Civil War on Jan. 19, 1862. The battle was a decisive victory for Union forces, and it helped to secure Union control over southern Kentucky and establish a foothold in the Confederate heartland.
Additionally, visitors can explore the battlefield and learn about its significance through educational exhibits and ranger-led programs. And you can appreciate the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.
The park’s 10-stop driving tour provides a view of much of the battlefield, and informational signs help educate guests about the battle.
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is a network of trails and routes that commemorate the forced relocation of Native American peoples.
These include the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, who were forced from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in the 1830s.
The trail passes through nine states, including Kentucky, and covers over 5,000 miles. The Kentucky portion of the trail is approximately 125 miles long and passes through cities such as Hopkinsville and Paducah.
The trail symbolizes one of the most tragic episodes in American history. Along the trail, visitors can find interpretive signs, visitor centers, and historic sites that tell the story of the forced relocation and its impact on the southeastern tribes.
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Don’t Overlook the National Parks in Kentucky
Kentucky is home to several national parks and historic sites that offer visitors a chance to experience the state’s rich cultural and natural heritage.
These national parks offer unique experiences and opportunities for visitors to learn about Kentucky’s history and natural resources. While they may not be as well known as other NPS units, they’re still worth discovering.
So, do you think these national parks in Kentucky are worth visiting?