Kentucky Road Trips: Driving the State’s Scenic Byways

Steam rises from between a mountainscape covered in trees just starting to go from deep green to auburn.

View from the Sky Bridge overlook in the Red River Gorge. Photo © Anthony, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Kentucky is truly one of America’s prettiest states. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, but before you give it, why don’t you take a drive through the landscape of the Bluegrass State? Enjoy the mountains and the hollows, the rolling hills and the open meadows, the lakes and the forests, and you’ll see what I mean. Beyond scenery, you’ll also get a taste of Kentucky’s interesting history.

For more information about scenic drives in Kentucky, visit the Federal Highway Administration’s American Byways.

Country Music Highway

Located in far eastern Kentucky in the hills of Appalachia, the heart of the Country Music Highway (U.S. 23) runs from Ashland in the north to Whitesburg in the south. You’ll pass right through the mountains and will have opportunities to stop at coal mining sites, country music heritage sites, and multiple state parks. Butcher Hollow, Jenny Wiley Theatre, elk viewing, and a plate of soup beans and cornbread are musts. Try to plan your trip for the fall, when the mountains are on fire with color. And be sure to get off of the highway once in a while to see what life is like in the hollows.

Lincoln Heritage Scenic Highway

Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents the United States has known, was born in a tiny cabin in the knobs of Central Kentucky. This driving tour, which takes you on U.S. 31E and U.S. 150, begins in Hodgenville, where you can visit the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace and Boyhood Home and the Lincoln Museum. You’ll then pass through Bardstown, where you can stop at the Civil War Museum or have a sip of bourbon at one of three distilleries. The highway continues to Springfield, home of Lincoln Homestead State Park; Perryville, site of Kentucky’s biggest Civil War battle; and Danville, where Kentucky statehood was negotiated.

Red River Gorge Scenic Byway

For downright beauty, nothing beats the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway. This 46-mile drive, while short, can easily fill an entire day. You’ll pass through the very cool Nada Tunnel as you enter Red River Gorge Geological Area, and then you’ll spend most of your day pulled over at hiking trailheads and viewpoints. Make sure your hiking shoes are in the trunk, because you’ll want to visit Sky Bridge and Angel Windows, which are accessible by a short walk. You may also want to paddle Red River or take the sky lift at Natural Bridge State Resort Park.

Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

This highway, which leads from Middlesboro to Berea, allows you to follow in the footsteps of Kentucky’s earliest pioneers. Begin at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to see where Daniel Boone carved his Wilderness Road. Then head north, passing Pine Mountain State Resort Park with its lush hemlocks and rhododendrons; Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park, home to a re-created pioneer village; and Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, the best place to see an old-time music show. End in Berea, where you can immerse yourself in arts and crafts.

Woodlands Trace

Running the length of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, The Trace takes you through wooded scenery, with connections to lakeside drives. Along the way you can make detours to the Nature Station, Elk and Bison Prairie, Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory, waterfront picnic areas, and The Homeplace. Opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, and camping abound.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Kentucky.

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