Travel Bug: Exploring Kentucky

I’m going to be real with you guys – it’s been tough writing any travel posts this year because we (like just about everyone) haven’t really done much traveling to speak of! We had one weekend away along Lake Superior in August and we spent Labor Day weekend visiting my family in Kentucky. My parents and two of my siblings relocated to Kentucky in the last year and I’ve visited their new home state three times since they moved – we’ll be driving down to spend time with them over Thanksgiving which will be my fourth trip to the Bluegrass State in one year.

View from Cumberland Gap

Kentucky offers beautiful scenery, unique cultural offerings (both very urban in some places and very rural in others) and we’ve really enjoyed our visits over the last year. My traditional Travel Bug features are based in one place and highlight things to do in that one place – this will be a little different. I’ll highlight a number of attractions we’ve enjoyed in different parts of the state – as well as some attractions we’re hoping to visit on future trips.

Louisville – Derby City

Downtown Louisville

Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city (pop. 770,000) and is known for (primarily) Louisville Slugger baseball bats and the Kentucky Derby. What the city isn’t known for (and I think should be) is its commitment to creating a fantastically walkable and livable downtown and its beautiful streetscape and riverfront. Louisville is at the crossroads of two major interstates (I-64 – connects Missouri to Virginia and I-65 – connects Indiana to Louisiana) and is around 7.5 hours driving distance from where we live in Wisconsin.

Louisville Tourism information

Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory Tour

I’m a little biased as a baseball fan, but I would deem the Louisville Slugger Museum a must-visit if you have an hour or two to spend in Louisville. Located right in the heart of downtown, you can take the factory production tour or just visit the gift shop. The production tour is about one hour long and costs $9-$16 per person (age dependent) with free admission for children 5 and under. Admission also includes time to explore the small museum on baseball bat history and the brand. The tour showcases the precision that goes into baseball bat manufacturing by the company that now owns the Louisville Slugger brand (Hillerich & Bradsby). The company is obviously a major forestry operation, as well, for supply chain, and you learn a great deal about how they are dealing with the Emerald Ash Borer plight against ash trees and their sustainability efforts.

Honestly, never knowing much about wood baseball bats, I was stunned at the level of science that goes into tree selection and design of bats. There are three primary wood types used for bat development and Louisville Slugger’s competitive edge in the market is their proprietary bat development for baseball greats. If you are one of the two dozen or so Major League Baseball players who sign with Louisville Slugger, they become the sole producer of custom bats that you use professionally. Wood grain, weight, length and design are all customized to your height, swing, etc. A number of historic baseball greats were Louisville Slugger bat customers, including Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and more recently Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Louisville Breweries

Now, of course, Kentucky is known as a whole for bourbon – not for craft beer – but we visited a few breweries (as per usual) on our trips through Louisville.

Against the Grain’s outdoor beer garden

Against the Grain Brewery: Against the Grain is located inside the Louisville Slugger stadium (where the Lousville Bats – Triple A baseball and Louisville City Football Club play) and is walking distance from downtown. They offer a typical brewhouse menu (pub style food) and some fun co-branded merchandise with the leagues that play in the adjoining stadium. This was my first time encountering a microbrewery inside a sports stadium and I love the concept. Against the Grain has a pretty major distribution footprint (43 states!) so I don’t know if they really qualify as micro, but I am fully onboard for having craft beer partnerships within sports. Give MillerCoors and Anheuser Busch a little competition!

Wish we could have stayed longer at the cute patio at Gravely!

Gravely Brewing Co.: This microbrewery was much more of the size that we’re used to with local breweries and is a family-owned operation in the fairly hipster Old Louisville neighborhood. Their brewery has a dog-friendly patio, permanent onsite food truck and in non-COVID-19 times is a frequent live music venue. Our dog was not feeling it when we went, so unfortunately we were only able to stay for one drink, but we brought some of their beer home with us instead.

Other Points of Interest

Louisville Riverwalk

Last but not least, I had to highlight the Louisville Loop / Louisville Riverwalk. We walked along the beautiful Riverwalk at sunset this summer and so enjoyed the greenspace, the waterfront access and the lovely views of the ‘big four’ bridges that span the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana. (Side note – in addition to being known as Derby City for the Kentucky Derby, Louisville is also known as River City). The Riverwalk is free to access and connects the City of Louisville Waterfront Park to the Louisville Riverboat docks. Waterfront Park features a great deal of public art and many events are hosted here in non-COVID-19 times. I’d like to stop here again next time a bit earlier in the day so we can get more walking in before dark.

Frankfort – Kentucky’s State Capital

See Frankfort tourism information here

A much smaller city, Frankfort is Northwest of Lexington (Kentucky’s second largest city) and is home to the state capital. With just 25,000 people – the City feels approachably small and very walkable. We spent an afternoon in Frankfort and I definitely want to return next spring or summer to experience some more of their outdoor attractions.

Kentucky State Capital Grounds

Full disclosure: I’m a complete weirdo about visiting state capitals. I visit one every chance I get when I’m in a capital city because I love the architecture and investment that has gone into the centers of government across the U.S. I haven’t been to that many – maybe 8 or 9, but I’m working on that list! The Kentucky State Capital grounds are a lovely, landscaped garden style complex with walking paths, art and sculpture installations and an effort to reduce the views of cars parked and enhance the views of architecture. From the short capitol loop, you can see the Floral Clock (a highly controversial installation at the time of its inception, but now a beautiful installation that is highly visited), the Governor’s Mansion, the State Capital proper and the Capital annex (government offices) as well as a number of sculptures, memorials, plaques and historic markers. I loved that this capitol building was surrounded by so much greenery – it was a welcome change from how so many state capitals become concrete jungles.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Kentucky is of course known best for its production of bourbon. I enjoy bourbon and am making an effort to learn more about it now that we have ties to bourbon country and will be traveling here several times each year. There is (as I’m learning) quite a lot of misconception about what can be called bourbon. Bourbon is not exclusively made in Kentucky, but bourbon must be manufactured in the United States and it is estimated that 95% of domestic bourbon production occurs in Kentucky. There is an effort marketed at the ‘Bourbon Trail’ – a stretch of distilleries along I-64 in close proximity to one another. Bourbon made up around $1.5 billion of the $2.5 billion domestic market of the bourbon and whiskey revenues. The other $1 billion is derived from Tennessee whiskey, which must be produced in Tennessee and is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distilling. I’m starting to ramble here, but in order for bourbon whiskey to be called bourbon, it must meet the following requirements:

  • Be produced in the United States
  • Be distilled from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Be aged in new, charred oak barrels (the after market for wines and beers aged in used bourbon barrels is growing, too – yay for recycling!)
  • Enter the aging container at no higher than 62.5% ABV and distilled to an ABV no higher than 80%
  • Bottled at 40% ABV or higher
  • No aging criteria for bourbon, but straight bourbon must be aged at least two years

The bourbons you are most likely familiar with are Jim Beam, who also produces Maker’s Mark, as well as Knob Creek, and perhaps Wild Turkey. The Tennessee whiskey you are most likely familiar with is Jack Daniels.

Historic buildings make up the Buffalo Trace campus

We visited Buffalo Trace as our first Kentucky distillery visit. I was very impressed by how seriously Buffalo Trace took COVID-19 guidelines – they took down contact tracing information, did temperature screenings at the entry to the property and had limited capacities and pre-registration requirements for tours and limited capacities for the gift shop. The grounds (exterior, of course) are dog-friendly, as is the gift shop – so we were able to do an outdoor tasting and walk the grounds with our pup. We picked up some bourbon (of course) and a mint julep mix to make our own mint juleps at home.

The tours require pre-registration and are free, as are the tastings.

Other Points of Interest

Dog-friendly patio at Goodwood

Goodwood Brewing Co. We had lunch and tried a number of the beers at Goodwood Brewing Co. in downtown Frankfort. Their outdoor seating overlooks the Kentucky River and their food was delicious. We appreciated the dog-friendly patio seating and the accommodation of our dog by their staff. While they have a number of bourbon-inspired beers in their lineup, my husband enjoyed their English-style Walnut Brown Ale and I loved the Hemp Gose.

One place we didn’t get to visit (ran out of time) but plan to visit next spring or summer is Yuko-en on the Elkhorn in nearby Georgetown, Kentucky. This Japanese-inspired garden is open daily and is free to visit and incorporates native plants (as well as non-native plants) in a Japanese stroll style garden. I can’t wait to visit this site on a future visit to Kentucky.

Southeastern Kentucky – “Daniel Boone Country”

Hiking and Outdoor Recreation

My parents live in a fairly rural section of Southeastern Kentucky, about 30 miles from the Tennessee border. This area is heavily driven by tourism as there is the Daniel Boone National Forest and a number of large state parks in the area. My parents relocated here for my dad’s job and while they miss a lot of elements of living in a more urbanized area – they love the outdoor recreation opportunities.

Cumberland Falls

I’ve been to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park (Kentucky’s name for parks that feature a TON of amenities, such as onsite lodging, camping, restaurants, etc.) twice now since my parents relocated to Kentucky and the scenery is simply lovely – whether you’re up for a longer hike or not. The namesake waterfall is the second largest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains (after Niagara Falls). It is not known so much for its height or waterflow, but more so for its unique moonbow feature. I’d never heard of a moonbow until visiting this spot – but once monthly (under the best weather conditions) – when a full moon is visible a feature similar to a rainbow occurs. Cumberland Falls is the only spot in the WESTERN HEMISPHERE where a moonbow is regularly visible. How cool is this? In non-COVID-times the state park organizes events around the monthly moonbow events. They’re consistently visible because we a) know when full moons will occur and b) the waterfall generates a consistent presence of mist to make the moonbow visible.

In addition to the larger waterfall, there a number of smaller waterfalls within the state park. There are hikes for all accessibility levels – you can rock scramble off-trail to waterfalls on multi-mile hikes or those of all ages and abilities can utilize a paved accessible trail to see overlooks of the largest waterfall.

Cumberland Gap

We took a longer drive to Cumberland Gap National Historic Site on our last trip to Kentucky this summer, where a series of hikes takes you through beautiful vantage points into the Appalachian and Cumberland Mountain valleys – where you can see parts of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

We also took a short hike to see Chained Rock in Pineville, Kentucky. The Chained Rock is famous in Appalachian folklore as the settlers in the community of Pineville told their children that the large rock hanging off the face of Pine Mountain surely wouldn’t fall down hurtling toward their community, destroying everything in sight, as it was securely chained in place. (It wasn’t – wow, scary much?) The rock – which is hanging precariously off the side of the mountain – was in fact later chained in place, securing it to Pine Mountain. A hike to the top of it offers a view of the enormous chain holding this large rock in place and a stunning view of the community of Pineville and scenery beyond.

Local Businesses and Attractions in the Corbin / London Area

Much of this part of the South seems to be dominated by chain restaurants and shops, but we’ve found some great local businesses, too.

The Wrigley Appalachian Eatery, Downtown Corbin. The Wrigley Taproom offers Southern style comfort food with a contemporary twist and a fantastic selection of local cocktails and craft beer.

Parrett’s Pies and Pastries, London. Located about 15 minutes North of where my parents live, this bakery and cafe is the sort of off-the-beaten path, locals-only type of place you can only hope to stumble upon as a visitor. With a daily selection of sandwiches, cookies, pies and seasonal treats – this is a must-stop. We make a point of picking up a pie each time we’re in London.

Rock Bottom Soap, London. This small-scale goats milk soap shop is such a cute find – with not only delicious smelling soaps, but farmhouse inspired home decor, as well. My favorite scent is the Bluegrass scent – light and not overpowering. They have the cutest Kentucky themed gifts, as well.

Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, Corbin. Now – this is a chain restaurant, but bear with me! Corbin is the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Harland Sanders Cafe is a museum and eatery featuring the history of what we now know as KFC. What I had *no* idea until visiting was that KFC was originally born as a large family-style eatery with an adjacent motel (Sanders Motel). There were two original locations – Corbin and Asheville, along U.S. Highway 25 running from Kentucky into North Carolina. If you’re a regular follower, you’re probably thinking… w h a t – the City you got married in and the City where your parents now live? Yeah, it’s weird!

The Sanders Cafe is a National Register Listed historic property and has recently undergone a major renovation. I last visited in February of this year, prior to the renovation. Even if you aren’t planning on eating (we didn’t) – you can still walk around and view the displays and experience the vintage motel room and dining room and imagine what it might have been like to eat and stay there in the 1940s. The casual dining experience is something so ubiquitous to American culture – it’s interesting to imagine its roots, an American family owning perhaps their first vehicle, taking a road trip and staying at a motel and eating in a family-style restaurant.

One more interesting point on this Corbin-Asheville connection. When my parents first moved to Corbin last year, they let me know that there was a very vintage Asheville billboard (like, hand painted vintage) on Highway 25 in Corbin and how random it was. There’s some theorizing that perhaps this billboard was placed or influenced in the early 1940s by Harland Sanders – noting the location of his next motel and restaurant on the same highway.

Kentucky has been a state that has positively surprised me. I’m looking forward to continuing to visit new parks, new distilleries and experiencing what Kentucky has to offer as we visit the state a few times each year to see my family.

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