Dense forest and rugged cliffs in the Kentucky Highlands on the eastern side of the Bluegrass State act as a siren's song to outdoor lovers. The Daniel Boone National Forest features over 520 miles of developed forest trails, 269 miles of which is known as the Sheltowee Trace. In the Red River Gorge Geological Area, wind and water have spent more than 70 million years sculpting the largest concentration of rock shelters and arches east of the Rockies. One of these ancient rock formations lies within the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, where a hike or skylift ride takes you to the sandstone arch. For a dizzying view, walk the 78-foot-long bridge, which spans a narrow ravine 65 feet below.
Hikers will find that most of the nine trails, ranging from half a mile to 81/2 miles in length in the 2200-acre park, will lead to the Natural Bridge. The original trail, built in 1890s by the Lexington and Eastern Railroad, is the shortest and easiest route. It climbs over 500 feet through sycamore, hemlock, yellow poplar, and white pine trees, where thickets of rhododendron, the flash of indigo bunting, and scarlet tanager wings brighten thick greenery. Along the way are two rest houses, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Since the trail ends beneath the span, hikers must go up a natural fracture to reach the top.
The longest trail takes four to six hours to complete, and there are no shortcuts. All trails are closed at night, and hikers are warned that about 40 people a year fall from the cliffs in this area, mainly those who get too close to the edge.
The Natural Bridge State Resort Park is one of 17 state resort parks where most guests have a choice of lodge rooms, cottages, or campgrounds. The Hemlock Lodge has 35 rooms with private balconies that overlook the pool and Hoe Down Island. Ten fully equipped cottages are tucked away under the trees. A fork of the Red River winds past one of the two campgrounds where 82 campsites have utilities and 12 are primitive. Although the lodge and cottages are available year-round, campsites and most activities are seasonal (earliest: mid-March-October 31; www.naturalbridgepark.com).
Outside the park, you don't have far to go to visit a unique attraction. The Kentucky Reptile Zoo lies just to the north, behind the rest area at Exit 33 off the Mountain Parkway. Make a left from the rest-area driveway onto L&E Railroad Road, pass the Welcome caboose, and follow the signs (rural road).
Steps lead up to raised wooden buildings resembling barracks without windows. Behind glass shields are coiled snakes such as an East African green mamba, a red-necked spitting cobra, and a Malayan pit viper. Twelve species of rattlesnakes, five copperheads, and two cottonmouths represent North America.
Because the nonprofit organization founded in 1990 is involved in medical research, about 90 percent of the snakes are venomous. Among the nonvenomous reptiles such as corn snakes, lizards, and turtles on exhibit, are an 18-foot reticulated python and an alligator named Fluffy. During the season, the zoo is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Live reptile shows are given at 1, 3, and 5 p.m.; on weekends, the 1 p.m. show is usually a venom extraction. Visitors are advised to call first (Kentucky Reptile Zoo, 606/663-9160).
For a backcountry drive along a fork of the Kentucky River, follow KY 11 south past the KY 30 intersection to Oneida. From there, KY 66 runs along the Red Bird River through the Daniel Boone National Forest until it dead-ends in Pineville. Created in 1924, the Pine Mountain State Resort Park is off U.S. 25 East.
Kentucky's first state park is in the heart of the Kentucky Ridge State Forest and features some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the state. In late spring, mountain laurel blooms along 81/2 miles of hiking trails with names like Hemlock Garden, Honeymoon Falls, Living Stairway, and Rock Hotel. An 18-hole golf course recently joined the (seasonal) swimming pool and miniature-golf course. The 30-room Herndon J. Evans Lodge and 20 cottages are open year-round. Thirty-one primitive campsites (no electricity) are available April 1-October 31 (www.pinemountainpark.com).
From Pineville northeast to Jenkins, U.S. 119 is a scenic byway that runs parallel to the Tennessee and Virginia state lines. At 2700 feet, Kingdom Come State Park, located in Cumberland, preserves almost 1300 acres of unspoiled wilderness on the crest of Pine Mountain. Along with breathtaking scenery, the Park has unusual rock formations: One monolith soars 290 feet into the air at a 45-degree angle.
Nearly five miles of hiking trails crisscross the rugged mountain terrain. Visitors with four-wheel-drive vehicles will also find a narrow dirt and gravel road extending 38 miles along the crest of Pine Mountain. Although the park doesn't have a campground, primitive camping for a fee is allowed in certain areas.
This is coal-mining country, and nearby Benham is off KY 160. Since these mines no longer yield black gold, the former "company town" founded by International Harvester in the early 1900s has created the Kentucky Coal-Mining Museum. Three floors of exhibits portray the tools and lifestyles of the miners and house memorabilia of the Coal Miner's Daughter, Loretta Lynn. Besides a mock mine in the basement, visitors can board a shuttle bus and tour Portal 31, a real--if inactive--coal mine, in Lynch.
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