FALL IN AN OUTDOOR WONDERLAND
When I think of Fall colors, it’s the Northeastern United States that comes to mind. Each October, I make a trip from my home in nearly treeless Southern California, to Nova Scotia, Maine, New York, or anywhere else I can get my much-anticipated leaf-peeping “fix.”
When I was invited to visit Southeastern Kentucky in mid-October to experience Fall in “Daniel Boone Country,” I never dreamed that I would find so much beauty and, yes, dense woodlands with leaves that have morphed into shades of rust, crimson, gold and tangerine.
Landing in Lexington was…interesting. I swear that the plane practically skimmed the treetops before touching down at Blue Grass Airport. Actually, if you’re landing during the day, try to get a window seat, as this is considered to be the prettiest airport approach in America.
Downtown Lexington is located about 10 minutes from the airport. Ah, yes. This is the Kentucky of song and story, and exactly what I pictured. The rolling tree-covered hills were interrupted by silky green pastures, stretching as far as I could see. Sprawling Georgian-style mansions sat back from the highway, while white fences demarked the acreage of individual horse farms. As I fought the urge to burst into a verse of “My Old Kentucky Home,” I wondered why I hadn’t taken the time to visit the place where my grandfather was born and raised.
Lexington was far more cosmopolitan than I had imagined. There are plenty of malls, museums, art galleries, sports venues, commercial centers, and restaurants to suit any taste and budget. Lexington has a historic ambiance, with brick and clapboard homes and business structures still in use throughout the region. On the other hand, what sets Lexington apart from other parts of America is that this is horse country; make that, thoroughbred country.
Considered the “Horse Capital of the World,” countless millions of dollars are spent on the pride of Kentucky – the beautiful horses that are bred and raised here. Many are purchased by the world’s rich and famous – kings, queens, counts and sheiks -- and often exported to horse farms overseas. Not only do the renowned Kentucky thoroughbreds race in the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, they’re taken all over the country and entered in racing competitions.
I found it fascinating that even the local motel had copies of “Horseblood” magazine in each room. Wayne Masterman, owner of Portofino, a fine-dining restaurant in the heart of town, owns shares in a local race horse. Mr. Masterman explained that horse racing is so important here that the locals know the names of the champion race horses. “They follow the careers of the thoroughbreds in the same way that people in other parts of the country are fans of football and baseball players.”
There are tons of things to do and see in this fascinating city; unfortunately, exploring Lexington would have to wait for a future visit. This time, I had come to see rural Southeastern Kentucky in search of the region’s Fall grandeur. So, first thing the next morning, we headed down Highway 75 to the part of Kentucky that’s peppered with National and State Parks.
After a quick stop at site of Colonel William Sanders’ original restaurant and motel in Corbin, now a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food eatery and museum, we wended our way through the forest deep into mountain country. Our first destination was the Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.
CUMBERLAND FALLS STATE RESORT PARK
Located a couple of hours south of Lexington, Cumberland Falls has drawn visitors to its boulder-strewn river bank for more than 100 years. Tens of thousands of people come to the park from all over the world each year to enjoy the scenic wonders, hike the miles of trails, fish, canoe, or whitewater raft.
The park’s number one draw is Cumberland Falls, often called the “Niagara of the South.” At 68 feet high and often more than125 feet wide, the waterfall can be enjoyed up-close from the fenced edge at the top, or even better, by booking a trip on a raft that will take you to the base of the falls.
Rick Egedi, also known as “Papa Smurf” because of his long shag of wild, white hair, is the owner of Sheltowee Trace Outfitters (www.ky-rafting.com). Early the next morning, he took our group on the Rainbow Mist raft to the base of the falls for a close-up view (and a slight spray of mist) of the falls. This part of the country has been in a drought for the past two years, so the water level was lower than normal. Still, it was an amazing site. People of all ages can enjoy the Rainbow Mist trip. However, the hike down to the river to board the rubber rafts involves a lot of stairs, so if you have knee problems, you may have to pass on this fun excursion trip.
If you’re staying at Cumberland Falls during a full moon, don’t miss seeing the “Moonbow,” a phenomenon that isn’t found anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. So, you ask, what in the heck is a moonbow? It’s a lunar rainbow that appears at the base of the waterfall for a few days each month.
The night I was there the sky was clear and bright with moonlight. The crowd began to gather at the rim about 10 o’clock. Dozens of cameras were secured to tripods – would you believe that signs are posted instructing how long to leave apertures open for optimal photos of the Moonbow? Others held cell phones in a readied position. All eyes were on the falls. New waves of visitors arrived, too far from the edge to have a good view of the big event. Tick, tick, tick….
I figured it would be worth the wait, since the next-closest place to see a moonbow is Victoria Falls in Africa. And the reason they’re so rare? Well, actually, they’re not – it’s just that in most places the viewers aren’t able to stand in a spot where the light refracts through the mist at the correct angle so they can see the rainbow of colors created by the moonlight.
About 10:45 p.m., a silver streak began to emerge about 500 feet down-river from the base, the first sign that the bow would soon make an appearance. The crowd stirred with excitement. At last, a translucent arch appeared in the waterfall’s mist, shimmering with pastel shades of blue, silver and a hint of rose. Cameras snapped – too many forgetting to turn off their flashes. Eventually, everyone got to see the unusual site, as the front rows peeled back, allowing the next groups to move closer to the edge. It was truly beautiful and well worth the wait. Be sure to check the Moonbow dates at www.parks.ky.gov. (If you go, take a flashlight and be careful as you walk across the weather-worn boulders, as it’s an uneven surface.)
Accommodations inside the State Park include very nice rooms inside the main lodge; luxurious fully-equipped, two-bedroom air conditioned cabins with kitchens; smaller single-room cabins; and a campground that can handle RV’s up to about 35 feet. Cumberland Falls is a popular year-round destination, so booking ahead is recommended. On the other hand, if you can’t find an available room, there are several towns conveniently close to the park.
Though there’s a snack bar at the falls, the only restaurant inside the park is at Dupont Lodge, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served buffet style. The meatloaf and fried chicken were very good, as were the assorted southern-style desserts, like the blackberry cobbler. There’s also a small market in the campground.
Besides coming to see the waterfalls, the park is popular for hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, and, especially for fishing. Fishermen…and fisherwomen…set up folding chairs along the edge of the slow-moving river and cast off their lines. I was told that there are plenty of bass, catfish, panfish, and roughfish, and that you’ll always catch something for dinner.
Offering more than 20 miles of trails, this is hiker’s paradise, even in the winter months when the air is crisp and snow fall is minimal. Park naturalists lead groups on special treks into the woodlands, oftentimes combining backpacking with canoeing for overnighters. River rafting is popular and is offered from May to October. (www.parks.ky.gov or 1-800-255-PARK)
COAL MINING TOWN
If you’ve ever been curious about what a coal mining town looked like, don’t miss Stearns, a historic community about 30 minutes from Cumberland Falls. Built by Stearns Coal & Lumber Company in the early 1900s, the town is now home to gift shops, a restaurant, and the McCreary County Museum. The exhibits depict life in a coal company town during the area’s heyday, as well as things how Kentucky “moonshine” was made. (www.mccrearycountymuseum.com)
After purchasing tickets in the renovated train station, we boarded the Big South Fork Scenic Railway and chugged into the mountains along the river gorge. The trip was pleasant, and the landscape certainly lived up to its “Scenic Railway” moniker.
At the terminus of the rail line is Blue Heron Mining Community, site of a once-active coal town that was abandoned decades ago. I expected something like an old ghost town; instead, the train station was a modern structure that housed a gift shop and a small museum. We purchased a “coal miner’s lunch,” consisting of a sandwich; the ubiquitous Kentucky salad, cole slaw; packaged cookies; a plastic carton of apple sauce; and a can of soda. Not that I’m questioning its authenticity, but I somewhat doubt that French rolls and packaged foods found their way into yesteryear’s lunch pails. Nevertheless, the food was fine, and the impromptu entertainment -- several blue grass musicians, including the train’s engineer, and the local guide-turned singer -- provided a fun “mountain” experience.
The Blue Heron Mining Community was once a “coal camp” (as opposed to a true town). Now operated by the National Park Service, there are numerous displays scattered around the hillsides. Metal frames represent various buildings – a bath house, residences, the school house, and church -- that once stood on that spot. Most interesting were the oral histories recorded and played back at each of these “ghost structures.” In addition, there are numerous exhibits, including one with mannequins dressed as miners at the entrance of the once-productive mine. I was disappointed that there were no tours inside the old coal mine. Who knows? Maybe it was judged to be too hazardous. The mine is now sealed.
The original coal tipple is still there, and is accessible via a paved path. A trip across its towering bridge provides a nice place to catch a view of the camp and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
For more information about the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad: (1-800-462-5664 or www.bsfsry.com ).
About an hour from Stearns is the Burnside Marina, located on the east end of Lake Cumberland. This reservoir was created in 1952 when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers built Wolf Creek Dam, one of the largest dams in the country. The resulting lake has a water surface area of between 35,000 and 50,000 acres, and 1,255 miles of shoreline.
Millions of people visit the Lake Cumberland area each year to enjoy a variety of water-related sports: Jetskiing, fishing, waterskiing, tubing, swimming, and houseboating. In fact, because of the large number of houseboats on this and other nearby lakes, this region is known as the “Houseboating Capital of America.” The lake is surrounded by hills covered with thick woodlands, a setting even more picturesque than other lakes suited for houseboats. Although the weather can be hot and humid in the mid-summer, the houseboats and other accommodations at Lake Cumberland can be used most of the year. Plus, just about everything in the area is air conditioned.
Dozens of privately owned houseboats are permanently moored at Burnside Marina. For those of us who live out of the area, there are houseboats available for rent. If you’ve never stayed on a luxurious houseboat, here’s your chance. There are a variety of sizes and prices. I think it would be a perfect way for two families – or an extended family – to stay together in a floating apartment. The houseboats have everything you need for your vacation, like barbeques, ice chests, and a table and chairs on the front deck. Some have a Jacuzzi and a water slide for the kids – both big and small – on the back, and a swim step on the bottom deck that makes climbing in and out of the boat easy. The interiors are thoughtfully laid out. Depending on the size of the boat, many have two full bathrooms, a complete kitchen, dining room, living room, and up to six bedrooms with queen-sized mattresses. No need to worry about getting seasick, as these huge air conditioned, water-borne suites barely rock. (1-800-844-8862 or www.wateradventures.com )
You can also rent fishing and ski boats, wave runners, and pontoon boats at Burnside Marina, not to mention all of the equipment needed for skiing.
A short drive from Lake Cumberland is the Mill Springs Battlefield, site of one of the most decisive early Civil War battles in history. The museum includes life-sized displays, some interactive exhibits for the kids, and a nice gift shop. (606-636-4045 or www.millsprings.net )
Be sure to stop by Haney’s Appledale Farm and try a deep fried apple, an orchard and pie shop that has been owned by the Haney family for generations. (www.haneysapplefarm.com )
The nearby city of Somerset has anything else you might need or want, like movie theaters, assorted restaurants, and a water park. Here are a few additional tips: Drive about 20 minutes from Burnside Marina to the River House (www.theriverhouse.us ) for a wonderful dinner. It’s lakeside, offers an extensive menu, a full bar, music and dancing. Here’s an absolute must: Try a donut at Amon’s Sugar Shack on Highway 27 in Somerset (606) 678-4392. They’re the best I’ve ever tasted, and I promise you won’t regret it!
WHY VISIT SOUTH AND EASTERN KENTUCKY
There’s a lot to do in this part of the country, especially for those who love the outdoors. Many of the destinations are located within a short drive of each other. From water skiing, tubing, fishing, Jetskiing, and hiking, to playing golf, antiquing, visiting a local winery or a Civil War battlefield, it seems as if there’s something that will appeal to everyone in Southeastern Kentucky.
Many of us, including my husband and I, have families scattered around the country. We’re always looking for a good place to get together for vacations, preferably in the middle of the country. I loved Southeastern Kentucky, and I’m already at work putting together a family get together in the Cumberland Lake area for 2010.
For general information, contact Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association: www.tourseky.com