A spring trip to Kentucky taking the back roads

Published 6:00 am Sunday, August 6, 2017

By Brenda West

Looking for a five or six-day road trip for this fall or next spring? Want to avoid I40? Love the back roads? Perhaps you can get some ideas from our spring drive to The Bluegrass State.

We drove to Tupelo and started our leisurely drive north on the Natchez Trace. A spring drive when the dogwoods were showing off was the perfect beginning as we headed for Dale Hollow State Park about 2 ½ hours northeast of Nashville. Wanting to bypass Music City traffic, we exited the Trace at Columbia and made a loop below Nashville on Highway 840. We were forced to get on I40 for a few miles, got stuck in a construction zone, and luckily exited to a back road to Highway 53N which took us to our destination. Dale Hollow, a 28,000-acre lake straddles the Kentucky/Tennessee state line and is the oldest artificial lake in Kentucky.

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The cliff top lodge at the State Park was impressive: built of limestone and timber, it was well run, had a most friendly staff, and great restaurant. This is a place we will definitely visit again. There was no walking path to the lake, but our private balcony gave us a beautiful view overlooking the water. Arriving late afternoon, we enjoyed delicious hot brown sandwiches at the restaurant before watching the sun set over the lake.

We devoted the next day to exploring area back roads (Turkey Neck Bend was as crooked as it sounds) and found the only state operated a ferry in Kentucky near Tompkinsville. It was a short ride across the Cumberland River, but an interesting experience in a mostly rural and poor part of Appalachia. If fishing is your thing, take note: Dale Hollow is well known as a prime location for smallmouth bass fishing and we were told it holds the world record for the largest such fish ever taken (11 lb., 15oz.).

Our destination for Day 3 was nearby Cumberland Falls State Park, the “Niagara of the South,” near Corbin, Kentucky (home of the original KFC!). On the way, we decided to visit the Bartnell Mining Camp near the tiny town of Stearns. We located it on our map and wound our way up a one lane road but found a gate blocking our entrance. One other car came creeping up behind us on the lonely narrow road and luckily a passenger in the car was the manager of the park campground nearby. She explained the lay of the land and we were able to turn our truck around and head to the Blue Heron Mining Camp, now a tourist stop/museum. Sadly, it was also closed, but a young man walking down the abandoned railroad track flagged us down and gave us two railroad spikes as souvenirs. So now we have trusted two complete strangers on these lonely back roads in the Daniel Boone Forest region and left with a happy heart that we had left our comfort zone, put suspicions aside, and met such friendly and interesting people.

Arriving at Cumberland Falls mid-afternoon, we found an old but beautiful lodge that would have been a bit more comfortable with a few room upgrades. Catfish dinner with white beans confirmed that we were in Kentucky.

Our timing was off to see the famous moonbow, a phenomenon found nowhere else in the country. Described as a “night rainbow,” we were told that it only occurs during a full moon when the moon makes an arc of white light over the falls. The best I can understand, the moonlight is refracted through the mist of the falls and a rainbow appears at the base of the falls. We missed it by a few days but the view of the winding Cumberland River from our room was awesome. And, after an afternoon walk to the falls where a young girl was mining for gems, we understood why these falls are called the “Niagara of the South.”

This log covers the two days we spent at Dale Hollow State Park Resort and two at Cumberland Falls State Park. And this is where you decide if you have time to continue on the beautiful Kentucky parkways or head home. If you continue, I will save for a future article my suggestions for Berea, Lexington, Bardstown, and the monastery at Gethsemane, maybe a stop at Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark Distillery.

Our favorite route home is Highway 68, which cuts through Western Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes before turning south toward home to Oxford. Not one mile of interstate.

Not only do we choose April and October for these Kentucky trips since spring and fall offer great weather and beautiful color, but they are also the months Keeneland is open and we do love the horses. That’s another story, too.

Brenda West is a traveler who likes to take the back roads. You can reach her at olemisswest@hotmail.com.