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A summer road trip may sound more appealing than ever when you consider the long lines at the airport and (relatively) reasonable gas prices.
Here are a handful of road trip and vacation ideas in Kentucky that won’t break the bank but will still satisfy a bit of your summer wanderlust. This guide just may provide you with some inspiration for your next locally-based road trip from Louisville — without needing to stop for gas.
Where to kayak, go whitewater rafting in Kentucky
While Kentuckians will tell you we live in one of the most beautiful of the lower 48 states, it’s not just the land that’s remarkable.
Nearly 2,000 miles of navigable waterways — more than any other in the contiguous United States — and dozens of lakes mean there is enough water for any type of adventure this summer. From flat water paddleboarding, canoeing, or kayaking through the serene waters of an ancient eco-system at the Kentucky River Palisades to adrenaline-pumping whitewater Class II and III rapids at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, there are enough options to keep water enthusiasts busy all summer and well into the fall.
Or, if you fancy yourself more of a thrill seeker, The Big Sandy River in eastern Kentucky includes several Class V+ whitewater rapid drops. It is considered one of the most serious stretches of whitewater in the U.S. where commercial guides operate.
Where to vacation, visit in Northern Kentucky
There’s plenty of aquatic life and riverfront charm to enjoy in Northern Kentucky, but the area offers so much more to explore, including German culture, a big-time racetrack, and miniature architecture.
The state-of-the-art Newport Aquarium at Newport on the Levee is a popular family attraction that features 70 exhibits and 14 themed galleries, including five seamless acrylic tunnels for an up-close view of thousands of aquatic creatures — from African penguins to rare white alligators. If you’re craving authentic German food and entertainment, opt for Hofbrauhaus Newport, the first in America modeled after the legendary beer hall in Munich, Germany.
Pick up the pace with a visit to the Kentucky Speedway near Sparta, where you can schedule a track tour to get an inside view. Or check ahead and plan your trip around a driving school so you can learn to handle a race car like a pro.
The Kentucky Gateway Museum Center in beautiful downtown Maysville is where you’ll discover one of the most impressive collections of miniatures in the country. Then explore a truly fascinating piece of U.S. history at the National Underground Railroad Museum, which displays artifacts that chronicle the Underground Railroad and provide your family with a greater understanding of how the nearby Ohio River was once an obstacle to freedom.
Visit the ‘Horse Capital of the World,’ Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Only one-and-one-half hours from Louisville, Lexington offers lots of activities for a regional road trip.
Known as the “Horse Capital of the World,” travelers can visit the historic Keeneland Racecourse, which offers tours during the summer season. People can also enjoy exclusive access to 400+ championship thoroughbred horse farms, including the historic Claiborne Farm, which has been visited twice by Queen Elizabeth II, via Visit Horse Country.
If you’re looking to do a little bourbon tourism this summer, the area is also home to the “Bluegrass region” of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and boasts 14 of the state’s largest distilleries. Lexington is also home to more than 120 locally-owned restaurants that boast everything from Asian-fusion, West African, and Caribbean cuisines to locally-sourced fare at one of seven-time James Beard nominee Chef Ouita Michel’s six restaurants.
And don’t skip the outdoor adventure opportunities in the Lexington area. It’s where you’ll find the Kentucky River Palisades, great for hiking and watersports, or soar 185 feet above the Palisades via Boone Creek Outdoors’ Zipline Canopy Tours.
Where to stay during a trip to Lexington, Kentucky
If you plan to make Lexington your base for a multi-day summer excursion, the city has plenty of unique accommodations. For fans of the Golden Globe-winning show “The Queen’s Gambit,” you can book a night at the 21c Museum Hotel Lexington’s Queen’s Gambit-inspired Harmon Room. Guests are transported into a scene from the Netflix series complete with chess pieces suspended from the ceiling above the Queen-size bed.
Or perhaps you prefer to stay in Kentucky’s first registered bourbon distillery. The Manchester is a brand new 125-room hotel located in Lexington’s historic Distillery District. This high-end hotel features a bespoke bottle shop and a spirited lobby bar and lounge and two restaurants offering unmatched culinary experience.
For the history buff and families, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill offers private cottages with spectacular countryside views. Situated on 3,000 acres of native prairies and woodlands, this landmark destination was home to the third-largest Shaker community in the United States between 1805 and 1910.
And for the camping experience without the bugs, humidity or the outdoors, Origin Hotel Lexington features 120 spacious loft-inspired suites with the option to request an in-room tent or sleeping bag for an in-room camping adventure
Where to visit in Hart County, Kentucky
If a summer vacation with a planned itinerary is what you are looking for, check out the activities in Hart County, Kentucky.
Intersected by Interstate 65, the Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission has taken the guesswork out of planning your family’s multi-day excursion. You can travel from the Louisville area to the Tennessee border, or fewer miles if you prefer, using a map of attractions that will direct you to fun at almost every exit.
Whether it’s visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, Hidden River Cave, or a stop at President Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace National Historical Park, the multi-day itineraries will help you plan your stops, dining and lodging.
Like the rest of the Bluegrass State, Hart County has some incredible water adventures suitable for a family excursion. The Hart County Blueway on the Green features 42.5 miles of paddling adventure on the Green River, one of the world’s most biologically diverse rivers. It also features river islands and sand bars to explore, blue holes to dip into for a refreshing break, and many freshwater springs.
Big Buffalo Crossing Canoe & Kayak offers Green River trips that include five of the state’s largest springs, or travel by water into Mammoth Cave National Park. Day or overnight tours can include camping, fishing, swimming, caving, and/or sightseeing.
Once you make it off your river adventure, don’t be surprised if you see a horse-drawn buggy slowly moving along one of the back roads in Hart County. The region is home to approximately 200 Amish families who run businesses including greenhouses, bakeries, window and lawn furniture manufacturing and general merchandise stores. Hart County Tourism offers an online brochure that details the Amish businesses in the area.
Safari, animal adventure vacations in Kentucky
One of the Amish businesses in Hart County worth visiting is the Dutch Country Safari Park, the region’s newest animal attraction. Visitors will find a 3/4-mile exotic animal safari drive-thru and animal encounter areas where you can feed camels, pet baby animals, and maybe even bottle-feed a baby goat.
Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo is another option for animal lovers in your family. Whether it’s the thrill of petting a kangaroo, feeding a rainbow lorikeet or watching sheep herding, the adventure park features animals from Australia, Kentucky and around the world.
Who knows, you might even learn to play the didgeridoo.
Spend the night in a covered wagon, treehouse or a yurt in Kentucky
Top off your trip to Hart County with a one-of-a-kind experience when you sleep in a covered wagon at Conestoga Wagons at Horse Cave KOA. Each wagon has its own private patio and fire pit. Inside you’ll find one king-size bed, one set of twin bunks, bedding, a small fridge, microwave, coffee maker, electricity, and heat and air conditioning.
For a birdseye view, the campsite also offers a treehouse. You’ll climb the stairs and nestle into a 20-foot-high, two-bedroom treehouse decked out with a full kitchen, full bath with a tub and shower and more. Rustic cabins (no bathroom) and Deluxe cabins (full shower and bathroom) are also available at Horse Cave KOA.
You’ll find more treehouses when you travel to Red River Gorge located within the expansive Daniel Boone National Forest of east-central Kentucky. Red River Gorgeous offers several architecturally stunning treehouses plus a handful of yurts (round tent structures) stocked with queen-sized beds, full kitchens, and bathrooms for an unforgettable overnight stay.
Treehouse Adventures in Brooksville, Kentucky is another destination that boasts treehouses and tree-climbing activities for all ages.
More: Summer travel ideasFrom Corvettes to caves: Bowling Green is the perfect Kentucky getaway
Dappled Light, a new glamping operation located 15 minutes from the world-class climbing destinations at Red River Gorge, also offers visitors a balance of luxury and ruggedness. Each tent features a comfortable bed, beautiful decor, and enough amenities to keep you comfortable in nature. Guests can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of the outdoors after a day of hard climbing or low-impact hiking while still having all the comforts of home.
Whether you travel for a week or a day, with an abundance of waterways, natural beauty and unique experiences, you don’t have to travel far to travel well when you choose Kentucky.
Reach features reporter Kirby Adams at [email protected].