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Kentucky may landlocked, but it’s also river-rich. The Bluegrass State has more miles of running water than Florida, California or anywhere in the U.S. this side of Alaska. While the Ohio River defines the state to the north, the various rivers that wind their way through the heart of Kentucky offer visitors a chance for adventure, relaxation and perspectives you can’t find on land.
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The Kentucky River Palisades
The Kentucky River forms in the mountains, where its three forks converge in Beattyville then flows northwest until it pours into the Ohio at Carrolton. The 260-mile river once served as a central thoroughfare for travel and commerce, until the construction of a series of locks and dams began in the late 1800s. They brought an end to the river’s steamboat traffic and most of its commercial traffic, but one consequence is that sections of the Kentucky River are ideal for paddling and fishing.
One of the Kentucky River’s signature destinations is the Palisades area south of Lexington. The Palisades are a series of limestone cliffs and outcroppings more than 400 million years old and they line a 100-mile stretch of the river in central Kentucky.
There, you can find stretches of waterway with no signs of civilization, just caves, creeks and waterfalls. The hills rising on either side are covered in rock elm, sugar maple and blue ash. (The Nature Conservancy helps protect the area.)
If you want to experience the Palisades without a paddle and learn some history at the same time, take a ride on the Dixie Belle Riverboat.
Operated by Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the Dixie Bell is a 115-passenger paddle wheeler that offers narrated one-hour cruises through the Palisades from May 1 to Oct. 31. Among the historic tidbits: The Shakers who founded a nearby settlement in the early 1800s once used the Dixie Belle’s landing spot to launch trading expeditions that went as far as New Orleans.
Kentucky’s river capital
The Kentucky flows directly through Frankfort, the state’s capital, which offers a variety of options for on-the-water outings. Canoe Kentucky provides canoe and kayak rentals as well as guided excursions like the Elkhorn Creek Day Trip (includes lunch), and the Kentucky River History and Lock Tour. There’s also with a special monthly tour that includes tours of both the river and the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery, a top area attraction that earns 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor with more than 1,800 reviews.
Anyone looking for a more extensive river tour can try Rockin’ Thunder River Tours, which offers a two-day 155-mile round-trip journey from Frankfort to Madison, Ind., on the Ohio River.
Whitewater on the Cumberland
Long before it reaches downtown Nashville, the Cumberland River forms in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. The river’s most famous feature is the 65-foot high, 125-foot-wide Cumberland Falls, sometimes called the Niagara of the South. Cumberland Falls is also the only waterfall in the Western Hemisphere that regularly produces a nighttime rainbow, or moonbow.
The whitewater runs known as Cumberland Below the Falls feature mostly class II and III rapids and are typically runnable throughout the summer. The Cumberland River’s catfish and bass lure fisherman to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park as well. Lodging options include cabins and rooms at the state park’s DuPont Lodge as well as the Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort along with various campsites. Sheltowee Trace offers guided river tours as well as a Rainbow Mist Ride.
Lost River Cave
As rivers go, Bowling Green’s Lost River is barely a trickle compared to the Kentucky or the Cumberland. What sets Lost River apart is its route, which begins on the surface and then flows underground.
Lost River Cave is a 70-acre cave and underground property jointly owned by Western Kentucky University and the nonprofit The Friends of the Lost River. Billed as “Kentucky’s only underground boat tour,” Lost River Cave gives visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the same Kentucky limestone that stands hundreds of feet above you at the Palisades. In fact, you’ll have to duck your head as you pass beneath Lost River Cave’s wishing rock and wind your way into the caverns within.
Green River rising
Among the easiest Kentucky waterways to access from Nashville is the Green River, which forms in south central Kentucky and winds through Mammoth Cave National Park on its way to meeting the Ohio near Owensboro. Outfitters like Green River Canoeing provide guided canoe and kayak journeys ranging from hours to days. If you’re looking to drop a pole in the water, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2018 Fishing Forecast says the Green River has areas that are flush with white bass and rock bass, while Green River Lake State Park (created by damming the Green River in the 1960s) is a prime spot to catch channel catfish and largemouth bass.
Whatever your plans to go on the water in Kentucky, remember to check the weather and river conditions. Lora Peppers is chief ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park. “If you make your plans on Thursday, but don’t keep up on the weather, you could find a very different — and more dangerous — river on Saturday.”
The Green River, for example, can go from 6 inches to 6 feet in less than 48 hours. She’s seen visitors get into trouble that could have been avoided with a simple internet search before leaving the house. “These are wild areas and you’re going to encounter the unexpected. That’s part of the fun,” she said. “If you plan ahead, you can have a great experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”