7 National Parks In Kentucky

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Wedged right between the north and south of the United States, Kentucky is known for its long history and interesting culture. Rolling green pastures, scenic rivers and unique cave systems make up the landscape of national parks in Kentucky. And after a big day of exploring, nothing beats the delicious barbecue and classic southern hospitality found in every small town.

Mammoth Cave National Park is Kentucky’s most visited park and features an astounding 420 miles (680 km) of caves. Book yourself a tour and discover why it’s listed as a World Heritage Site, or if you prefer to stay above ground, Big South Fork and Cumberland Gap provide miles and miles of untouched wilderness to explore by foot, bike or kayak. For history buffs, Kentucky is home to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and the history-rich Camp Nelson – the largest training centre in the U.S. for African American soldiers.

No matter your interests and whether you have a few hours or a few days up your sleeve, you’ll find the national parks in Kentucky have the perfect adventure waiting for you. So pack a snack, lace up your hiking boots and explore the best of Kentucky.

7 National Parks In Kentucky

1- Mammoth Cave National Park

mammoth caves national park kentucky
The top national park in Kentucky is Mammoth Caves, which has an incredible network of caves to explore.

Mammoth Lakes is one of the more unique National Parks in the United States as its main attraction lies under the surface.

Home to more than 420 miles (680 kilometres) of underground passageways, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world and showcases massive chambers and tight crawling spaces.

Its rare geologic features have also made it a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, and thanks to its location in remote Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is also an International Dark Sky Park.

Above ground, numerous hiking, biking and horseback trails crisscross through the park, and stretches of Green and Nolin Rivers make for great fishing, kayaking and canoeing.

Things To Do In Mammoth Cave National Park

Embark On A Cave Tour
mammoth cave national park kentucky national parks
Explore the intriguing Mammoth Cave National Park to admire stalagmites, stalactites and other geographical features.

For safety reasons, only a portion of the sprawling cave system can be explored by visitors.

Still, with more than a dozen different guided tours to choose from, including everything from fully wheelchair-accessible tours to adventure crawling tours, you won’t leave disappointed.

The most popular tour is the Historic Tour, which covers two miles (3.2 kilometres) of expansive cave rooms and tighter places.

Opt for the four-hour Grand Avenue Tour that covers 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) to get deeper into the cave.

If there’s a particular tour you have your eye on, be sure to book your ticket ahead of time as they’re known to sell out far in advance, especially on summer weekends.

Green River Ferry
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The ferry crossing at Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky.

Forget the expansive cave system. A highlight for many visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park is taking the Green River Ferry.

Running 364 days a year since 1934, the ferry brings cars, pedestrians and bikers from one side of the Green River to the other on a long, flat ferry.

It’s also one of the last remaining rural ferries in the U.S., so enjoy it while you can.

Bike The Railroad Trail

Rent a bike from one of several outfitters in the region and head out on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Trail.

The trail winds through 9 miles (14.5 km) of forest, but with many access points, it can be enjoyed as a full experience or in shorter sections.

Go Hiking In Mammoth Cave National Park
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A river leading into an underground system at Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky.

Besides the underground hiking variety, Mammoth Cave National Park offers plenty of options above ground to wander through dense forests, around interesting sinkholes and past historical remnants.

The longest hike, Big Hollow North and South Loops is 11 miles (17.5 kilometres) long and takes you along a gentle path through forest and rocky outcrops.

For something a bit less strenuous, opt for the 1.8-mile (2.9-kilometre) Cedar Sink Trail, which showcases cliffs and forests, and you can even see into the underground river system via sinkholes.

Getting To Mammoth Cave National Park

The closest large airport to Mammoth Cave National Park is Louisville International Airport.

From here, it’s an easy hour and a half drive along I-65 S. Nashville International Airport is just a touch further away, with an hour and forty-five-minute drive along I-65 N.

The closest town is Park City, and although small, it’s a great place to base yourself to explore Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave National Park is at 1 Mammoth Cave Pkway, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259

2- Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area

best national parks in kentucky water flows over Princess Falls
Princess Falls in the Big South Fork National Recreation area in southeast Kentucky.

Straddling Kentucky and Tennessee, Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area boast scenic gorges, sandstone bluffs, peaceful streams and a range of historic features.

With 125,000 acres (50,600 hectares) along the Cumberland River, it’s no wonder nature enthusiasts from near and far come to Big South Fork to hike, kayak, horseback, wildlife watch and camp.

On top of that, as Big South Fork has largely remained undiscovered outside of locals, chances are excellent that you’ll have entire trails and sections of the river all to yourself.

Things To Do In Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area

national parks in kentucky with camping
If you’re looking for national parks in Kentucky worth exploring, try Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area. Pictured here are small rapids on the Cumberland River.

Big South Fork offers an extensive hiking trail system that’s great for all ages and abilities.

The Angels Falls Overlook Trail is by far the most popular hike, and for good reason.

The main feature of this 5.6 miles (9 km) trail is the Angel Overlook, which rewards hikers with views over the Cumberland River Gorge.

Another famous hike in the park is the John Muir Trail takes five days and stretches for 44 miles (70 km).

If you want to fully lose track of time and the distractions of everyday life, this is the place to do it.

Big South Fork offers stunning whitewater paddling excursions if you’re looking to get the adrenaline pumping.

Rapids are between class II and Class IV, along with some flat water sections, and are suitable for both those new to the sport and whitewater fanatics.

With only a few spots to put in and take out, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped deep into the wilderness, especially as you speed along the cliff-lined gorge.

Getting To Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area

The main entrance to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is located just across the border from Kentucky in northern Tennessee.

The nearest major airport to the area is Nashville International Airport, which is just under a three-hour drive along I-40E.

It’s also possible to fly into McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, a two-hour drive away along I-75 N.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is at 4564 Leatherwood Road, Oneida, TN 37841

3- Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

fort donelson national battlefield national parks kentucky
A Civil War cannon at Fort McCook in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, which is one of the national parks in Kentucky that attracts history lovers.

Its name says it all.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is centred on a natural break in the prominent Appalachian Mountains and long provided a gateway to the west for Native Americans, pioneers and countless wildlife.

Today, it’s a popular spot for hikers and nature enthusiasts to lose track of time amongst the deep wilderness, with an average of 700,000 people visiting Cumberland Gap each year.

If you’re not a fan of crowds, don’t be afraid of this number.

With 24,000 acres (9,300 ha) of land, 85 miles (137 km) of trails, and countless caves, there’s more than enough nature for everyone to enjoy.

Things To Do In Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

top 10 national parks in kentucky
Sand cave in Cumberland Gap National Park.

Start your trip to Cumberland Gap off with a visit to the Visitor Center. Here you can learn about the region’s fascinating history and chat with rangers about the many different activities within the park.

Book a tour of Hensely Settlement, where you’ll enjoy a guided walk through a blacksmith’s shop and a one-room schoolhouse built in the early 1900s.

Joining the Gap Cave Tour is another must-do, although you’ll need to make a reservation at least a day before you’re planning on arriving as the tours are limited to 20 people and are very popular.

If you’ve missed out on the guided tours or prefer to explore under your own steam, you won’t be disappointed by the impressive hiking trails scattered across the park.

The longest hike stretches 21 miles (34 km) along the Ridge Trail, with numerous places to start and stop and fascinating sandstone overhangs, limestone outcrops, lush vegetation and dense forests to enjoy.

Getting To Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Cumberland Gap sits on the meeting point of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, just southwest of Middlesboro, Kentucky.

The closest airport is the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, and from here, it’s an hour and a half drive along TN-33 N.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is at 91 Bartlett Park Road, Middlesboro, Kentucky, 40965

4- Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

kentucky national parks
Looking for national parks in Kentucky? Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is one to visit.

Come see for yourself the beautiful rural setting Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, first called home at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.

Right in the middle of Kentucky and preserving just over 340 acres (139 ha) of land, the park’s main focus is the Memorial Building, which even has a log cabin similar to the one Abraham Lincoln was born in.

It might not be Kentucky’s biggest park, but even so, over 200,000 people a year think it’s just their cup of tea.

Things To Do In Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

If you’re a history buff, you could easily spend an entire afternoon reading up on the fascinating childhood of Abraham Lincoln and wandering the picturesque grounds.

However, when it comes to hiking trails, you’re not as spoilt for choice. The longest hike stretches just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long through a grassy field and up to an overlook of Knob Creek Valley.

If you’re looking to get a short hike in, you’ll enjoy the easy trail and fresh air, but for keen hikers, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park may not be your top pick.

Getting To Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

The Louisville Internation Airport is the closest airport to Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. From here, it’s an hour’s drive along I-65 S, although do allow time for traffic.

The Historical Park is also an hour’s drive north of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is at 2995 Lincoln Farm Rd, Hodgenville, KY 42748

5- Camp Nelson National Monument

national parks kentucky
Camp Nelson National Cemetery is a Kentucky national parks site that is poignant to visit.

Inviting guests to gain a deeper understanding of the Civil War, Camp Nelson National Monument stands on 525 acres (212 ha) that were once used as a base, supply depot, refugee camp and training centre for African American soldiers.

Wander the grounds, learn about life in the barracks and walk in the footsteps of soldiers in this picturesque central Kentucky park that played an essential role in the destruction of slavery.

Things To Do In Camp Nelson National Monument

To understand Camp Nelson’s role in the Civil War, spend time in the Visitor Center and museum.

Open every day, except on some public holidays, you can watch a short film and check out relics from life at the camp.

From the Visitor Center, you can also join a tour to reconstructed army barracks, where thousands of soldiers lived and trained for battle.

If you have time, it’s also well worth checking out one of the many walking trails dotted across the rolling landscape of Camp Nelson National Monument.

Walks range in length from 0.3 miles (0.5 km) to 1.3 miles (2 km) and are all rated easy.

On each trail, you’ll walk through different parts of the camp with plenty of informative signs to help you understand what you’re seeing.

It’s also possible to combine a few different trails if you’re looking for a longer walk.

Before leaving, take a walk through the Camp Nelson National Cemetery, home to over 2,400 Federal graves.

Getting To Camp Nelson National Monument

Located in Jessamine County, just 20 miles (32 km) from Lexington, the easiest way to get to Camp Nelson National Monument is to fly into Blue Grass Airport in Lexington and drive south along US-68W and US-27S.

Camp Nelson National Monument is at 6614 Danville Rd, Nicholasville, KY 40356.

6- Fort Donelson National Battlefield

As you wander Fort Donelson National Battlefield’s rolling green hills and beautiful tree-lined Cumberland river, it’s hard to imagine this now peaceful area was home to a major Civil War battle in 1862.

Remains of Fort Heiman and Fort Donelson can still be seen today, along with a 1933 monument dedicated to Confederate veterans.

If you’re in the area, it’s well worth exploring the grounds and imagining the trivial times of the 1860s.

Fort Donelson National Battlefield is located on the border of Tennesse and Kentucky, with the Visitor Center located at 120 Lock D Rd, Dover, TN 37058.

7- Mill Springs Battlefield  

national parks in kentucky mill springs
Mill Springs Battlefield is a national park site in Kentucky with a fascinating history.

A visit to Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument tells the story of one of the most significant early victories for Union forces during the Civil War.

The battle, which took place on January 19, 1862, claimed the lives of 150 Confederates and 50 Federal soldiers, leaving a dark mark on the small town of Logan’s Crossing (now called Nancy).

Today, visitors can wander the grounds and learn about the Bittle of Mill Springs at the visitor centre and museum.

Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument is located at 9020 West Highway 80, Nancy, Kentucky 42544.

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Danielle grew up in central Minnesota, spending her summers enjoying the many lakes and her winters playing ice hockey. After graduating from college, she booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand and never looked back. Now, 10 years later, Danielle spends her time hiking amongst the Southern Alps, Airbnb hopping around Europe and travelling the U.S. Rarely a day goes by you won't find her searching for her next grand adventure.