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Travel | Long Weekends

Kentucky: Explore the Bluegrass State

Check out these five destinations for natural beauty and museums that offer insight into the world around us.

Daniel Boone National Forest

The big question facing those set to explore Daniel Boone National Forest is what to pack. The 708,000-acre wilderness touches 21 Kentucky counties and covers rugged terrain that’s home to recreational options ranging from hiking, rock climbing and kayaking to hunting, fishing and camping. 

“There are a lot of destination hikes where you can hike to waterfalls and rock arches,” says Dania Egedi, general manager of the Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort, an outdoor adventure destination located in Corbin, Kentucky. “There are also great old service roads that you can do mountain biking on.”

The 600 miles of trails offer plenty of options for day hiking and overnight backpacking trips. The forest is home to the largest accumulation of natural stone arches in the eastern United States and contains three lakes: Cave Run Lake, Laurel River Lake and Lake Cumberland.

Despite its rather odd name, Egedi suggests checking out Dog Slaughter Trail, which offers families a beautiful hike that traces a creek before reaching a breathtaking waterfall.

“Spring is a really neat time to go into the forest because, before the trees leaf out, there are a lot of interesting rock formations to be seen,” says Egedi. “It is very easy to go explore the forest and find another rock house or secret you didn’t even know about.” For more information about Daniel Boone National Forest, visit fs.usda.gov/dbnf.

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 Creation Museum (courtesy of Creation Museum)
Creation Museum and Ark Encounter

Explore the chronological retelling of biblical history at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Opened in 2007, the 75,000-square-foot museum brings the Bible to life through nearly 150 exhibits and helps visitors make sense of the world around them through the word of God. 

“This is a world-class exhibit that is tastefully done,” says Patrick Kanewske, director of ministry and media relations at the Creation Museum.

Along the way, visitors encounter animatronic dinosaurs, a 4D theater and the Eden Animal Experience — a hands-on zoo that is home to camels, wallabies, donkeys and more. For an adrenaline rush, try the Screaming Raptor Zip Line and Canopy Tours, which treat adventurers to 2 1/2 miles of zip lines and sky bridges.

Each ticket purchase is a two-day pass, allowing visitors to also explore the planetarium, participate in forensics labs and listen to presentations from experts in apologetic theology.

“Last year over 500,000 folks came through the museum, and they come from all over the world,” says Kanewske. “I’ve spoken to visitors from every continent on the planet. There is room for everyone in the family.”

Those making the trip will also be interested to vist the museum’s sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, located just 40 miles away in Williamstown, Kentucky. The Ark Encounter features a 510-foot-long ark that brings to life the story of Noah as told in the book of Genesis. 2800 Bullittsburg Church Rd., Petersburg, Kentucky 41080, 888/582-4253, creationmuseum.org; 1 Ark Encounter Dr., Williamstown, Kentucky 41097, 855/284-3275, arkencounter.com

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Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Lush greenery and blooming flowers greet visitors at the 16,000-acre Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, one of the largest attractions of its kind in the eastern United States. This living laboratory offers interactive programs, group tours, hiking trails and gardens that help connect visitors of all ages to the natural world around them.

A leader in ecological stewardship, Bernheim Arboretum provides kid-friendly, hands-on learning opportunities, such as the ECO (every child outside) Discovery Days, which occur every first and third Saturday of the month.

“By the spring, we will have large-scale, recycled wood sculptures by artist Thomas Dambo installed throughout the arboretum,” says Amy Landon, the arboretum’s manager of marketing and communications. “They will be a really fun thing for kids and families to interact with. It will be worth the drive just to see those sculptures.”

Admission is free during weekdays, and the arboretum’s own edible garden sources produce for the on-site cafe. With 40 miles of hiking and biking trails that range in length and accessibility, families can opt for an easy-to-tackle quarter-mile trail or challenge themselves to a 13-mile journey. Don’t forget to bring your pets along for the scenic views. The destination is dog friendly as long as your best friend is well behaved and on a leash at all times. 2075 Clermont Rd., Clermont, Kentucky 40110, 502/955-8512, bernheim.org

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Gheens Science Hall meteorite exhibit
Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium

Step into a world far from our own at the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium at the University of Louisville, a place geared toward answering the questions of the universe while imparting space-science education.

Since 2001, the planetarium has been encouraging guests to explore outer space through education and laser shows projected onto a 55-foot dome and free exhibits that tackle subjects ranging from moons and black holes to astronomy and the solar system. The museum is home to the largest meteorite collection in the region and is designed so kids and adults alike can absorb the subject matter in a new way.

“The William G. Russell Meteorite Collection Exhibit is truly spectacular,” says Paula McGuffey, the museum’s assistant director. “We have meteorites people can touch … they get to touch a piece of space.”

With an emphasis on interactive learning, the planetarium theater’s 160 seats thrust viewers into a 360-degree view of the night sky. The planetarium’s software includes a 3D database of more than 200,000 galaxies that encompass more than 1 billion light years of space. In addition, the planetarium offers telescope workshops, summer camps and field experiences.

“We want people from pre-K age to [adults] to really connect with science in an engaging way that makes sense,” McGuffey explains. “We want people to walk away inspired.” 106 W. Brandeis Ave., Louisville, Kentucky 40292, 502/852-6664, louisville.edu/planetarium

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Highlands Museum & Discovery Center
Highlands Museum & Discovery Center 

Those interested in a trip into the past of eastern Kentucky will find it at the Highland Museum & Discovery Center in Ashland. The regional history and children’s museum offers hands-on learning that shares the cultural, social and industrial history of eastern Kentucky.

The building is home to 24 exhibits that vary from aviation and early people of Kentucky to medicine and World War I. The building’s lower level holds the Discovery Center, an interactive play area where kids learn about local history.

“A really interesting element for kids is the School Daze exhibit where an authentic-looking 1900s school house is built with a blackboard for drawing and period-style clothing for dress up,” says Heather Whitman, the museum’s curator and registrar.

Adults can have just as much fun at the Country Music Heritage Hall exhibit, where an interactive wooden sound sculpture called the Music Quilt produces different sounds — from the rumbling of a car engine to the blare of a train horn — at the touch of a hand.

In addition to the historical exhibits, contemporary art from local artists is featured in a gallery that brings in new works every three months. An on-site gift shop allows families to take a piece of their trip home.

“Dad can be looking at the military exhibits, mom can be checking out the textiles and clothing exhibits, the kids can be running around the Discovery Cavern to learn about bats, caves and stalagmites,” Whitman says. “There is something for everyone in the family.” 1620 Winchester Ave., Ashland, Kentucky 41101, 606/329-8888, highlandsmuseum.com 

All photos courtesy of organizations listed

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