Megan Bryant is a passionate writer and traveler who has combined her two loves to help others fulfill their traveling dreams. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually curled up with her 3 Dachshunds and a good book or planning her next adventure—wherever that may be.
Nestled within the heart of the Appalachian region, Kentucky boasts a diverse and enchanting landscape that is best experienced in its state parks. From the rolling hills of the Bluegrass State to the rugged beauty of the Cumberland Plateau, Kentucky’s state parks offer a remarkable blend of natural wonders, recreational opportunities, and a deep connection to the state’s rich history.
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a history buff, or simply seeking a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Kentucky’s state parks provide breathtaking scenery and outdoor activities in abundance. In this article, we’ll take a look at 12 of the best state parks in Kentucky, all of which have their own unique charm and selling points.
Big Bone Lick State Historic Site
Big Bone Lick State Park boasts the title of the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology thanks to its countless fossils of wooly mammoths and other ice age animals. What originally attracted these prehistoric animals to the park were the salt licks and sulfur springs that are still present today. But sadly, these salt licks and sulfur springs were actually the cause of many of these animals’ deadly fates.
It isn’t every day that you get to see intact fossils up close, which is why Big Bone Lick State Park is up there as one of the best state parks in all of Kentucky. Plus, if fossils aren’t your thing, the area has various hiking trails and orienteering courses that take you right past herds of wild bison.
Carter Caves State Park
Kentucky is home to so many incredible cave systems, with some of the most famous and longest being in the Mammoth Cave National Park. However, on the completely opposite side of the state lies Carter Caves State Park, which has attracted spelunkers for decades. Guided tours at Carter Caves take you through the cave system so you can learn more about the area and its history.
Once you’ve finished up underground exploring the amazing cave systems, you can then set off on one of the state park’s hiking trails, go fishing, rock climbing, or birding, and even paddle across Smoky Lake.
Columbus- Belmont State Park
Columbus-Belmont State Park on the Mississippi River was once a Confederate fortification, however, today, it has become an excellent place for boating, mini-golfing, and picnicking. If you do like learning about the past, then you can still see remnants of the trenches that were once used, plus there is even an onsite Civil War Museum for those who really enjoy expanding their knowledge.
Cumberland Falls State Park
One of the best state parks in all of Kentucky is, by far, Cumberland Falls State Park, which is known for its namesake, Cumberland Falls. Located within Daniel Boone National Forest, Cumberland Falls is the second largest waterfall east of the Rockies, and it is truly a spectacular sight to see. Towering 68 feet, the Cumberland Falls produces a rare phenomenon called a lunar rainbow (aka “moonbow”) on full-moon nights.
Dale Hollow Lake State Park
Dale Hollow Lake State Park’s most prominent feature is its 28,000-acre reservoir, which has become a popular spot for fishing and boating. But aside from the reservoir and its recreational activities, Dale Hollow Lake State Park, which spans 3,400 acres, also has various hiking trails and opportunities to horseback ride and mountain bike. There is even a nationally ranked golf course that is best experienced in summer.
Green River State Park
The Green River State Park is yet another incredible state park in Kentucky, mainly thanks to its 8,200-acre lake and 28 miles of hiking trails. Whether you prefer to spend your day swimming and paddling or walking and biking, the Green River State Park has you covered. Additionally, you can also take part in fishing, horse riding, and camping, all while keeping your eye out for eagles, turkeys, hawks, and deer.
Greenbo Lake State Park
The Greenbo Lake State Park is home to the Greenbo Lake, which offers visitors the chance to canoe, boat, fish, and even scuba dive. And if water-based activities aren’t really your thing, then you can also participate in biking, birding, hiking, and picnicking, making the state park one of the best all-rounders in all of Kentucky.
John James Audubon State Park
The John James Audubon State Park, just south of the Ohio River, gained its inspiration from John James Audubon, an ornithologist, naturalist, painter, and slaveowner. The park spans approximately 700 acres and consists of mainly hilly forests, a man-made fishing lake, and a 69-acre campground. If you do plan on visiting the park, be sure to check out the Audubon Museum, which features valuable examples of Audubon’s art.
Lake Barkley State Park
The Lake Barkley State Park is an excellent Kentucky state park option for those in search of recreational activities. Spanning 3,700 acres, Lake Barkley State Park has become a haven for boating and fishing, with many people claiming that it offers some of the best fishing in all of Kentucky. Lodging and camping are also available throughout the park, as well as the chance to bike, hike, and swim.
Lake Cumberland State Park
The Lake Cumberland State Park features Lake Cumberland, a 50,000-acre lake that is popular amongst fishermen, watersports enthusiasts, and those who just generally enjoy time out on the water. With additional land-based activities like hiking, bird watching, and picnicking, the Lake Cumberland State Park has become a favorite amongst locals, especially during the summer months when temperatures are at their hottest.
Natural Bridge State Park
One of the most visited state parks in Kentucky is the Natural Bridge State Park, which is located inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. Covering 2,200 acres, the Natural Bridge State Park, with its impressive sandstone arch that stands 65 feet high, offers visitors the chance to get outdoors and experience Kentucky’s true natural beauty. As you hike the park’s 20 miles of hiking trail or camp in one of its two campgrounds, you’ll be constantly surrounded by nature. If you can, be sure to visit the park during the fall season as the leaves on the trees turn brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange.
Pine Mountain State Park
And the final state park to make it onto the best state parks in Kentucky list is the Pine Mountain State Park, which was established in 1924, making it Kentucky’s oldest state park. Known for its sweeping vistas, Pine Mountain is a hiker’s paradise as there are over 12 miles of hiking trails to explore, all of which give you incredible views of the surrounding Kentucky area.