Recapture the historic charm of Southern and Eastern Kentucky, an integral part of America's frontier, on this rich road trip.
Follow in the footsteps of Daniel Boone as he led the first group of settlers through the Gap in the Cumberland Mountains back in 1775. You can re-live the excitement of the pioneers as they moved north into Kentucky, blazing the trail that would become the Wilderness Road, eventually luring more than 200,000 settlers to the western territory.
Now absorbed into US 25E and KY 229 and named a national scenic byway, the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway tracks the original route through rural countryside from Cumberland Gap to London, Kentucky.
Day 1- Pine Mountain State Resort Park
Armed with maps and the modern convenience of a GPS system, it’s ‘Westward Ho’ from Lexington to Pine Mountain State Resort Park (800/325-1712), the perfect family hub for the next few days. It’s 119 miles of mostly interstate driving along Hwy 25-E, approximately 38 miles off I-75 in Pineville.
Depending on timing, a good place to stop for lunch or an early dinner along the way would be in the town of Corbin. At the Junction of 25-E and 25-W, you’ll find the original Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, as it appeared in the 1940’s. If you’re looking for dinner at a more formal restaurant, stop at The Vintage House, 215 Roy Kidd Avenue at 25-W. Here and throughout the trip, you’ll find that the food is traditional, children of all ages are welcome, and most restaurants have kids’ menus.
Are we there yet? Yes we are! Pine Mountain State Resort Park, located on State Pine Road in the heart of the Kentucky Ridge State Forest, is surrounded by the gentle seclusion of beautiful mountain scenery. The park was created in 1924, and the passage of time has not diminished the original sandstone and chestnut log construction.
At The Lodge (800/325-1712), there are 30 spacious guest rooms with full amenities, each featuring a balcony or patio on which to enjoy the mountain view. The resorts one- and two-bedroom cottages feature a more rustic charm. There are also nine one-bedroom log cabins that have stone fireplaces and private decks, and eleven two-bedroom log cabins with porches or decks surrounded by woodland settings. Grills are available for the cabins and cottages. This is a great family bargain with rates varying with the season from $ to $$. We suggest that you phone for reservations at the Resort well in advance.
With 14 miles of self-guided trails, the Resort is a hiker’s paradise where you can explore Chained Rock, the Hemlock Garden, Honeymoon Falls, Rock Hotel and Living Stairway. There’s a bike trail for your riding pleasure, a swimming pool with a tube slide, and interpretive programs on native plants and animals are under the direction of a naturalist. The 120-seat dining room serves traditional family Kentucky cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For the golf buffs, there’s the award winning Wasioto Winds (606/337-1066) 18-hole links-style golf course set in the midst of the spectacular beauty of the mountains, and a miniature golf course offers fun for the entire family (fees are charged per round).
Day 2- Exploring Nature in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
Planning for a great day, bring your camera and sense of adventure to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Begin your experience in the lobby of the Visitors Center whose life size trees and leaf patterns projected on the floor evoke the feeling of an old growth forest The youngsters are immediately welcomed with a coloring guide book, Junior Park Ranger Badge, and the “Be a Colonial Kid” area where they get to play and dress-up in pioneer costumes.
On the second floor everyone can view the informative introductory film, and visit the museum. The must-see gift shop is an outlet for the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, with traditional crafts and folk art from the surrounding Kentucky area.
The Park has exciting and original attractions to please every family member. To find everyone’s inspiration, drive out to the Pinnacle Overlook for a view that further brings drama to the vast and remote Cumberland Gap and Wilderness Road. Look out over the ridges of pine trees and some of the most beautiful native blooming shrubs and wildflowers that flourish here.
For the hikers, a section of the restored Wilderness Road offers its magic to a new generation of explorers. The youngsters can discover trails filled with wildlife surprises like deer and wild turkey. A more strenuous hike would be to White Rocks and Sand Cave, a seven-mile round trip hike through lush forests. Here you will be rewarded by the beautiful colors of Sand Cave, and the music of the cascading waterfall.
The explorers in the family can join park rangers in an exciting two-hour adventure discovering Gap Cave (606/248-2817), a familiar landmark to the early pioneers. With lanterns in hand, discover glistening stalagmites and sparkling stalactites or catch a glimpse of a bat (not a lot), underground pools, and Civil War graffiti. This is a 1½-mile walk, and 183 steps must be negotiated within the cave. An admission fee is charged for this tour (only for ages 5 and up) and there’s discount admission for seniors and children. Reservations are recommended.
End your day back at the resort, relaxing or partaking in the outdoor amenities, and then enjoy a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant.
Day 3-Exploring History at Cumberland Gap
As one day in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park is no where near enough time, start out your morning with an early breakfast at the Resort, and then head out for an historical adventure in the Park.
Capture life of a bygone era by joining park rangers on an uphill (but doable) hike to the Hensley Settlement (606/248-2817), an abandoned 1904 Appalachian homestead on top of Brush Mountain. Using hand tools to split chestnut logs, the settlers began building homes, and a thriving community soon emerged. Stroll down lanes lined with weathered split-rail fences, step into a blacksmith’s shop, look into the springhouse, or sit in the one room schoolhouse all of which evoke the lifestyle of this early mountain settlement. The tour takes three hours and reservations are required. A general fee is charged, and there’s a discount for seniors and children under 12.
Heading out from the Park, take a very short drive to the unique Avenue CafÃ© & Antiques (606/248-3928) at 1915 W. Cumberland Avenue in historic Middleboro on West Cumberland at 25-E. for a delicious home made lunch.
Then, also along 25-E, visit the Lincoln Library and Museum (800/325-0900) set on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Showcasing a treasure trove of nearly 30,000 items, the museum reflects the remarkable story of Abraham Lincoln and his personal rendezvous with history. View the film, interact with the docents, and get ready for a great photo-op when the younger ones get to dress up like the re-enactors. A general admission is charged (children under 6 are free), and there’s a discount for seniors and children 6- to 12-years-old
In the evening back at the Resort, everyone gets to relax and then enjoy a wonderful dinner together, discussing the day’s happenings.
Day 4-Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park
Plan to spend a glorious day and a picnic in the park at the Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park, about a 1½- hour drive from Pine Mountain State Resort Park via KY 229 and US 25-E. Be sure to stop at scenic overlooks along the way to marvel at the views.
The land that belonged to Levi Jackson, the first Laurel County judge, encompasses 800 acres and includes McHargue’s Mill, a gristmill built on the banks of the Little Laurel River. This working reproduction mill is surrounded by the largest display of millstones in the country.
The Park is also the home of the Mountain Life Museum (606/330-2130), a pioneer settlement and a tribute to life in 19th century Southeastern Kentucky. You can see where the pioneers walked, the houses in which they lived, and the tools which they used to provide the necessities of life. Farming implements and a Conestoga Wagon are displayed in the barn. Two delightful costumed docents “Ma Sybill” and “Miss Ellie” inject a touch of humor as they re-enact the hardships and history that took place here. As a bonus, movie buffs will enjoy knowing that “The Kentuckian,” starring Burt Lancaster, was filmed on the settlement in 1955. Admission fees for adults and children apply (children under 2 are free).
For the more adventurous hikers in the family, there are 8½ acres of trails that include original portions of historic throughways. For the younger set, playgrounds are located throughout the park alongside picnic tables and grills.
As this is your last evening at the resort, relax and enjoy the outdoor amenities before or after dinner.
Day 5-Exploring Coal Mine Country
Enjoy your last hearty breakfast in the resort’s dining room overlooking the beautiful mountain view. After packing your gear and bidding a fond farewell, follow KY 160 from Cumberland, on to Benham, where the whistle of the coal train once called men from the hills and farms. Benham was the former “company” town of the Wisconsin Steel Corporation (later International Harvester) and nearby Lynch was the former company town of U.S. Steel. Both were the cream of the crop among coal camps in Kentucky.
In Benham, tour the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum (606/848-1530) for an overview of life in the coal towns and the importance of coal in Kentucky’s history. The museum is housed in the old company commissary built in the 1920s, and features four stories of exhibits. In addition to the artifacts and antiques, there’s a coal mine for kids, and memorabilia from the career of country music icon Loretta Lynn, the “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” A general admission is charged, and there’s a discount for students and seniors.
In Lynch, put on a miner’s helmet, don the traditional protective gear, and ride a coal car into Portal 31 (606/848-1530) an old coal mine that is now a museum. You’ll learn about mining and transporting the coal, and all the dangers involved working the mines. The site features a 1920’s lamphouse, bathhouse, L&N train depot, and a load system. General admission is charged and reservations are required. This tour is not recommended for children under age 5.
Spend the night at the Benham School House Inn (800/231-0627) located across from the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. The school was built in 1926 by Wisconsin Steel Corporation as an elementary and high school for the children of the Benham coal camp. The last high school class graduated in 1961, but the building continued to be used as an elementary school until 1992.
In 1995, the school was converted into a warm 30-guest-room mountain inn, managed by the Kentucky Department of Parks. Staying true to its school house roots, lockers still line the halls, and some of the rooms have the same wood floors on which students once learned their ABC’S There are double rooms, and single and double suites. Rates ($) are per room, which easily accommodate 2 adults and 2 children, and cribs and rollaways are available. The Inn’s Apple Room, a full service restaurant, features daily regional favorites that include such fun items as: Teacher’s Pet Hamburger, Varsity Club Sandwich, the Webster Chef Salad, and School House Quesadilla.
Day 6-Exploring Country Music
Heading back to the airport, on I-75 (exit 62), leave time to stop at Renfro Valley or “Kentucky’s Country Music Capital.” Pop into the Bitter Sweet Cabin Museum (800/252-6685) for a look at Appalachian architecture on the Kentucky frontier. Stroll through the General Store, the Cobbler’s Shop, the Blacksmith and Tin Shop, and Theatre, and you can press the talk buttons for more information. A general admission is charged, children under 10 are free, and there’s a discount admission for seniors.
Take a tour of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum (877/356-3263) showcasing a music heritage, from gospel to rock, that Kentuckians have made famous. The museum hosts memorabilia from such legendary greats as Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, the Everly Brothers, the Judds, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yokum, to Rosemary Clooney and Count Basie. There’s a sound studio where you can make your own recording, a story center for the youngsters, a collection of dulcimers (Kentucky’s official instrument) and other fun interactive stations. A general admission is charged, children under 6 are free and there’s a discount admission for seniors.
If you choose to stay overnight, check in to the National Heritage Inn and Suites (877/256-8600) where rooms (many adjoining) are new and comfortable, and there’s a heated pool and spa, as well as a free hot Breakfast Bar. The Inn is reasonably priced ($) and children under 18 stay free with an adult.
In the evening enjoy a family boarding house-style dinner at the Valley Restaurant serving good country cooking, and then attend a performance of traditional country, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, blues, opera or family comedy on the main stage of the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center (800/765-7464). Everyone is guaranteed to leave with a song and a smile. Call for a complete list of shows.
If your visit takes place during the glorious leaf changing season, plan to stop in Paintsville for the annual Kentucky Apple Festival of Johnson County, held on the first Saturday of every October. The kids can take a ride on a train pulled by Thomas, and enjoy events such as the Mini Apple Parade and the Little Apple Bowl, attend music concerts, and participate in square dancing and karaoke. To top it off, there are Little Miss, Junior Miss and Miss Apple Blossom pageants.
Whether it’s mingling with nature or reliving the past or enjoying old-fashioned fun, there’s more to do than a family could ever visit at one time. This leaves a reason to go back, which you surely will.
As half the fun will be planning and researching the journey, be sure and send ahead for detailed maps, photos and brochures, so that everyone in the family can visualize the adventure that lies ahead. The Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association (SEKTDA) (877/TOUR-SEKY) will be delighted to accommodate you with all the information you require.
If you plan to fly into Kentucky, you’ll find USAir to be on-time, comfortable and family-friendly for your flight into Lexington Blue Grass Airport. When purchasing your tickets remember to book a rental vehicle so that it will be waiting for you on arrival. When all plans are in place and the preparations are set, get ready to share some treasured family moments.
Photos by Mel Greenberg
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.