The Kingdom of Kentucky

By Ilona Kauremszky
Special to Niagara Life Magazine

Lexington, KY -- Around the stomping ground of Colonel Sanders, the revered Father of KFC, where the bluegrass is tall and the fans gather annually to watch the Kentucky Derby's fabled "Run for the Roses," spring some say is the best time to visit the Bluegrass State I have to agree.

With the heavy cloak of winter lifted off the slopes of the mountains, birds fly along the Appalachia migratory route passing the hills of Kentucky while herpetologists have a field day spotting slippery reptiles and the locals watch "wood smoke" disappear from the "cloud splitters," translation: the fog disappears around the mountains.

For ecolovers and urban dwellers, the wilderness refuge that covers Kentucky in "hollers" and "gaps" along with the warm hospitality of the "Mountain People" makes a perfect getaway bound to leave you gasping for more.

Across "Ken-tuck-kee," the Kentucky State Park System maintains more resort lodges than any other park system in the United States. Nestled along the majestic mountains overlooking deep blue lakes, 17 resorts are available for overnight accommodation including 32 campgrounds. In addition, nearly 50 state parks are easily accessible from the interstates such as the popular I-75 route. At the Red River Gorge Geological Area, which is a national natural landmark and part of the Daniel Boone National Forest there are over 60 miles of trails in the gorge ranging from short, easy hikes to extreme adventure trips in the backcountry.

As most activities are free and accommodations affordable, riding through the Bluegrass state just got easier. On a recent trip, I explored the inner bowels of the southeastern part, which is a spectacular four-hour drive south from the Derby's home base of Louisville. Here are some highlights:

Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Blasted through the Appalachia mountains, there was a lonely railroad company known as the L&N ready to unload the area's earliest tourists to God's country so they can gaze at the natural sandstone arches. That was 1895.

Since then, the train tracks are long gone. They've been replaced by a snazzy four-lane asphalt highway system called the Mountain Parkway that often reminds you of the skyward reaching roads of Provence but these have guard rails holding you back from the steep bends.

Still, vestiges of the old days linger. Wilson Francis, Park Superintendent of the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, reminds me that beneath my feet there's a tunnel under them. In 1895 the Louisville & Nashville Railroad bought the land around the Natural Bridge, opened a park with a ritzy hotel of the day, carting passengers via two round trips from Lexington to Jackson.

"There used to be a causeway where the trains would stop. People would cross the footbidge and pay six cents, then enter the park and hike around," he noted of the exclusive trip only accessible by the excursion train.

No longer six cents but like anywhere across Kentucky, the state park system is free. One of the best-kept secrets this side of the border where you can immerse and get lost in the wondrous beauty just like writer Henry Thoreau who loved to make hemlock tea which grows by leaps and bounds throughout the Red River Gorge Geological Area.

Called Hemlock Lodge, the stone building appears like a traditional rustic lodge from the "Leave It To Beaver Days" overlooking a kidney-shaped pool amid lush mountain scenery. The original lodge operated as a private resort until 1926 when the Kentucky State Park system was created and designated Natural Bridge as one of the state's first state parks. The state wanted to preserve this as a natural arena. It's grown from the 137 acres to 2250 acres.

Today, the Natural Bridge State Resort Park is considered the premier natural park in Kentucky and with good reason. Located in the midst of the Daniel Boone National Forest, with the exception of Utah, nowhere else in the United States can you venture to see the highest concentration of arches within a five-mile radius. There are over 200 of them.

"We're an island of state park in a big ocean of national forest land," beams Wilson about the region dubbed the Daniel Boone National Forest, a name President L.B. Johnson gave to honor Daniel Boone in 1966.

Among day visitors, a big draw is the rhodendrons coming into bloom around June and as Wilson says, "It's the prettiest time to come."

Led by park naturalist extraordinaire Zeb Weese, we traverse through the thick brush with speckled light beaming onto the undergrowth of orchids, irises and the rare whitehair golden rod which I learn only grows in this vicinity because of the steep cliff lines. "The difference in height is dramatic from top to bottom. Pure sandstone on the top is very acidic while the bottom has more lime so it's alkaline and everything is in between," Zeb notes.

A flaura paradise, over 1000 species of plants including 50 species of ferns inhabit mountaintops, hide between craggily cliffs and flourish on the soft pine needles covering the earth. Apart of the Appalachian Flyaway which is considered a major migratroy route for the Eastern US, the spring migration is flaring up and Zeb says is the best time to see the abundance of birds.

Ready to glide over the treetops, we shimmy inside the skylift for a birds' eye view of the green acres beneath our dangling feet. I glance backwards and spot the distance we've ridden. It feels like forever but really only a few minutes. Feet firmly entrenched on the smooth rock we've made it for the next leg.

After a quick hike, I'm standing on the edge of a rocky cliff and ahead the natural bridge arch appears in its full glory. Carved during the Ice Age when this region was a prehistoric ocean, Zeb explains how the sand deposited together grain by grain over millions of years created the ancient sandstone arch that spans 78 feet long and towers 65 feet high. The Mother of all arches, this weathered natural wonder stands like a sentinel watching over the other arches nearby.

Now wedged between a rock and a hardplace, parents clench their children tightly as they shift across the impossibly tight crevice. Turns out in Victorian times, this was a big draw as the ladies donning big sun hats, holding parosals would slowly shuffle in their corseted frames through the narrows to get to the other side. "We have 100 year old photos. It doesn't look any different," says Zeb but adds, "The only thing different is the trail. It's dropped two or three feet from all the hiking," as we amble on the original trail that cut a straight path back to the Hemlock Lodge.

For vacationers, 11 cabins and 35 lodge rooms along with two campgrounds are available for overnight stays at affordable prices. Camping overnight costs $22US per night and that includes water, electricity, flush toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities not to mention free reign of the park.

Kingdom Come State Park
Winding up the spiral road, we pass a road sign that says it all: "No point coming here cuz King Don Come."

Amid tham thar hills, there is a delightful patois of mountain dialects that sends a lyrical rhythm to the ears. These hearty folk, once coal miners and loggers who lived and died by the mountain, possess a generous spirit that reminds me of our own maritimers where the sea lives in their soul.

The "mountain people" as rural Kentuckians are called maintain a sense of humour even when it comes to driving up narrow switchback roads with steep inclines such as the road leading to the summit of Kingdom Come State Park.

Sharp overhangs of limestone pierce on both sides as we make the winding ascent. But the harrowing drive was worth it. Draped in a thick forest of pine, the rounded peak of Pine Mountain looms high as far as the eye can see. Pegged as the crowning jewel in the crest of Pine Mountain, Kingdom Come State Park looms 2,700 feet above sea level and occupies 1,283 acres of unspoiled wilderness. On a clear day, they say Virginia is in the horizon.

Situated in southeastern Kentucky, Pine Mountain is Kentucky's largest mountain by volume and spans 125 miles long. Her peak is legendary. The locals call it the Ravine Rock, a large rock formation in the middle of the park because it resembles a giant bird with its wings outstretched. Local legend says that when the pioneers arrived in the evening hours they saw the whole rock turn black from the number of ravines roosting.

In 1903, John Fox Junior, a legendary US author wrote "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come" chronicling a young man's personal conflict with the US Civil War. His first best seller sold over one-million copies and put this isolated paradise on the map. The park is named after the book.

Today, daytrippers can hike the 14 trails, picnic and snap unforgettable photos of the unspoiled nature like the hogbacks that are serrated patterns running along the face of the mountain and the dry gaps that once carried prehistoric streams but have long been dry. Some of the most extraordinary rock formations in the state are featured at this park.

There are free facilities and what Kentuckians call primitive camping, ie. no hook-ups but you get flush toilets, running water, lantern hook, bearproof garbage cans, fire pit, and picnic table. Price tag: $6 US/night. Come early as there are only four sites but Park Manager Rick Fuller says, "We never turn anyone away so we'll always find you a spot."

Reptile Zoo
The Reptile Zoo's Director Jim Harrison was rubbing the King Cobra's head when I first laid eyes on him. The 45-year-old former police officer was wrangling the long sinewy cold-blooded reptile and was mercifully plying the animal between his legs near his privates. The snake visibly irritated had its jaw widened and quickly excreted a thick milky liquid into Jim's plastic container.

"Ouch" I thought witnessing as Jim was extracting the venom, his umpteenth extraction of the day. But it turns out this Snake Man renegade has been performing this trickery since his days as an Ohio cop.

Sworn he's been clinically dead three times "the first time was when I was run over by a felon during my police officer days," he says coyly, Jim doesn't get bothered by the reptiles. He easily handles over 100 snakes a day and has a good track record despite the fatal near misses. And Jim claims in his 28 years of doing the extractions, he has only been bitten 15 times. The last time, his thumb got the brunt of the poison when a 15-foot long King Cobra bit him. Rushed to hospital, Jim needed a skin graft and today has trouble using the thumb as it bends inward. There's a picture of his war wound hanging inside his Tropical Room.

Appearing in a few National Geographic programs, these days Jim regulary can be seen inside one of his portable campers, which he calls his "rooms" on any given day. "I do this as a service. Nobody pays me," he says of his work that he says has been instrumental in AIDS, cancer and lupus research as well as in creating anti-venom vaccinations for the inflicted around the world.

I was lucky. I got a front seat insider's look at the mastery behind this skill as I stood shaking like a leaf outside his camper, carefully observing the potentially life-threatening exercise a foot away.

In Kentucky, loads of snakes ford through the craggily cliff tops and lie low in high brush, coiled up like a gardenhose. Only two poisonous snakes, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead, call Kentucky home but it's good to know what to do when you spot one. "Stay away from them," advises Jim and reassures me that it's almost impossible to come near one.

Over 1,500 snakes including King Cobras, Black Mambas, Saw-scaled Vipers, and Mojave Rattlesnakes lie lazily behind bars and cages at the Reptile Zoo. After rummaging through the countless campers with names like Rattlesnake Room, and the Offroom for a look at the venomous Gila Monster, a razor sharp toothed lizard, one of only two venomous lizards in the world, I was ready to enter the "Giants Room."

"Are these poisonous snakes?" I ask as we inch inside the hot climate controlled camper that only houses coffin long cages with thick bars a handspan apart. A little too close for this girl I thought. But not too close for a little kid who was crouched real low, eying the neon white thick snake known as the Albino Python.

"No," replies Chris Bower, our guide and adds "anything bigger than the longest venomous snake, which is the King Cobra at 18 feet, isn't venomous."

"Thanks a lot," I gasp in relief and think how this part of the Kingdom is done.

-30-

photos: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

The Kentucky Derby 131 is scheduled on May 7, 2005. For additional Derby information contact Churchill Downs at (502) 636-4400 or www.kyderby.com www.kyderby.com

For more travel information on SE Kentucky, visit the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association's web site at www.tourseky.com www.tourseky.com or call 1.877.TOURSEKY

Natural Bridge State Park information visit www.parks.ky.gov/natbridg.htm or call toll-free 1-800-325-1710. Hemlock Lodge is 138 miles from Louisville.Campgrounds $12.00 for primitive site/ $20.00 for improved site (Based upon 2 adults)

Kingdom Come State Park information, visit www.kingdomcome.org

The Reptile Zoo is located at 200 L&N Railroad, Slade, KY 40376. Hours: Daily from 11 to 6 Memorial Day to Labor Day. For more information call 606-663-9160.


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