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Kentucky: My Trip to The Beautiful Bluegrass and Appalachian Mountains
In 2012 I took the best vacation of my life. Kentucky is an amazing state to visit as it has something to offer everyone, young and old alike. Kentucky is the horse capital of the world. The Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville every year and the world-renowned Kentucky Horse Park is housed outside of Lexington. The local landscape is graced with row upon row of white fence and pastures filled with horses of every breed. It is simply gorgeous with its hills and mountains, lush green landscape, and temperate climate. Southern hospitality abounds from the big city to the small mountain communities, where you will find historical landmarks and stories, delicious barbecue, bluegrass and the soothing lull of the sweet southern dialect.
Before leaving on my trip, I did not know how lovely Kentucky was. I was born and raised in South Central Wisconsin, and was used to seeing low lying hills and valleys, green landscapes and prairie flowers. I considered myself a country girl since I grew up in a tiny little town surrounded by farmland. My grandfather raised Arabian horses before I was born, and later kept Texas Longhorns, Brahma Bulls and Guinea fowl for a hobby. My dad taught me how to fish when I was five years old and I spent hours roaming the small forest behind my childhood home looking for bugs and small animals. I had it made and I thought for sure my heart belonged right where it had been my entire life. Was I wrong! I had quite the awakening on this trip…
My daughter Kathrynn is going to be a Senior in High School and my gift to her before she begins this important year was a trip to Kentucky. Yes, a trip to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. My grandfather raised Arabian horses, so I grew up spending many days on the farm. My daughter has always been drawn to these strong, majestic creatures, and now she spends her weekends working on a horse farm. I am sure you can understand our excitement then, to venture south to this area.
Our trip started off early on a Thursday morning. Kathrynn was tired and fell asleep right away while I was listening to some great music, excited for the adventure that lie ahead. Within an hour we hit the Wisconsin-Illinois border. Yes!!! One hour and one state down! Within four hours we arrived at Chaimpaign, IL. I took the Neil Street exit and pulled into the parking lot at Panera Bread for a quick sandwich and a break to stretch my legs. We got back on the road and shortly after, crossed into Indiana and drove south around Indianapolis. Halfway there! Soon enough on the horizon I saw the bridge that was to take us across the Kentucky River into Louisville. As we arrived at the bridge I peered across the way and my jaw literally dropped. The sparkling water and shoreline dotted with boats contrasted with the towering skyline. It was breathtaking. I had to compose myself and focus on my driving. My exit was right there at the top of the bridge, and the road dropped nearly straight down into a sharp turn. We drove through some hills and under a stone bridge. I looked up to see towering cliffs on either side of the road and was a little worried when I saw the signs for falling rocks. We made it through safe and sound. The drive was stunning. I felt like we were driving in small mountains (I later realized to Kentuckians, these were only hills) and traffic moved along at eighty miles per hour. It was so hard for me to focus on the road ahead when there was so much beauty everywhere I looked!
Within two hours we arrived in Richmond and checked into our hotel. The hotel staff were of course, pleasant, and the sound of the southern drawl was like music to my ears. Richmond is a small town of over 30,000 and is home to a new mall and cinema, multiple specialty stores, grocery stores, and many local bars and restaurants. It is also home to Eastern Kentucky University. Visitors can walk through the downtown area on a self-guided tour of historic homes; maps are available at the local visitors center. While it was too late for a tour of the historic homes, we ventured into Richmond and did some shopping, and grabbed some dinner. Back at the hotel room, I opened up my Kentucky tour books and began scouring the pages I had been reviewing for a few weeks. So much to do and so little time!
Although Louisville is home to so many wonderful things, including the Louisville Slugger Museum, we passed it over on this first trip in favor of spending time with horses. I had decided the next morning we would check out the Kentucky Horse Park. This was a good choice. The Kentucky Horse Park is situated on 1200 acres and is home to over thirty-five different breeds of horses. It contains gift shops, a museum, and a visitors center where guests purchase tickets and pick up free maps of the park. After making some purchases at the gift shop, we attended two shows; Horses of the World and the Hall of Champions. Both were very interesting, entertaining and fun. Horses of the World showcases several different breeds of horses. The riders bring each selected breed into the ring, in costume, and put them through their paces. The announcer discusses the type of breeds and some of their characteristics. There were plenty of opportunities to get great pictures during the show. After the show, we were able to walk back to the stalls and meet the horses and their riders.
The Hall of Champions is the up-close and personal way to meet the famous horses of the racetrack and the show ring. Funny Cide and Cigar are among the legendary horses introduced during this 30 minute show. Each champion is preceded by a recap of historic winning events. The horses are then brought into the ring and visitors are allowed to take pictures and ask questions. We thoroughly enjoyed the show.
In between shows, a particular horse caught our eye. He was huge! The park staff was kind enough to bring him out and let us take pictures with him before he retired for his evening dinner and nap. LJ stands at over 19 hands high. He is currently the largest horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. He has the most gentle disposition and appears to be very curious about park visitors. According to the Park staff, LJ is very very popular with visitors. We can certainly understand why!
Before leaving, we stopped at the American Saddlebred Museum (ASB) gallery and gift shop. The ASB features various pictures, costumes, and articles showcasing the rich history of the American Saddlebred. For us, it was like taking a step back in time as we viewed artifacts and trophies of times past. Unfortunately during our trip to the Horse Park, we did not catch the daily film, The Reign of Nobility. This short film, narrated by William Shatner, depicts the history of the horse. There were also a few barns, and restaurant onsite that we did not have time to see, so we will be going back.
The following morning, we got up early and drove through eastern Kentucky into the Appalachian Mountains. The drive was gorgeous, as we took the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. Our destination was Van Lear, located in Johnson County, Kentucky. Van Lear is a small mining town and is also the birthplace of Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. It is also home to the Coal Miners’ Museum, administered by the Van Lear Historical Society. This particular weekend was dedicated to Van Lear Days. The entire town and nearby locals gather in the tiny community annually on the first weekend in August. Good food and live music were available to all. We tried the barbeque chicken, which was very tasty, and Kathrynn later purchased a funnel cake; naturally delightful. The museum hosted a special group of guests this year. The crew from Call of the Wildman were all in attendance - Jake, Squirrel, Neal, Farmer Ron and Ernie Brown Jr. were available for autographs and pictures all day. Eleven thousand fans turned out to see the popular team. We stood in line for ten hours to see them, and it was definitely worth the wait. They were very friendly and made special time for each fan. After we got to spend some time with the Turtle Team, we drove to Paintsville to find a hotel. All of our things were at our hotel in Richmond, as we did not expect to be in Van Lear so late. Driving back to Richmond in the mountains is not safe at night and the Mountain Parkway is not lit. We checked into a tiny hotel and got a few hours of sleep before driving back to Richmond the next morning.
When we arrived back in Richmond the following morning we had to change our clothes and put on our riding boots. I then drove a few miles north to Deer Run Stable. Located just outside of Richmond, this lovely stable is nestled among the hills and located on some of the areas most beautiful property. Our tour guide, Jack Ott, led us through the countryside for an hour-long, very relaxing trail ride. On the property were a pre-civil war graveyard and an old abandoned tobacco shed. The staff were so friendly and made us both feel right at home. Deer Run offers lessons, and trail rides. I highly recommend this stable and we will be going back again in the future.
That evening, we met some friends for dinner at a local restaurant, Logans Roadhouse. The food was good; the menu featured mostly steak and shrimp. The atmosphere reminded me a lot of Texas Roadhouse, a Wisconsin favorite. We finished off our dinner with rich desserts. The staff at this particular location were very attentive and helpful.
The next morning we packed up our things and loaded up the car. After leaving Richmond I stopped in Frankfort at the Buffalo Trace Distillery for a tour. Buffalo Trace has been making burbon for two hundred years. During prohibition, this distillery obtained a government permit to contiune operations for medicinal purposes. Today, the worlds most decorated distillery runs its operations on one hundred-thirty acres in century old buildings among beautifully designed landscapes. At the gift shop visitors can purchase the Kentucky straight Bourbon Whiskey, novelty items, and can even check out the bar area behind the gift shop to try some free samples. Various tours are given, and the basic tour is offered hourly, on the hour. Visitors can go behind the scenes to learn how bourbon is made, and can even watch as the bourbon is bottled and packaged for sale. I highly recommend a stop at this landmark, as it is very rich with history.
After driving for just over ten hours, we made it home, safe and sound, and very tired. Overall we really enjoyed our trip to Kentucky. We barely scratched the surface of the number of sites to visit and things to do. Kentucky is rich in history, from the Civil War to local artist shops, parks and historical landmarks. It is breathtaking to drive through and the locals are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. I will hold this lovely place in my heart for a long time to come, and I will definitely be visiting there as often as I can.