The 12 Best State Parks in Kentucky

A tree on a rocky outcrop during sunset at Natural Bridge State Park, Kentucky
TheDman / Getty Images

From the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Land Between the Lakes in the west, the well-managed state parks in Kentucky are among the best in the country. Many are held in high acclaim for their incredible offerings that keep visitors returning year after year.

Kentucky has 45 state parks, 17 designated as state “resort” parks—more than any other state. Many resort parks have cozy lodges constructed with heavy wooden beams, stone fireplaces, and landscape views. Along with the usual recreational activities such as hiking, birding, camping, and kayaking, some of Kentucky’s state parks entertain visitors with outdoor amphitheaters, top-ranked golf courses, and living history.

01 of 12

Natural Bridge State Resort Park

Photo beneath sandstone Natural Bridge at Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky

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Natural Bridge State Park is as celebrated by Kentuckians as it is by out-of-state visitors. The 2,300-acre nature preserve is one of the most accessible ways to experience the beauty within Daniel Boone National Forest. The nearby Red River Gorge is better for rock climbing and a “wilder” experience, while Natural Bridge State Park offers a slightly more curated experience. The state park gets its name from Natural Bridge, an impressive sandstone arch that stands 65 feet high and 78 feet long. Trail #1 (the “Original Trail”) climbs 0.75 miles directly to the bridge, but a network of nine other trails can be hiked in the area.

Other nearby attractions include a skylift, via ferrata, ziplines, and paddleboarding through a flooded mine. For accommodations, you can stay in Hemlock Lodge (the state-run lodge) or choose from among numerous campgrounds and cabin rentals within the park.

2135 Natural Bridge Rd, Slade, KY 40376, USA
Phone +1 606-663-2214
02 of 12

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park

Waterfall at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky

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Also located within Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls is the second-largest waterfall east of the Rockies. An extensive trail system provides views of the 68-foot-tall waterfall from various places. Crossing the river gets hikers up close to the 44-foot-tall Eagle Falls and provides different viewpoints. Cumberland Falls is one of the very few places in the world that consistently produces a lunar rainbow (aka “moonbow”) on full-moon nights; a crowd often gathers to witness the rare natural phenomenon.

DuPont Lodge at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is loved for its views, cozy stone fireplaces, and old-lodge feel. Although less luxurious than the lodge, two campgrounds in the state park stay busy. Whitewater rafting and kayak or canoe rentals are available from nearby Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort. Aspiring equestrians can sign up for guided trail rides.

7351 KY-90, Corbin, KY 40701, USA
Phone +1 606-528-4121
03 of 12

Fort Boonesborough State Park

Cabins at Fort Boonesborough State Park in Kentucky

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Frontiersman Daniel Boone and his party established Fort Boonesborough on the banks of the Kentucky River in 1775. The fortified settlement grew into an important way station for early pioneers, and later, it was successfully defended during the Revolutionary War. The original fort may be gone, but a mostly accurate replica entertains and educates all who decide to stop for a visit. A blacksmith’s hammer rings out while people wander around to get a glimpse of pioneer life inside the working replica fort. Living historians work in roles such as blacksmiths and weavers while sharing stories about the perils and pleasures of life on the frontier.

Other family entertainment includes a swimming pool, picnic areas, and miniature golf. Fort Boonesborough is also an excellent place to launch a canoe or kayak and go paddling through the towering cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades.

4375 Boonesboro Rd, Richmond, KY 40475, USA
Phone +1 859-527-3131
04 of 12

My Old Kentucky Home State Park

Exterior shot of Federal Hill (My Old Kentucky Home) in Bardstown, Kentucky

Kirkikis / Getty Images

Located in Bardstown, Federal Hill was a manor and 1,200-acre plantation owned by John Rowan, a U.S. senator. Composer Stephen Foster is thought to have received inspiration there for his ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” that eventually became Kentucky’s state song. “The Stephen Foster Story” has been seasonally performed in an outdoor amphitheater within the state park since 1958.

With 11 distilleries nearby, Bardstown is prominently positioned on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Visitors often include a tour of the Federal Hill mansion while exploring the historic region. Along with seeing art, décor, and antiques inside the impressive estate, guests can also stroll the grounds and gardens. My Old Kentucky Home State Park is also home to an 18-hole golf course and campground.

501 E Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004, USA
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05 of 12

Old Fort Harrod State Park

Cabins at Old Fort Harrod in Harrodsburg, Kentucky

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Much like Fort Boonesborough, Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg is home to a replica fort where living historians explain what daily life may have looked like on the frontier in the 18th century. The small fort is a replica of the one built by James Harrod in 1774, the first American settlement in Kentucky. Outside the fort walls is the Mansion Museum, where visitors can view Civil War artifacts and Lincoln memorabilia. An impressive federal monument to George Rogers Clark and the oldest cemetery west of the Alleghenies are also in the park.

Old Fort Harrod State Park comprises 15 acres and doesn’t take long to explore. Its location on U.S. Route 68 (Harrodsburg Road from Lexington) is perfect for a scenic road trip that includes the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

100 S College St, Harrodsburg, KY 40330-0156, USA
Phone +1 859-734-3314
06 of 12

Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site

A cannon overlooking Perryville Battlefield in Kentucky

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Perryville Battlefield, one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the United States, is less than a two-hour drive south of Lexington. The Battle of Perryville on Oct. 8, 1862, was a bloody one that led to the Confederate force's withdrawal from Kentucky for the remainder of the war. Visitors to Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site can wander the battlefield along more than 19 miles of trails; most are simply mowed pathways. Interpretive signs denote places where significant events occurred during the battle. Perryville Battlefield is also home to a small-but-informative museum and has several monuments to the fallen on both sides. The annual reenactment (usually in October) is an exciting event with working cannons, mounted cavalry skirmishes, and hundreds of troops.

1825 Battlefield Rd, Perryville, KY 40468-0296, USA
Phone +1 859-332-8631
07 of 12

Dale Hollow Lake State Resort

Photo over the water on a cloudy day at Dale Hollow Lake, Kentucky

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The biggest feature at Dale Hollow Lake State Resort is the impressive 28,000-acre lake and reservoir. Although most of Dale Hollow Lake is situated in Tennessee, a few arms reach across the border into Kentucky to provide some excellent opportunities for fishing and boating. Trails (often old logging roads) throughout the 3,400-acre state park are popular for birding, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Birders enjoy the eagles nesting around the lake in winter, and golfers enjoy the nationally ranked course in summer.

For accommodation, the Mary Rae Oaken Lodge has 60 guest rooms with private balconies, or you can book one of the 145 sites in the massive campground.

5970 State Park Rd, Burkesville, KY 42717, USA
Phone +1 270-433-7431
08 of 12

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site

A paved trail with a view of mammoth bones at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, Kentucky

Courtesy of Kentucky Department of Parks

Funny name, fascinating place! Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in Boone County is known as the “Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology” and was declared a National Natural Landmark. The salt lick and sulfur springs located there attracted prehistoric animals, many of which became stuck in the mud and perished. Scientists have discovered fossilized records from animals as large as mammoths and mastodons; they are displayed in a museum and outdoors. A paved, wheelchair-accessible trail (0.5 miles) meanders by recreated scenes of stuck animals. Longer hikes and even an orienteering course are available within the state park.

A herd of bison grazes and wanders around the state park—fortunately, they are kept away from the bog!

3380 Beaver Rd, Union, KY 41091-8433, USA
Phone +1 859-384-3522
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09 of 12

Carter Caves State Resort Park

Entrance sign at Carter Caves State Resort Park, Kentucky

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Kentucky is home to many impressive caves, and while Carter Caves State Resort Park may be on the opposite side of the state from Mammoth Cave National Park (the longest cave system in the world), it still boasts a high concentration of caves. As the name hints, visitors come to Carter Caves State Resort Park for the many cave tours, but there are plenty of activities to enjoy on the surface, too. Over 33 miles of hiking trails, a rock climbing area, birding, fishing, and guided paddling trips on Smoky Lake are popular. For family entertainment, gem mining, miniature golf, and playgrounds are available. Accommodation includes Fieldstone Lodge, 12 cottages, and 129 campsites (some are equestrian-friendly).

344 Caveland Dr, Olive Hill, KY 41164, USA
Phone +1 606-286-4411
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Lake Barkley State Resort Park

A lakeside trail at Lake Barkley, Kentucky / Getty Images

Lake Barkley State Resort Park occupies 3,700 acres of an area in Western Kentucky known as the “Land Between the Lakes.” The region is a paradise for boating and offers some of the best fishing in Kentucky, particularly for bass and crappie. Barkley Lodge provides lakeside accommodation and balconies with a view of the 57,920-acre lake. Pontoon and fishing boats can be rented.

Although views from the lodge are beautiful, there is no need to lounge around all day. Two large swimming pools (one is indoors), 6 miles of hiking trails, various sports areas, a fitness room, and an 18-hole golf course offer plenty of opportunities for exercise. Trapshooting is also available; shotguns and clay targets are included in the cost.

3500 State Park Rd, Cadiz, KY 42211, USA
Phone +1 270-924-1131
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Breaks Interstate Park

A bull elk at Breaks Interstate Park

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The "interstate" in Breaks Interstate Park isn't referring to the interstates cars drive on—it refers to a congressional interstate agreement between Kentucky and Virginia. The park is maintained through a collaborative effort by both states; only two parks with such an agreement exist in America. Jurisdictions aside, Breaks Interstate Park occupies a "break" of the Appalachian Mountains that offers stunning views of a canyon and the Russel Fork River. The popular lodge at Breaks Interstate Park encompasses four separate buildings, and rustic cottages and camping are also available on site. Visitors can hike, fish in nearby Laurel Lake, and join elk-spotting tours that boast a 100-percent success rate.

627 Commission Cir, Breaks, VA 24607, USA
Phone +1 276-865-4413
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Jenny Wiley State Resort Park

 Sunset photo of Dewey Lake at Jenny Wiley State Park, Kentucky

Patrick Jennings / Getty Images

Located in eastern Kentucky outside of Prestonsburg, Jenny Wiley State Resort Park is another great state park in Kentucky where visitors can experience the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can hike the 10 miles of trails, join elk tours, and fish in the pristine Dewey Lake. An outdoor theater entertains guests with performances, and an interpretive nature center teaches about flora and fauna in the surrounding area. Birding is popular at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, especially when warblers migrate. Bald eagles are also commonly spotted. May Lodge pleasantly overlooks the lake; two campgrounds are also available.

419 Jenny Wiley Dr, Prestonsburg, KY 41653, USA
Phone +1 606-889-1790
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The 12 Best State Parks in Kentucky