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Spotlight: Whitley County/Cumberland Falls

Discover the forest primeval in Kentucky’s beautiful wilderness

When Daniel Boone blazed his lonesome westward trail over the mighty Appalachians and across the scenic Cumberland Gap in the latter half of the 18th century, he reported a landscape full of thick, dense and incredibly diverse forests. Towering oaks, cedars, pines and sycamores thrived side by side, choking out the sun with canopies as thick and lush as an Amazonian rainforest.

Experts think that these types of forests once covered as much as 24 million acres in present-day Kentucky, a state of 26 million acres total. Three hundred years later and the cumulative costs of exploration, homesteading and industrialization have taken their toll. The forests have faded away. Their old-growth and virgin timber has disappeared almost completely from the Bluegrass State.

Luckily there are still a handful of places where visitors can explore the very same ancient forests that Daniel Boone experienced on his westward adventure through this incredible countryside, and Whitley County serves as the region’s best gateway for that exploration.

Getty Images/Hemera

Getty Images/Hemera

Forest Primeval

The county itself is draped across the Cumberland Mountains and houses a large swath of Daniel Boone National Forest, where the last remnants of Kentucky’s prehistoric and incredibly diverse forests still proudly stand. Because of its mostly wild and all-natural terrain, the county is a popular spot for adventure-seekers, backcountry campers and wildlife photographers.

The Pottsville Escarpment—a craggy line of sandstone cliffs and valleys that form the region’s transition from rocky mountains to rolling foothills—carves its way through the county, producing a landscape that’s positively packed with dramatic natural features like tumbling waterfalls and massive stone arches. An endless supply of well-marked and well-maintained hiking trails snake their way through the forest, and myriad streams and rivers make it easy to explore the forest’s 2 million acres by kayak or canoe.

The Red River Gorge Geological Area is a particularly gorgeous portion of the forest. The gorge is renowned for its abundance of archeological dig sites and prehistoric rock shelters, believed to have once been used by nomadic ice age hunters following herds of mastodons and wooly mammoths. If you’re short on time or not up for an overnight, rustic camping experience, hop on the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway and explore the area’s highlights from the comfort of your recreational vehicle. Don’t miss the Gladie Historic Site (a historic logging camp) and the Nada Tunnel (an old steam train passageway).

The undisputed star of the show in Whitley County is, without a doubt, Cumberland Falls. Set within Daniel Boone National Forest itself, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is home to what locals affectionately refer to as “Niagara of the South.”

With a wide rock shelf more than 250 million years old, the Cumberland River tumbles over a horseshoe-shaped drop and plummets 65 feet into a large open river basin. At its seasonal peak (when the river is in “flood” status), the width of the falls stretch to upwards of 300 feet, but even at the river’s lowest point the falls span a 125-foot half-circle.

Near the falls, the park also houses a Native American museum, which tells the story of the region’s earliest inhabitants through a mix of displays, exhibits, special programs and original artifacts. If you’re traveling with small children, you’ll want to grab a fossil bag from the Cumberland Falls Mining Company. Guests can rinse, sift and clean their bag of fossils at the gemstone flume to reveal their bag’s hidden treasure.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cumberland on Foot

Once you’re done ogling the state’s most scenic natural attraction and exploring the region’s incredible prehistoric history, the park offers lots of opportunities for hiking, camping and fishing. More than 17 miles of marked trails wind their way around the falls area, and more than 50 campsites with full electrical hookups are available for use, while anglers can cast their lures into the Cumberland River, hoping to snag some hefty bass, catfish, panfish and roughfish.

For a unique exploration of the park, saddle up on horseback or buckle into a river raft. The park organizes both guided trail rides and guided rafting expeditions for guests of all ages. Tours are weather-dependent and rafting trips are at the mercy of water levels on the Cumberland River, but otherwise guided outings run from May to September and October yearly.

There are no two ways about it. If you’re searching for a quiet, relaxing area to explore to your heart’s content, Whitley County is an ideal slice of Kentucky to set your sights on. The fact that it’s loaded with old-growth forests and some of the same terrain navigated by legends like Daniel Boone is merely icing on the cake.

For More Information

Whitley County Tourism
Kentucky Department of Travel