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Cave City to Cumberland Gap via Cumberland Falls
From underground caves to mountains requiring gaps to get through, and from unique waterfalls to the home of a unique blend of herbs and spices, southern Kentucky offers plenty to explore. On our “Caves to Cumberland” tour, we enjoy a national park with the world’s largest cave system, and then everything named “Cumberland”: a lake system along the Cumberland River, the impressive Cumberland Falls and its unique “moonbow,” and finally Cumberland Gap National Historic Park – where Kentucky meets Tennessee and Virginia at one of the most beautiful state corners you’ll ever see. There’s even an historic stop in Corbin to try chicken at Colonel Sanders’ original restaurant. Let’s check it out!
Start the tour in Kentucky’s “Cave Country,” in Cave City along I-65. There is as much to do underground here as above ground. Plenty of lakes and rivers amidst the hilly setting makes for tremendous fishing, boating, canoeing, and water recreation but all the caves that truly set this area apart.
I-65 is the main road through the area and three main exits lead to all the attractions: Exit 48 (Park City), Exit 53 (Cave City itself), and Exit 58 (Horse Cave). Just off Exit 53 in Cave City you’ll find the Best Western Kentucky Inn, convenient to everything in the area.
Let’s start with everything off I-65’s Exit 48. First up, just a few miles off the interstate via KY Highway 255 is Diamond Caverns, a place experienced with giving tours: they’ve been doing it since it was discovered back in 1859. Drapery deposits line the walls with thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone deposits throughout. A lighting system and modern concrete trails give this old cave newer dazzle and comfort as you do the one hour tour; their gift shop also has a pretty nice selection of rocks and minerals, fossils, and books.
From Diamond Caverns, continue north on KY 255 to KY 70 into the South Entrance of Mammoth Cave National Park. Home to the longest cave system in the world – nearly 400 miles total – it is a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve spreading across nearly 53,000 acres. The Visitor Center was redeveloped in 2012 and offers terrific exhibits on the cave system with the latest in environmentally-friendly construction including bamboo counters.
Mammoth Cave offers a number of tours through the complexity, including a "Wild Cave Tour" spelunking adventure through miles of tunnels (not recommended for claustrophobes). Experience tours carrying a paraffin lamp, or bask in the glow of electric lights illuminating features with names like Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man’s Misery (yes, really). Some tours even let you crawl through tight and muddy spaces, so there’s something for everyone.
Other caves and attractions abound. Once you’re finished ambling around Mammoth Cave National Park, head east on KY Highway 70 toward Cave City. You’ll find Dinosaur World, with 20 acres of life-sized dinosaurs, suitable for climbing, pictures, and selfies. They also have fossil digs as part of their “prehistoric museum.”
Closer to I-65 Onyx Cave provides entertainment and exploration with a 30-minute underground cave tour. Across the road – with a very pretty view on the countryside – is Kentucky Action Park & the Jesse James Riding Stables with a plethora of things to do: bumper cars, go-karts, a chairlift, rock wall, mini-golf, zipline, alpine slide, and you can even ride horses on 500 acres of trails Jesse James once roamed (legend has it, anyway).
What is now Cave City was acquired in 1853 by four men from Louisville who recognized the area’s potential due to proximity to Mammoth Cave. Today it has proximity to three Ziplines within five miles of town, making it the “Zip Line Capital of Kentucky” as well as its cave capital. Downtown has quite a few antique stores; other antique stores and rock and gem shops are scattered across the area.
Quirky places like Big Mike’s Mystery House, Rock & Gift Shop offer a variety of rocks and other gift shop items, but the “Mystery House” has things that – according to them – will baffle your mind, including a mosasaur fossil they call “Big Mo.” Also in Cave City along Happy Valley Street the Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum specializes in showing rare and exotic animals from snow leopards to rare insects, aquatic life, and birds, all housed in as natural an environment as you can get when you’re not out in the wild.
Off I-65’s Exit 58 five miles north of Cave City into Horse Cave you can check out Kentucky Down Under, which brings you to Australia with interactive exhibits and live animals including kangaroos and lorikeets. Kentucky Caverns and historic Mammoth Onyx Cave (it was discovered in 1799 and is loaded with stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations) are also available for tours.
While you can mine for gems, Mammoth Onyx Cave is quite a gem in itself. Not to be outdone by the other caves, the Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum offers several options for tours of this underground labyrinth featuring two subterranean rivers flowing over 100 feet below ground. Included is a turn-of-the-century hydroelectric generating system that once supplied the town above with water and power. Options include a guided cave tour, an "adventure tour," and a zip and rappel challenge – it all depends on how active you want to be.
From this crazy area filled with caves, let’s head across Kentucky’s southern tier and find even more cool stuff. Follow KY Highway 90 southeast around 20 miles through what’s known as the “Barrens,” a region of historic grasslands in an area usually filled with Kentucky forests. The Barren River feeds and drains this area, including the Barren County seat of Glasgow, a town of 15,000. As its name implies, Glasgow has Scottish heritage, and celebrates it with vigor. The city hosts one of the most popular Scottish Highland Games in the United States, usually in late May.
Downtown Glasgow features the historic Plaza Theatre, a restored former vaudeville and movie house that opened in 1934. The 2005 restoration preserved almost all of the original look and feel; even the seats are original with just the covers replaced. Today audiences exceeding 1,000 can enjoy concerts, movies, and other live performances there. For more culture, the South Central Kentucky Cultural Center uses a former pants factory to showcase the area’s history and culture, with exhibits on the area dating back to the 12,000 BC, up through old planes and automobiles. Sections on the military and old maps are impressive, and reconstructions of old log cabins, school houses, doctor’s offices, and more make this an interesting stop.
For pioneer buffs, a cool stop near downtown Glasgow is the site of Fort William, established in 1785 and housed one of the earliest stone taverns in Kentucky: the Eight Mile House. The fort was designed to help protect today’s Louisville from Native American attacks prior to playing a role in the Civil War; the signs and old buildings give you a strong sense of the history.
The city was established in 1799 and a number of homes dating back to the early 1800s remain in Glasgow, especially in the historic area on South Green Street. Many include features reminiscent of Glasgow’s days as a key stop on the Underground Railroad, such as tunnels and rooms to help hide and keep escaping slaves safe. Although most of the homes are privately-owned, some are open for tours.
From Glasgow’s center, follow KY Highway 90 and jump eastbound on the Louie B. Nunn Cumberland Parkway, one of nine parkways Kentucky built in the 1960s to help make it easier to get through parts of the state. Built to Interstate standards, they were toll roads when first opened but became free when the tolls paid off the original construction bonds.
From Glasgow (Exit 14), head east through the rolling hills into Adair County to Columbia (Exit 49), where the Best Western Columbia Inn offers a nice stop amidst the rural Kentucky landscape. Columbia features the beautiful Adair County Courthouse, squeezed into the narrow downtown square. Columbia is home to Lindsey Wilson College, a four-year liberal arts school on a 200-acre hilltop campus in town. The 2,700 students (in a town of under 5,000) make Columbia quite a college town. Columbia also has good access to Green River Lake (see the side trip below) and Cumberland Lake (coming up later in this Tour).
Side Trip: Campbellsville
A brief drive north from Columbia on KY Highway 55 brings you to Green River Lake State Park, which offers nearly two square miles of recreational fun around Green River Lake. Along with great fishing, the park offers a marina, a beach, even an 18-hole mini-golf course. An outfit there, Bruce’s Boards, even lets you rent paddleboards for milling around. The Green River Lake – US Army Corps of Engineers Visitor Center is located near the dam, featuring exhibits on area Native American artifacts, water safety, and an aquarium; there are even live turtles. Nearby, the Atkinson-Griffin Log House offers history in the form of a log home built in 1840; during the Civil War it served as a hospital and original bloodstains remain (hospitals were quite different back then). In the vicinity, Tebbs End Battlefield is a Civil War battle site and can be viewed on a three-mile drive tour that begins in the park.
Just beyond the park you reach Campbellsville, a pleasant city of 10,000 with a bustling historic Main Street known as the Campbellsville Historic Commercial District. Architecture buffs will love the Italianate and Romanesque styles along several blocks; some structures like the Merchant Tower stand out as a former hotel with unique design. Since Campbellsville is a regional retail center and a college town, the shops downtown do brisk business and offer everything from boutique clothing to jewelry and from sporting goods to day spas.
Murals and historic markers showcase items of note such as the town’s location along the old Cumberland Trace route to Nashville and the burning of its original courthouse during the Civil War. It’s worth noting that many areas in Kentucky are “dry” in the sense you cannot drink alcoholic beverages in many restaurants; Campbellsville has fewer of those restrictions (the local tourism commission even refers to Campbellsville as a “moist” town) and quite a few restaurants. Campbellsville University is what makes this a college town, adding 3,200 students to the mix. Like nearby Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, their athletic teams – the Tigers – play in the Mid-South Conference and the two schools naturally have a bit of a rivalry. The Best Western Campbellsville Inn is just east of downtown along KY 55/U.S. 68 (Broadway) if you want to settle in for the night while enjoying this part of the side Tour.
From Campbellsville, head back south on KY 55 about 30 miles through Columbia to the Louie Nunn Cumberland Parkway, and head east.
From Columbia, continue east on the Louie Nunn Cumberland Parkway, heading through some beautiful countryside and imposing inclines and declines; all around are Knobs, hills peaking between 1,200 and 1,800 feet that make for a beautiful landscape. At Exit 78 (KY 80), you can head southeast a few miles to Nancy for a look at Civil War history at the Mill Springs Battlefield Site & Museum. Fought back when the area was called Logan’s Crossroads in January, 1862, over 200 soldiers died in a fierce battle considered one of the first significant victories for Union forces. The Mill Springs National Cemetery on the grounds was one of the original 12 National Cemeteries when it opened in 1867. The Mill Springs Battlefield Visitor Center & Museum chronicles the battle, offers overlooks to the fields, and is the starting point for an optional 10-stop driving tour to view the battle sites, cemetery, and some historic homes from the era.
Whether following KY 80 east or the Louie Nunn Cumberland Parkway east, next up is Somerset, a city of 12,000 that became a recreation and tourism-minded town when Lake Cumberland opened nearby in 1950. Lake Cumberland is a large, long (over 100 miles long) dammed expansion of the Cumberland River with over 1,200 miles of shoreline; it’s one of the ten largest reservoirs in the nation and has helped spawn boating and even houseboat manufacturing in the area. In town, SomerSplash Waterpark offers water rides, wave pools, and other aquatic fun without the ride to the lake. U.S. 27 is the main north-south route through the city, and the commercial strip along it makes for the state’s longest stretch of businesses outside Louisville and Lexington. Along this stretch, you’ll find the Best Western Mid-Town Inn & Suites as well as plenty of places to eat, shop, and play.
Trivia: There is enough water in Lake Cumberland to cover all of Kentucky with approximately three inches of water.
Agritourism is starting to boom in this area, with a series of farms and wineries open to visitors. Places like Cedar Creek Vineyards and Sinking Valley Vineyard & Winery offer tours, samples, and a relaxing environment with nice views of the Kentucky hills. Working farms in the area also offer tours and fresh fruits and vegetables directly from their land. Check with the hotel for all the details!
Somerset is officially recognized as the “Car Cruise Capital of Kentucky” and the last Saturday of each month from April through October features the cleverly-named “Somernites Cruise” through the main streets of town. It’s one of the largest monthly classic car shows in the Southeast; often over 1,100 classic cars per month participate and they draw from far and wide. So if you have four-on-the-floor or a flathead, try to hit Somerset the final weekend of the month.
Along with the street cruises and other events in Somerset, racing fans can enjoy dirt rack action just south of town at Lake Cumberland Speedway in nearby Burnside. A 3/8-mile dirt oval, the track hosts a variety of races from March through October on Saturday nights. If you just want to catch a flick from your car, the 27 Drive-In along U.S. 27 gives you the opportunity to enjoy a throwback drive-in movie theater experience; there aren’t many of these left!
On to the Falls with the “Moonbow”…
From Somerset, head south on U.S. 27. KY Highway 90 joins for the ride through Burnside and into the Daniel Boone National Forest, where plenty of rugged beauty awaits, including one with a unique quality. Over the river and through the woods, following KY Highway 90 west from U.S. 27 at Parkers Lake, you’ll find the majestic Cumberland Falls, famous for its unusual “moonbow.” Known as the “Niagara Falls of the South” and the centerpiece of Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, this 68-foot high and 125-foot long waterfall along the Cumberland River roars in your ears and, at night, can amaze your eyes. Under a full moon on clear nights, the mist generated from the power of 3,600 cubic feet of water per second can generate an unusual sight – a “moonbow.” Generally an arch of white light to the eye that can actually show up as rainbow colors in long exposure photographs (your phone camera won’t cut it), the moonbow is noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the few places – and often the most consistent – where one can be observed. Cumberland Falls offers a beautiful park setting, a Visitor Center with plenty of information about the falls and the river, and photo ops galore.
From Cumberland Falls, follow KY Highway 90 east to U.S. 25W north, just outside Daniel Boone National Forest. Continue on U.S. 25W (Cumberland Falls Highway) north about fifteen minutes into Corbin, where you’ll find the Best Western Corbin Inn, a junction with I-75, and fried chicken history. Corbin is a city of 7,000 and center of an area of about 21,000 nestled in the hills of the Cumberland Plateau just east Laurel Lake, a popular recreation spot on an offshoot of the Cumberland River. The city has long been a transportation center for trains as well as cars, and is a regional center for everything from the arts to sports to music. The Corbin Arena at the Southeastern Kentucky Agricultural & Expo Complex sits atop a hill near I-75 and the Best Western Corbin Inn and draws major events from all over the country. Every year in early August, the city hosts the NIBROC (“Corbin” spelled backwards) Festival with outdoor music concerts, carnival attractions, pageants, parades… you get the idea.
Downtown Corbin is accessed via U.S. 25W; a stretch of twin one-way streets takes you through the historic downtown district. The Corbin Railroad Museum, due to open in spring 2015, will showcase much of the city’s history – especially with the railroads. Sanders Park (named after Guess Who) is also slated to open around the same time, so check it out and see what’s new!
The Interstate and the Birthplace of KFC
Corbin is where U.S. 25 forks into U.S. 25W & U.S. 25E, beginning a split that lasts all the way to Newport, Tennessee. Before the construction of I-75, U.S. 25 was a key north-south road across the country and part of the famous Dixie Highway. The Dixie Highway was thronged with travelers in the 1930s and 1940s, prompting Colonel Harland Sanders to open a gas station and restaurant along the road. While there, he developed a fried chicken recipe – a dish brought to the area by Scottish immigrants decades back in the day – and fashioned up a mix of herbs and spices that became quite famous.
Then I-75 entered the picture.
When officials announced the coming of the Interstate to Corbin, Sanders knew the draw of cars from the Dixie Highway to the new freeway could devastate his business. At the age of 66, he devised a new restaurant plan: franchising to restaurants and licensing his “secret recipe” for what became coined as “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” This allowed him to develop restaurants and sell his chicken recipe in what has become one of the largest chains in the world. So yes, the coming of a highway gave Colonel Sanders the idea to create the KFC franchise. And it began on the north side of Corbin, along U.S. 25W and what is still known as Dixie Highway.
You can see – and eat – where it all began at the Harland Sanders Café & Museum, which combines a restored portion of the Colonel’s original café with a modern-day Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Plenty of KFC memorabilia adorns the walls and showcases, and you can also tour Colonel Sanders’ old office and see the kitchen where he developed the KFC “secret formula.” And with the adjoining restaurant, enjoy some finger lickin’ meals.
From Corbin, head north briefly to the intersection of U.S. 25E & U.S. 25W, just east of I-75’s Exit 29. U.S. 25E is our final main road on this Tour; we’ll follow it to the Gap. U.S. 25E is a four-lane highway from Corbin all the way through the rest of its route in Kentucky. This is a drive through the scenic hills of Kentucky’s Appalachia, where the mountains gradually tower higher as we wind from town to town.
The next big town along the Tour is Barbourville, home to just under 4,000 people and Union College, a four-year private college founded back in 1879. The 100-acre campus educates a student body of about 900, but that’s enough to give the town a college feel. Barbourville is the seat of Knox County, and beautiful buildings like the Knox County Courthouse add to the Main Street vibe of the downtown. Through the small downtown you’ll find street murals, a Redbud Quilters Garden, and the Civil War Interpretive Park describing the Battle of Barbourville, which was the first Civil War battle in Kentucky with casualties on both sides.
The Knox Historical Museum showcases a variety of exhibits on southeastern Kentucky’s history, Civil War battles included. Daniel Boone traversed his area around 1769, shortly after he went through the Gap; in salute of that, you’ll find a statue of him downtown and, if you’re stopping by in early October, check out the fall colors along with the annual Daniel Boone Festival. In mid-April when the trees are starting to bloom, Barbourville celebrates its annual Redbud Festival & Heritage Living Event, which draws from all over the region. In the summer months, you can celebrate splashing around in water at Barbourville Water Park with a wave pool, lazy river, multiple water slides, paddleboats, fishing ponds, walking tracks, mini-golf… a whole variety of fun ways to spend an afternoon.
Barbourville was established in 1812 but the area was settled well before; Dr. Thomas Walker led an English expedition through the Cumberland Gap and into the Barbourville area back in 1750, predating Daniel Boone’s party by over a quarter century. A few miles outside of downtown, the Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site allows you to explore where the first house built by a European settler in Kentucky once stood; a replica of that house stands there today. He built it near a river he named “Cumberland,” which is the river we’ve been following since before Somerset. So yes, he gets naming credit for it.
Right along U.S. 25E on the east side of Barbourville, the Best Western Wilderness Trail Inn is a great place to bed down and relax after you’ve finished the tour… but there is one big park (and gap) left to see before we’re done!
South and east of Barbourville, U.S. 25E threads through the valleys, much as Daniel Boone and Thomas Walker did (though their travel was a LOT slower). About 10 miles past Barbourville In tiny Flat Lick, check out Daniel Boone Memorial Park. This park commemorates the only place in Kentucky where four historic 18th century roads converge: Boone’s Trace, Skaggs Trace, Warrior’s Path, and the Wilderness Road. Flat Lick was named after an ancient salt lick that drew game animals – and consequently, hunters.
Past Flat Lick, we take a tight turn through Pineville, a town of 1,700 wedged between the Cumberland River and Pine Mountain. One of the oldest European settlements in Kentucky, it was originally called Cumberland Ford when it was established in 1781 at the crossing of the Wilderness Road over the Cumberland River. Driving in and out of Pineville, you may notice some sizable flood walls; they were built to help protect the city from its vulnerable position in the valley along the river.
Just outside Pineville via KY Highway 190 you can enjoy Kentucky’s oldest state park, Pine Mountain State Resort Park. It opened in 1924 and hosts the annual Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival. A cornucopia of recreational opportunities include hiking, mountain climbing, swimming, golfing (the Wasioto Winds course is highly-rated), all of which complement beautiful views from the mountains. Chained Rock is a popular attraction; essentially a 101-foot long chain affixed to a boulder, legend has it (created in the 1930s to help draw visitors) that the chain prevents the boulder from rolling down the mountain and wreaking havoc on Pineville below. In season (January and September/October), the park also offers elk viewing tours.
Continuing south on U.S. 25E, a few miles past Meldrum you reach the final town on the Tour, the largest city in southeastern Kentucky: Middlesboro. While the city has a little over 10,000 residents today, it was envisioned shortly after its 1888 founding to become a “Pittsburgh of the South” by entrepreneur Alexander Arthur, who envisioned a bustling industrial city of a quarter million at the foot of the Cumberland Gap. That dream proved a little too ambitious by the 1890s, but the Middlesboro Country Club founded during the time lives on and lays claim to the oldest continuously-played golf course in the United States.
Pianist Ben Harney claims to have invented “ragtime” music in Middlesboro in the early 1890s as well. Saloons from the era lived on, and boomed during a stretch in the 1930s known as the “Little Las Vegas” days. Saloons and slot machines gave rise to booming tourism for a period when Middlesboro became the first city west of Washington D.C. to install electric streetcars. The drawbacks to a relatively lawless city thriving on gambling became apparent and the city was in decline during the World War II years.
By the 1950s, Middlesboro’s penchant for the arts – along with being one of the few places in the region to boast an opera house – gave the nickname “Athens of the Mountains.” Today, Middlesboro still relies heavily on the coal industry (as much of Appalachia does) but improvements to U.S. 25E along with increasing traffic to and through the Cumberland Gap are diversifying the town’s economy. In 2012, the city became the first in the United States to have a community-wide organic garden. Yes, you should stop at their Farmers Market.
“Just Ducky” Trivia: Middlesboro loves its ducks. Always known for a large duck population, all ducks are considered to be honorary citizens of the city. Traffic and pedestrians must yield the right of way to the ducks at all times and anyone caught harming the ducks could face fines or jail time. They even use the town canal as the "raceway" for the “Downtown Ducky Dash,” a rubber duck race held annually in August.
On the south end of Middlesboro, U.S. 25E reaches Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The Cumberland Gap’s narrow pass has long been a key transportation point for Native Americans and early European settlers, as it is one of the few breaks in this portion of the Appalachians. The states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia converge near the Cumberland Gap; adventurous hikers and climbers can access the point where all three come together. The Visitors Center, located along U.S. 25E just before the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, has a museum with multiple exhibits on the Gap’s history and geology – which is complex and fascinating.
Another MUST is the Pinnacle Overlook, accessible from the same exit as the Visitor Center. After a corkscrew-esque drive up Skyland Highway to Pinnacle Point (elevation 2,440 feet), you can walk from the parking lot (in Kentucky) to the main overlook (in Virginia) and get a gorgeous view of Middlesboro, the Gap, nearby Fern Lake, and miles of forest, mountains, and nature across three states. Plenty of hiking trails and other activities start from Pinnacle Overlook, too; Gap Cave lies underneath, with six entrances accessing 16 miles of caves.
The original dirt trails early explorers used in the Cumberland Gap were altered when U.S. 25E was first built in the 1920s, lowering the floor and adding pavement. It stayed this way until 1996, when the Cumberland Gap Tunnel was finished. The original pathway through the Gap has been restored to a dirt trail and now you can drive right through the mountains on four lanes of highway. The two-lane southeast-bound tunnel connects directly to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee and the two-lane northwest-bound tunnel brings you back to Kentucky, all part of U.S. 25E.
The Kentucky-Tennessee state line is about halfway through the 4,600-foot long tubes, which have a strictly enforced speed limit of 45mph/72 km/h. You emerge in Tennessee (the tunnels bypass Virginia by a few hundred yards) and can easily turn back to re-enter Kentucky so you can stay overnight in Barbourville and enjoy wherever else you want to explore in the Bluegrass State.
So there you can have it, from Caves to the Gap across southern Kentucky. And plenty of things named “Cumberland.” Moonbow waterfalls, college towns, the birthplace of a fried chicken empire, extensive caves, and a lot of beauty on a great drive tour… enjoy, and Stay with People Who Care!