Nicknamed the “Bluegrass State” for its abundant bluegrass pastures, Kentucky is home to some of the country’s greatest landscapes to visit in the fall, many of which can be accessed through the state’s small towns. Whether you are hiking Kentucky’s rolling peaks in the Appalachian Mountains, or adventuring below ground through the longest cave in the world at Mammoth Cave National Park, the state is brimming with sensational sights and experiences, some hidden away and some bustling with activity, but all equally worth visiting. Hike Daniel Boone National Forest to experience the state’s autumn foliage in full effect, or lounge lakeside at one of the many State Resort Parks for a more relaxing–yet nonetheless stunning–view of the surrounding nature. No matter your desire, these Kentucky small towns have something for everyone, their populations livened with the shifting seasons to bid summer farewell.
Corbin, a Kentucky town famous for its natural beauty, is one of the state’s busiest fall destinations–and for good reason. You can find this scenic wonderland next to the banks of Laurel Lake, whose miles of tree-lined shore create an epic fall scene. Once you have explored the lake and its surrounding sights, make your way to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, the town’s crown jewel. Their campgrounds are open from mid-March to mid-November, leaving plenty of time to visit in autumn. With 17 miles of hikes spread across 1,657 acres, the outdoor recreation is as endless as it is beautiful. Make sure to take on the Cumberland Falls Trail, a half-mile route with a 200-foot-total descent, followed by the reward of the park’s namesake: Cumberland Falls. Just under 70-feet-tall, this majestic waterfall is what earned the park its nickname “The Niagara of the South”.
Jamestown is another Kentucky small town renowned for luring big autumn crowds, and Lake Cumberland State Resort Park is definitely its anchoring feature. Home to the marvelous man-made Lake Cumberland, this 101-mile-long, 52,000-acre reservoir provides 1,225 miles of blissful shoreline, making it one of the state’s best spots for an autumn lake day. To extend your lake day into a weekend, the park also includes the 63-room Lure Lodge overlooking the water, with an especially impressive view of the surrounding fall foliage reflecting into the lake. If sleeping under the stars is more your style, the park also features 75 campsites surrounded by the bright reds and yellows of towering beech and hickory trees. Hike forest trails like the Lake Bluff Nature Loop Trail for a 4-mile trek, following ridges with viewpoints of the lake. Late fall is an especially great time to take this hike, as the fallen leaves will clear the way to make the views that much greater.
If one-of-a-kind views are something you are on the hunt for this fall, a visit to the town of Middlesboro comes with a pretty unique feature; driving through, you will find yourself inside the Middlesboro Impact Crater, a 3.6-mile-long crater scientists say was formed by the impact of a meteorite. The crater is just the beginning of the town’s wonders though, as no visit to Middlesboro is complete without checking out the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Once a gateway to the west for pioneers crossing through to the mighty Appalachian Mountains, the park’s serene 14,000 acres and 85 miles of wilderness trails lead through the same ridge along the Cumberland Mountains walked all those years ago. Even more impressive, is you may find yourself witnessing 3 different states (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) at once, illuminated with the colors of fall. Easy routes like the Pinnacle Overlook Trail take just 5 minutes, with jaw-dropping views overlooking a vibrant valley where the three states meet.
For many Kentuckians, when the cool air of Autumn approaches, so does the call of the Appalachian Mountains. If you find yourself hearing this same call, the mountain town of Hazard is the place for you. Despite what the name may imply, Hazard does not pose a risk for danger–only adventure. The town is named after naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry, and you will find its alpine setting makes it a hotspot for outdoor recreation, with nearby hiking trails like the Perry Park Loop, whose moderately challenging path is great for mountain biking or hiking. Less than an hour from town, you can also make your way to Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park, whose sparkling 1,200-acre reservoir can be toured on a 1.5-mile stroll. If you would prefer to stay in town, Hazard offers views of an equally enchanting body of water, the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Bordered by rolling, forested hills–alive with the colors of fall–the Kentucky River is a sight to behold–a true gift to Hazard’s locals and visitors.
Making your way to the foothills of the mighty Appalachians, journey through the depths of Daniel Boone National Forest, whose 708,000 acres of wilderness will absolutely blow you away when autumn rolls around. The forest reaches across 21 Kentucky counties, and the small town of Manchester serves as an excellent homebase; this “Trail Town” as locals call it, provides easy access to the forest’s Trail System, whose 600+ miles of paths truly make this heaven-on-earth for hiking enthusiasts. Make sure to save time to explore Manchester’s natural beauty as well, since it is home to three central waterways running through and around the town: The South Fork River, the Goose Creek River, and the Red Bird River. When combined, the waterways make up almost 100 miles, ideal for a scenic riverside hike. For water recreation, head out on the Red Bird River with your kayak for views of the surrounding tree-covered banks of the National Forest; the water below may be chilly, but the breathtaking views of the fall foliage make any accidental splashes worthwhile.
Just under 40 minutes northwest of Manchester, you will find yet another “Trail Town”, called McKee. The town is settled in the hills of Daniel Boone National Forest, so like Manchester, its access to the forest’s trail system is pretty remarkable, most notably, offering entrance to the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. Often thought of as the “backbone” of the forest’s extensive trail system, the Sheltowee Trace is a rugged 290-mile path that passes through anything from vast ridges, to tree-covered gorges encompassed by cliffs. McKee locals will tell you the impressive landscape takes on an even more stunning effect in the fall, its towering pines and hemlocks layering the air with its refreshing, woodsy scent, pinecones scattered below your feet. For unbeatable access to the trail, McKee’s Turkey Foot Campground is an excellent overnight option, as its own trail system connects to the Sheltowee Trace.
For a truly unique Kentucky adventure this fall, visit the town of Brownsville in the state’s Caves and Lakes region. As the region’s name implies, the town is home to one of Kentucky's greatest attractions: Mammoth Cave National Park. Among the park’s 52,000 acres, you get access to campsites, the Green and Nolin rivers, and over 80 miles of scenic hiking trails. But what truly sets the park apart, is Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world. Keep in mind, entrance to the park is free, but if you want to tour part of this incredible 412-mile tunnel beneath the earth, tickets are required for entry. The Ranger-led tours are offered year-round, and tickets can be purchased online or at the park’s visitor center for anywhere from $6 to $60 USD. While summer is definitely the most popular time for the park, autumn is no less spirited, but there is definitely the bonus of slightly smaller crowds.
No visit to Kentucky would be complete without passing through its capital, the lively town of Frankfort. Nestled on the shores of the Kentucky River, as with most river towns, Frankfort is stunning in the fall, its trees bright with a sensational blend of seasonal hues. Witness the magic of this transformation aboard a Kentucky River cruise with the Kentucky River Tours Company; their Historical Frankfort Tour is a 1-hour excursion priced at $19.95 USD per passenger, passing under bridges and offering sights of the town’s culture and history. Their Sunset Cruise on the other hand, is a 1.5-hour experience with views of downtown Frankfort, the setting sun casting a romantic, relaxing scene, for $39.95 per person, paired with light and refreshing drinks and snacks.
In summation, these Kentucky small towns are all for embracing the changing seasons, inviting you to partake in their natural wonders. From Corbin’s majestic “Niagara of the South” to Middlesboro’s magnificent meteorite crater, the state’s uniqueness is never ending, and ultimately, never fails to earn the hearts of its visitors. Stroll the shores of Lake Cumberland, hike the trails of Hazard’s Perry Park Loop, and savor the sights of the Kentucky River on a river cruise–the experiences are serene in summertime, but with fall’s metamorphosis, comes new views, sights, and experiences waiting to be discovered.