Kentucky is home to lush waterfalls, the world’s largest cave system, and remnants of the nation’s rich history. You can find incredible hiking trails throughout the state. Everything from long backpacking hikes to quick family-friendly hikes, Kentucky has a hiking trail for everyone.
The 10 best hiking trails in Kentucky are:
- The Sheltowee Trace Trail
- Van Hook Falls
- Moonbow Trail
- Tri-State Peak Trail
- Double Arch Trail
- Sand Gap Trail
- Flat Lick Falls
- Green River Bluff
- Honker Lake
- Breaks Interstate Loop
Kentucky is where you’ll find the Appalachian Mountains, Mammoth Caves National Park, and 50 state parks! You can find the 10 hikes listed above all across the state. Below we will discuss the difficulty of the trails, how to navigate them, and what points of interest you can find along the way.
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The 10 Best Hiking Trails In Kentucky
1. The Sheltowee Trace Trail
The Sheltowee Trace Trail is a 290-mile trail with an elevation gain of 58,716 feet. It is known as the backbone of Kentucky’s trail systems. It also happens to be Daniel Boone’s route from Northern Kentucky to the southern border near Tennessee. Sheltowee, meaning big turtle, was the name Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee tribe gave to Daniel Boone.
This trail can be done as a through hike or done in sections as day hikes. Thirty-eight sections appear in chronological order from north to south. The trail begins in the north from road KY377 in the Knobs region and ends at Picket State Park at the Cumberland Plateau in northern Tennessee.
You will trek through narrow edges and dip into deep gorges surrounded by giant cliffs if you make the whole trail. However, areas of the trail require you to detour around private property or share space with vehicles along busy roads.
What To Expect
This trail is for all levels of hikers. Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be leashed in areas where the hike enters Mammoth Cave National Park. You also are required to pack out any dog waste, which deters many from bringing their pup along.
Expect to see old homesteads, oil and gas wells, old logging tracks, and remnants of past land uses. The Sheltowee Trace is a great hike if you are new to through hiking. It is not as intense as some of the other popular through hikes, like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, and offers a great intro into long multi-week treks.
2. Van Hook Falls Trail
Van Hook Falls Trail is 5 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 656 feet and ends at a 40-foot waterfall.This is an out-and-back trail and part of the Sheltowee Trail near London, Kentucky.
From the Van Hook Falls parking lot, cross the street to find the trailhead. The trail starts out from a higher elevation and works its way down to a creek bed.You will see many rock outcroppings and stone walkways once the forest floor levels out and gets wider.
After the first 1.5 miles, you’ll come to your first waterfall. The waterfall might not be flowing in dryer seasons, but you will see a large shallow pool with a flat rock marking the top of the waterfall, not much higher than the pool.
You will cross two bridges after this waterfall and pool before the trail becomes large rocks and boulders along a creek. These boulders along the creek roughly mark the halfway point and are a great spot to take a break and have some lunch. After the rocky outcroppings, you will cross another creek, and not far after the crossing will be Van Hook Falls, a 40-foot waterfall.
What To Expect
Surprisingly, this hike is best when it’s raining! Because the falls are smaller, their supplying streams trickle or stop at certain times of the year, so it is best to hit these when wet weather rolls in. Of course, don’t attempt this in thunderstorms, but a light rain will ensure you see these waterfalls in action.
Van Hook Falls is an excellent hike for older children. Leashed dogs are also allowed. Be prepared for a steep climb back up to the parking lot and prepare for the trail to be a little wet.Waterproof hiking boots are helpful on this hike.
3. Moonbow Trail
The Moonbow Trail is an 11-mile trail with insignificant elevation gain ending at the second-largest waterfall east of the Rockies. This trail is part of the Sheltowee Trace Trail near Corbin, Kentucky.
The trail starts at the mouth of the Laurel River boat ramp and ends at Cumberland Falls State Park Resort. If you want to attempt the trail as a day hike, you will need a buddy to shuttle a car to Cumberland Falls. From the boat ramp, the trail will follow the Cumberland River downstream.
After passing two backcountry campgrounds, you will come to a bridge where you can see the first of some smaller waterfalls. After this, the Sheltowee Trail joins a park trail at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. There are many trail options inside the park,so make sure you follow the trail signs to Cumberland Falls.
What To Expect
Because of its insignificant elevation gain, this trail is perfect for people wanting to try a longer hike. The final waterfall at the southern end of the hike is known as the Niagara Falls of the South. Dogs are allowed, but this trail is too far for kids.
The first portion of the trail along the Cumberland River is prone to flooding in the rainy seasons. However, there is an option to go around this trail section by taking the path that splits east away from the river from Fishing Creek to Bark Camp.This trail follows ridges above the cliff line before rejoining the Sheltowee Trace Trail.
Cumberland Falls at the southern end of the hike is one of the few places where you can see a moonbow, or rainbow at night, off the waterfall. The park is open 24 hours for premium moonbow viewing. Be sure to check the times online to see if your hike corresponds with a moonbow sighting.
4. Tri-State Peak Trail
This out and back Trail starts at the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park at meeting points of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. It is 2.5 miles roundtrip with insignificant elevation gain.
Find this trailhead at the Iron Furnace parking area. The trail begins on a paved path, but then it quickly turns to gravel. After a short while, you will come across the remains of an old iron furnace set up along the banks of Gap Creek. This furnace was used to create iron for blacksmiths around the time of the Civil War.
Near the 0.4 mile mark, you will see a sign for Wilderness Road Trail. Take a left at the sign to continue to the Tri-State Peak Trail. At the 0.6 mile mark, you will reach a series of log steps. After the steps, you’ll reach a historic trail sign where you will take a left.
Soon after that, you will come across a pyramid structure dedicated to Daniel Boone. After this shrine, there will be another fork in the road, offering you the choice between Tri-State Peak and Fort Foote. Take the path to Tri-State Peak, and after a quick walk, a gazebo will come into view. Bear right for an overlook that serves as the end of the hike.
What To Expect
The Tri-State Peak Trail is a comfortable hike for all levels. Leashed dogs are welcome. Throughout the hike are historical signs that offer information about the area throughout the years.A placard points to Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, the states seen from the final overlook. The views are incredible from the lookout without having to work too hard to get there.
5. Double Arch Trail
Double Arch is an out and back trail that is 4.5 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 778 feet.It ends with two natural arches stacked on top of each other. You can find this hike at Red River Gorge, part of the Cumberland State Park.
From the parking area, it is easier to spot the trailhead for the Auxier Ridge Trail. The trailhead for the Double Arch is located left of the Auxier Ridge Trail.Follow this trail 1/10th of a mile to intersect with the Forest Service road and then continue for 1.4 miles to the Double Arch Trail sign.
From here, the trail descends below a high sandstone cliff and through a forest of big-leaf magnolias. You will hike below the sandstone walls for most of the trail until you pass under the double arch. From here, you can decide if you want to take the staircase that is more like a scramble up to the double arch. This staircase is off to the right and leads to expansive views.
What To Expect
The trail is great if you are an intermediate hiker or above. Leashed dogs are welcome too. Many people don’t know that Red Rock Gorge is home to the largest concentration of arches after Utah and Arizona.
The trail back up to the parking area from the Double Arch can be strenuous. You should only attempt the scramble or “staircase” at the end if you feel confident in your physical abilities. People have died or significantly injured themselves trying to climb up to the double arch,so exercise extreme caution.
6. Sand Gap Trail
Sand Gap Trail is a 7.5-mile loop with 1,526 feet of elevation gain.It is part of the Natural Bridge State Resort Park near Slade, Kentucky, and part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
This trail starts off strong with a sandstone arch 500 feet from the Sand Gap Trailhead.Then the trail follows an old logging road on the ridge of a mountain for most of the first half of the loop. After this, you will quickly descend to the Lower Hood Branch River, where the trail meets up with the Sheltowee Trace Trail.
After about a mile from joining the Sheltowee Trace Trail, there will be a sharp right. You will arrive at the river in a bog area.Giant cliffs will appear as you continue through a rhododendron thicket. Soon you will find a bridge that offers you a nice view of the river before steeply climbing up another logging road.
Pay close attention as the trail will reemerge from the left away from the logging road.The trail will move through a series of steep ridges before ending at a mini-golf course, followed by the parking lot.
What To Expect
Sand Gap Trail is for advanced hikers only. If you want to bring your kids, the best option is to stay at the sandstone bridge at the beginning of the trail. Dogs are unfortunately not allowed, and the 1500 feet of elevation gain is challenging to say the least.
In addition, the trail is rugged and tricky to find at times, so do not hesitate to backtrack if you feel like you missed the single track on the way up the second logging road.
7. Flat Lick Falls
Flat Lick Falls is a small out and back hike less than a mile in distance. It has no significant elevation gain and ends at a 30-foot waterfall.
From the parking area, follow the paved path to the overlook. From here, you are offered great views of Flat Lick Falls immediately. Look for a small, unmarked path to the right of the overlook.After a short distance, you will cross a small footbridge, hike a little further past the bridge, and you will wrap around to the base of the waterfall and the end of the hike.
What To Expect
This small hike is for everyone. The paved overlook is wheelchair and stroller accessible, and leashed dogs are also welcome. At the end of the hike is a swimming hole, so bring a bathing suit if the weather permits. The bottom of the waterfall is a photographer’s paradise so don’t forget to bring a camera. Cliff jumping from the waterfall is popular – but prohibited.
8. Green River Bluff Trail
Green River Bluff Trail is a 1.3-mile loop with an elevation gain of 327 feet.This trail is located at the Mammoth Cave National Park.
The trail is a mix of single track, gravel, and some paved sections. From the visitor center, you will trek through a dense forest on a path littered with large vines. After a short while, you will come to Dixon Cave.There are handrails and a paved walkway that takes you off the path and down to the cave.
The cave is small and wet but is a quick detour and worth the stop to see. Continue on the Green River Bluff trail through a lush forest until it opens up at the Green River Bluff Overlook.Here you will be rewarded with rolling green hills and a rushing river. The loop continues back down through the forest to the visitor center.
What To Expect
This trail is great for most levels of hikers. The elevation gain can be a little challenging for inexperienced hikers, but there are benches available throughout the trail to take a rest.
Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail. However, dogs are not permitted in Mammoth Cave. They offer a kennel boarding service if you brought your dog and still want to take a cave tour.
You can also combine the Echo River Springs Trail, Sinkhole Trail, and the Heritage Trail for a more challenging 4-mile loop from this trailhead. Be advised that there is a ton of poison ivy in the area, so avoid wandering off the trails into the vegetation.
9. Honker Lake Trail
Honker Lake Trail is a 4.6-mile loop with no significant elevation gain.This hike is located at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in western Kentucky.
This trail circles Honker Lake which is actually a bay of the Cumberland River. It starts winding its way from the parking area across a long creek. Most of the trek is along this creek, through a dense forest. You will climb mild hills and ridges and walk through lakeshore meadows.
After a couple of miles, you will come to the damn that created Honker Lake and cross it.Here you have views of the Cumberland River and the neighboring lakes and bays. After you cross the dam, the trail winds back into the forest before returning to the parking area.
What To Expect
This trail is an excellent hike for all levels, provided you can handle the distance. The lack of elevation gain makes it a leisurely stroll that does not require much effort. The entire trail is marked with white diamond markers, making navigation a breeze. Once you arrive at the parking area, the sounds of Canada Geese will help you understand how this lake got its name.
There is plenty of other wildlife you can spot from the trail. Otters, deer, osprey, bald eagles, and beavers often make an appearance around the bay.
10. Breaks Interstate Loop
Breaks Interstate Loop is a 3.6-mile loop with an elevation of 679 feet.Locals created this loop to see the best points of interest in Breaks Park in the Jefferson National Forest by joining four trails together.
In Breaks Park, the trailhead is located behind picnic structure #2. You will see a wooden trailhead sign marking the Loop Trail and begin a gentle descent through a mossy forest. You’ll soon come to a T where you will take a left. Soon after will be another fork in the road where you will veer left on a spur trail that leads to the Tower Tunnel Overlook, the first well-worth detour on this trail.
After 200 yards, the trail rewards you with an incredible vista where you can spot the Arian Tower below. After you retrace your steps back to the fork in the trail, you will choose the direction marked Prospector’s Trail.
After about 0.7 miles, you’ll then come across a rocky overhang with a sign for rock climbing access. Turn right here to bypass the rock climbing area and duck under a massive tree and through a boulder that the trail cuts through.
The next 1/4 mile has some mild rock scrambles, and then at 1.4 miles, the Prospector’s Trail intersects with the River Trail on the left. You will ascend a mini canyon at the 1.9-mile mark. Here, continue straight until you see a trail marker for the Geological Trail.
At 2.1 miles, you will see another trail sign for The Notches. Take this detour to find a bridge with views of sandstone formations at the river. Return to the intersection but this time, take a left to stay on the Geological Trail, where you will soon reach an incredible and significantly colder slot canyon.
From here, you will ascend a set of stairs that lead up to the Stateline Overlook. There are expansive views of both Kentucky and Virginia here that you don’t want to miss. At the Stateline Overlook is a parking area, which is also the start of the Overlook Trail. You can find the trail off to the right with a trail sign.
Next, you will walk up a ridge and find a fenced overlook at about 3.1 miles. From this point, you will walk up a set of switchbacks, and a trail sign for the Clinchfield Overlook appears. To see this overlook, you will have to climb a massive staircase of 119 stairs.
Retrace your steps from Clinchfield Overlook and once you reach the parking lot again, turn right. You will see a dirt and gravel path that guides you back to your starting point, but you will first cut across the parking area for the Tower Tunnel Overlook.
What To Expect
This trail is great for intermediate hikers and above. Leashed dogs are welcome. Due to elevation gain and rock scrambles, this isn’t the best hike for small children. However, you could always make this shorter by not combining all four trails. There are so many points of interest on this trail.
Multiple overlooks, rocky overhangs, sandstone formations, riverbeds, and caves make this loop the favorite of locals. Don’t be discouraged by all the warning signs at the start of the Prospector’s Trail.They warn of poisonous snakes, cliffs, insects, and switchbacks. There are six or seven warning signs, which seems a little over the top. Use common sense, and you will be just fine.
A jagged wall at 1.5 miles makes for a fantastic photo op, and at the 2-mile mark, there is a hidden spring. Stop here and see if you can hear it flowing underneath the rocks. Right around this same area is a two-story cave too! You can find it by climbing some of the rocks to your left.
Kentucky is a vast hiker’s paradise often overlooked. Because of this, you are more likely to experience solitude, especially on the longer trails with significant elevation gain. Experiencing the lush forests, plentiful waterfalls, as well as pieces of the past, make hiking in Kentucky incredible. No matter what part of the state you find yourself in, you’ll be close to a jaw-dropping hike!