Looking for the best Kentucky national parks? Amazing rivers, epic monuments, stunning caves, iconic battlefields, Lincoln’s birthplace…
About the Kentucky National Parks
Did you know that there are 6 Kentucky National Parks (technically “national park sites”)? It’s the home of the “Run for the Roses” and Mint Julips. It’s called the “Bluegrass” state. But that’s not all you’ll find in Kentucky!
Kentucky is home to six incredible national park sites and I’m here to tell you about each one.
Amazing rivers, incredible monuments, jaw-dropping caves, iconic battlefields, and more make up these beautiful Kentucky national parks. Kentucky is home to our nation’s sixteenth and arguably America’s greatest president.
The following are 6 national park sized reasons to visit the Bluegrass state.
Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
Kentucky National Parks
1. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace & National Historical Park
In 2021, C-SPAN asked a group of distinguished presidential historians to rank our nation’s presidents from worst to best. At the top of their list, with a total score of 897 points, was Abraham Lincoln. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt came in second and third respectively.
Why is Abraham Lincoln ranked as the greatest president of all time? Simply put, he saved the Union. In the process of saving the nation, Lincoln managed to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him.
Lincoln Transformed The Presidency
Lincoln transformed the Presidency. He remade the president’s role as commander in chief and as chief executive into a powerful new position. In the process, he imbued the office with broader powers by making it supreme over both Congress and the courts.
His detractors argued then and now that he took actions which were unconstitutional such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus.
For those without a legal background, this is a writ “requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.”
For Lincoln, however, it made no sense “to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution.” No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and, in saving the Union, no President ever accomplished as much.
Visit Lincoln’s Birthplace | Kentucky National Parks
As the National Park Service notes, “His early life on Kentucky’s frontier shaped his character and prepared him to lead the nation through Civil War. The country’s first memorial to Lincoln, built with donations from young and old, enshrines the symbolic birthplace cabin.”
At the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, there are two farm areas where visitors can see how Lincoln lived as a child in Kentucky.
See The Cabin Where Lincoln Was Born
At the birthplace site, visitors can view an early 19th century Kentucky cabin, which symbolizes the one in which Lincoln was born. The cabin is enshrined inside the memorial building at the site of his birth.
Visitors can also tour Knob Creek Farm, where Lincoln lived with his family from the ages of 2 through 8. This site includes a historic tavern and log cabin. There are also hiking trails and picnic areas.
2. Big South Fork National River & Recreational Area | Kentucky National Parks
The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. As a matter of fact, it’s one of Kentucky’s most popular outdoor playgrounds. You can go bird-watching, hiking, stargazing, whitewater rafting and much more.
One of the most popular activities is horseback riding. Visitors can enjoy more than 180 miles of riding trails. There are even campsites which accommodate horses.
So Many Things To See And Do There
If you like to see magnificent sites then I recommend the East Rim Overlook in the southeastern area. From there you will get a spectacular view of the river merging into the Cumberland Plateau.
If hiking is what you love to do then be sure to look out for the natural sandstone arches that formed along the edges of the gorge. You can find them on the western side of the park.
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If you love history then check out the Blue Heron Mining Community. It’s a coal mining town which was once owned by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Co. You can ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway to get there. It’s an incredibly scenic trip.
3. Camp Nelson National Monument | Kentucky National Parks
After the Union fiasco at Fredericksburg, General Ambrose Burnside was reassigned to the newly created Department of the Ohio.
In April of 1863, Burnside asked a search committee to identify a location that would allow the Department of the Ohio to consolidate troops and supplies in central Kentucky.
This led to the creation of Camp Nelson. It was established as a supply depot and hospital during the Civil War for the U.S. Army. Camp Nelson became a large recruitment and training center for African American soldiers (USCTs).
Camps, such as Camp Nelson, served as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed. They offered protection to formerly enslaved people in Confederate states under Union control.
The federal government established what it called a “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson. It initially included a communal mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages.
Things To Do & See
There are museum exhibits and a short film. The visitor center provides an orientation to the historic events that unfolded at Camp Nelson.
Objects on display provide a window into the role Camp Nelson played during its height as a military installation, supply depot, hospital, recruitment center, and refugee camp.
While there, visitors can also see the Oliver Perry “White” House. It’s an original home built in the mid-1850s that was used as Officer Quarters while the property was part of Camp Nelson (1863-1866).
A Reconstructed Barracks
There’s also a reconstructed barracks depicting camp life for the thousands of Federal soldiers stationed at Camp Nelson. It includes a meeting space and small library and is open to the public for guided tours on a limited basis.
Five Miles Of Hiking Trails
When I’m visiting an historic site, my favorite activity–other than looking for books in the bookstore–is walking the grounds and soaking up all of that wonderful history. At Camp Nelson, there are five miles of hiking trails allowing visitors to experience the incredible landscape first-hand.
On the hiking trails, there are numerous interpretive markers providing an opportunity to explore earthworks and fortifications which protected Camp Nelson. You, too, can walk in the footsteps of Civil War soldiers to gain a better appreciation of what happened.
Hall Community & The Camp Nelson National Cemetery
While you’re there, you should also visit the Hall Community. It symbolizes the efforts to assist African American refugees as they struggled to begin a new life. There is a small church there which was built in 1912.
The church was named in honor of John Fee who dedicated his life to creating educational opportunities for African Americans.
There’s also the Camp Nelson National Cemetery. It includes gravesites for 1,615 Federal dead and is located adjacent to the national monument. It’s open daily from dawn to dusk.
4. Fort Donelson National Battlefield
The Battle of Fort Donelson, which took place from February 11-16, 1862, was one of the Union’s first major victories. Following his victory at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant marched his troops to Fort Donelson.
On February 13th, a Union gunboat opened fire on the fort. Additional ships and soldiers arrived, giving Grant an almost three-to-one advantage over the Confederate forces. On February 15th, Confederate troops counter-attacked.
“Unconditional Surrender” Grant
The unflappable Grant reorganized his men, occupied the outer defenses of the fort and applied pressure which led many Confederate soldiers to flee. When Confederate General Simon Buckner asked Grant his terms for surrender, he gave an historic reply:
“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Grant’s response earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” The victories at Forts Henry and Donelson helped make Grant a hero in the Union.
Vastly outnumbered, the Confederates immediately surrendered and gave the Union control of much of the Cumberland River.
The General Who Would Be President
Did you know that Grant was an average student at West Point? Well, there’s obviously more to life than book learning which is painful for a former history teacher to admit.
Of all the generals to become president, only three were professional soldiers who spent their entire lives in the military before becoming president. Grant was one. The other two were George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.
Grant Was A Gifted Writer
Here’s another interesting fact. For an average student, Grant was a gifted writer. After leaving the presidency, he became ill. Grant was also financially destitute due to bad investment decisions which he had made.
Worried about his wife’s financial future, he decided to write his memoirs. He wrote them as he was dying from throat cancer, show a clear, concise style, and his autobiography is considered among the best, if not the best, written by a President.
I highly recommend The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant written by none other than Ulysses S. Grant.
Things To See & Do At Fort Donelson
Located along the beautiful banks of the Cumberland River, the Fort Donelson National Battlefield is a wonderful place to visit.
You can drive the actual battlefield grounds. First, however, I would recommend a trip to the visitor center. There’s a great park film that helps you understand the battle and why Fort Donelson was so important for the Union forces.
A 6-Mile Trail With 11 Stops
The park has a 6-mile trail with 11 stops. It’s a self-guided driving tour that takes you through battlefield sites, the spot where Union soldiers camped for the night before the surrender, and into the small town of Dover.
There you can see the historic Dover Hotel. It’s the site where Ulysses S. Grant accepted the Confederate surrender of the Fort from his old friend Simon B. Buckner.
While you’re there, you may also want to visit the Fort Donelson National Cemetery. The names of the soldiers interred in the Fort Donelson National Cemetery have been compiled from original cemetery records.
5. Mammoth Cave National Park | Kentucky National Parks
If you like to explore caves then you’ll love Mammoth Cave National Park. This national park stretches almost 53,000 acres in the rolling hills of southcentral Kentucky.
It includes river valleys, forests, historic churches and cemeteries, sinkholes and the world’s longest cave system. There is an incredible variety of activities for visitors throughout the park year-round. Cave tours are available.
There’s Hiking & Biking
If you enjoy hiking or biking then you’re in luck when visiting this Kentucky national park. A portion of the path of the former Mammoth Cave Railroad has been converted into a 9-mile hike and bike trail.
This trail can be accessed from Park City, Kentucky, at several points along Mammoth Cave Parkway, and also at the park’s visitor center area. Along the trail, you can stop at historic sites, interpretive waysides, and scenic overlooks.
The Big Hollow Trail Loop Trails and Connector Trail offer over 10 miles of single track mountain bike trail that winds through dense woodlands and rocky outcroppings. The trail can be accessed from the trailhead within Maple Springs Campground.
There’s Boating, Canoeing and Kayaking Too
According to the National Park Service, within the park there are three river access points which are accessible by car. They are Dennison Ferry, Green River Ferry and Houchin Ferry. All of them are located on the south side of the Green River.
Dennison Ferry consists of a wooden canoe and kayak ramp with a series of concrete stairs to the water. Green River Ferry consists of a gravel canoe and kayak launch ramp and a auto ferry ramp that doubles as a launch site for motorboats.
Houchin Ferry consists of a temporary canoe and kayak launch ramp. (Source NPS)
6. Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument | Kentucky National Parks
The Battle of Mill Springs was a Union victory early in the Civil War. The battle took place on January 19, 1862. Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer was killed when he mistakenly approached a Union officer thinking it was one of his own men.
The death of the their commander coupled with intense Union volleys of gunfire quickly demoralized the Confederate forces. They subsequently retreated into Tennessee.
The Union victory led to the total collapse of the eastern sector of the Confederate defensive line established to defend the Upper South. This, in turn, helped to solidify the Union’s control of what was a pivotal border state in the conflict.
Things To Do At Mill Spring
There’s a wonderful Mill Springs Visitor Center which features a 20-minute film about the Battle of Mill Springs. Visitors will find a museum with many fascinating exhibits which provide a greater understanding of the battle’s combatants and its impact on the war.
Regarding the battlefield itself, much of the battlefield can be seen from public roadways. The Mill Springs Battlefield Association developed a 10-stop Driving Tour, which begins at the Visitor Center.
All stops along the tour are marked with large signs. There are also informative signs to help you understand a site’s significance. Parking is limited at certain stops.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs then I recommend Zollicoffer Park. The park is named for the Confederate general who died there.
There’s a half mile Ravine Trail which takes hikers down into a ravine, crossing the battle-lines of the two sides. Signs along the way explain key battle events.
You may also want to tour the Brown-Lanier House. It’s an antebellum home built before the Civil War. The home housed the families that operated the nearby grist mill.
During the battle, the historic farmhouse became headquarters for generals on both sides of the fighting, before and after the Battle of Mill Springs.
You can also see the nearby grist mill which is currently operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is located on the shores of Lake Cumberland and fed by springs, The mill has been completely restored with a working water wheel.
Map | Kentucky National Parks
To Learn More About The Civil War
So many books have been written about the Civil War and the various battles that took place. Of course, the big three authors when it comes to war are, in my humble opinion, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson.
What these three have written are the best collections of books encompassing the war as a whole. You can’t go wrong with any of these authors. My personal favorite is Shelby Foote. I have read his fabulous three volume history of the Civil War–twice!
When it comes to the Civil War in Kentucky, I would recommend The Civil War in Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison. Harrison explores the complexities of the war in Kentucky and why the state played such a crucial role in the war’s outcome.
List Of All 6 National Park Sites In Kentucky
- Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
- Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
- Camp Nelson National Monument
- Fort Donelson National Battlefield
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument