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6 (EPIC) Kentucky National Parks For Your Visit to the Bluegrass State

Looking for the best Kentucky national parks? Amazing rivers, epic monuments, stunning caves, iconic battlefields, Lincoln’s birthplace…

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About the Kentucky National Parks

Kentucky's got some amazing places for you to see | Kentucky National Parks
Kentucky’s got some amazing national parks for you to see

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

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace & National Historical Park | Kentucky National Parks
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace & National Historical Park | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

“His great achievement, historians tell us, was his ability to energize and mobilize the nation by appealing to its best ideals while acting ‘with malice towards none’ in the pursuit of a more perfect, more just, and more enduring Union.

No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and no President ever accomplished as much.”

-Michael Burlingame, Professor Emeritus of History
Connecticut College

Lincoln Transformed The Presidency

Abraham Lincoln transformed the office of the presidency | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

Old Cabin at Knob Creek | Kentucky National Parks
Old Cabin at Knob Creek | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”

-Abraham Lincoln

See The Cabin Where Lincoln Was Born

Lincoln's symbolic cabin | Kentucky National Parks
Lincoln’s Symbolic Cabin | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

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2. Big South Fork National River & Recreational Area | Kentucky National Parks

kentucky national parks, big south fork
Encompassing 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area protects the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The area boasts miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs, is rich with natural and historic features and has been developed to provide visitors with a wide range of outdoor recreational activities. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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

Blue Heron Mining Company | Kentucky National Parks
Coal tipple at the Blue Heron Mining Community in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The tipple was built by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company in the 1930s and restored by the National Park Service in the 1980s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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3. Camp Nelson National Monument | Kentucky National Parks

Camp Nelson | Kentucky National Parks
Walk in the footsteps of soldiers to discover the role Camp Nelson played during the Civil War | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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).

“At the height of its use in 1865, Camp Nelson encompassed roughly 4,000 acres. The camp, which was organized around an 800-acre core, included more than 300 buildings and tents that housed a quartermaster commissary depot, ordnance depot, recruitment center, prison, and a hospital.

Eight earthen forts or batteries, primarily constructed by enslaved labor, helped to protect the camp. The camp was also home to stables and corrals, a bakery, and a steam-driven waterworks that could pump water up 470 feet from the Kentucky River to a 500,000 gallon reservoir.”

-National Park Service

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

Camp Nelson Exhibits | Kentucky National Parks
Check out the exhibits highlighting the lives of the refugees who came to Camp Nelson | National Park Service

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).

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A Reconstructed Barracks

A reconstructed barracks at Camp Nelson | Kentucky National Parks
Check out the reconstructed army barracks at Camp Nelson | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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

As you walk the five miles of hiking trails at Camp Nelson, you will bel able to soak up all of the history around you | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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

Camp Nelson National Cemetery | Kentucky National Parks
Camp Nelson National Cemetery is administered by the US Department of Veterans Affairs | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

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4. Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Fort Donelson National Battlefield | Kentucky National Parks
Part of Fort Donelson’s lower river battery, overlooking the Cumberland River. Photographed by Hal Jespersen at Fort Donelson, February 2006.

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

kentucky national parks
A famous portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant | Currier & Ives. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

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

Only three professional soldiers went on to become President of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant was one. The others were George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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

Fort Donelson National Battlefield | Kentucky National Parks
Fort Donelson National Battlefield | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

Fort Donelson National Cemetery | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

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5. Mammoth Cave National Park | Kentucky National Parks

mammoth cave kentucky national parks
Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky

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

Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world’s longest cave system, with more than 365 miles explored. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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There’s Boating, Canoeing and Kayaking Too

kayaking mammoth cave kentucky national parks
At mammoth Cave, there’s boating, canoeing and kayaking | Kentucky National Parks (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

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)

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6. Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument | Kentucky National Parks

Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument kentucky national parks
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.

Visitor Center of the Mill Springs Battlefield in Nancy, Kentucky | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The death of the their commander coupled with intense Union volleys of gunfire quickly demoralized the Confederate forces. They subsequently retreated into Tennessee.

Currier and Ives lithograph of the Battle of Mill Springs | Kentucky National Parks (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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.

I hope to have god on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

-President Abraham Lincoln

Things To Do At Mill Spring

kentucky, hollow, mountains-4843582.jpg
Kentucky National Parks

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.

Zollicoffer Park

Following the battle, Confederate dead were placed in a hasty mass grave. Headstones now commemorate the casualties. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

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.

Brown-Lanier House

The Brown-Lanier House | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

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Map | Kentucky National Parks

To Learn More About The Civil War

So many books, so little time! If you’re looking to learn more about the war in its entirety then I’m recommending three of the best Civil War authors on the planet. I’m also going to recommend three of my favorite books when it comes to the Battle of Shiloh. The author and book recommendations are courtesy of me while the photo (above) is Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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 Civil War historians, you can’t go wrong with Shelby Foote (pictured on the right). Here he is giving then President Jimmy Carter a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield. President Carter really knew how to pick his tour guides! (Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

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

  1. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
  2. Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
  3. Camp Nelson National Monument
  4. Fort Donelson National Battlefield
  5. Mammoth Cave National Park
  6. Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument
Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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