Kentucky Bourbon Trail Part 2

Thursday morning brought with it a cloudburst that threatened to put a major damper on the day's planned activities, one of which was a visit to Keeneland Race Track. Founded in 1935 and situated on about 150 acres just on the outskirts of Lexington, the famed race track was the location for most of the racing scenes from the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit".

The horses workout on a rainy, chilly morning at Keeneland

Keeneland Race Track

It is a gorgeous venue and is well known for its mid-April running of the Blue Grass Stakes, an important prep for the Kentucky Derby. We were a tad early (in the season) to experience the thrill of an actual race, but were still able the watch the jockeys and trainers as they worked out their horses on the synthetic Polytrack surface installed in 2006.

Keeneland Race Track - photo courtesy Lexington CVB

Racing starts in April and on Saturdays, a hot buffet breakfast is served -- $5 for adults and kids 3 and older; kids under 3 eat free. Parking is free with a nominal $3 admission fee to the racetrack during races; there are numerous opportunities to learn more from the trackside commentary about how horses prepare for a race and to learn about Keeneland's history... maybe even see a famous jockey or two. For those who want to place a wager, it can still be done cheaply -- as little as $2 -- and the whole family can have fun without having to take out a loan to do it!

Go Climb a Rock

The rain that had taken a break and allowed us to observe some of the workouts began anew, and a cold wind added to the discomfort, so we packed it in and headed east and south to Natural Bridge State Park, with a brief stop in the Red River Gorge Geologic area of the Daniel Boone National Forest, a magnificent and beautiful area, comprised of sandstone and limestone, carved out by nature over a period of millions of years.  Here can be found the largest concentration of arches and rock shelters east of the Rocky Mountains -- places in which native Indians and possibly even Daniel Boone once stayed. 

A beautiful waterfall in the natural stone ampitheater at Red River Outdoors

Our first destination was Red River Outdoors -- a venue that offers rental canoes for individuals or groups, comfortable and secluded cabins with plenty of amenities, guided and instructional rock climbing from beginner to advanced (for those requiring a bit more of an adrenaline rush) and plenty of Kentucky hospitality.  I'm sure that we looked pretty green (as well as pretty out of shape) but Amy (one of the owners) took us on a brief tour of the property where the majority of the climbing takes place and then very nonchalantly asked if we were ready to climb...

It probably wasn't, but the sandstone wall in front of us appeared to be almost vertical!  The rain had once again stopped so, undaunted we both slipped on the harnesses and climbing shoes that were available for those of us who are unprepared novices, and then  we attempted an ascent. Neither Yvonne nor myself got very far up the wall... but at least we tried.  And I do have to admit that I now understand why people get into climbing mountains. 

One of the many available climbs at Red River Outdoors

It's more than simply a case of "Because it's there" and I don't believe that I can adequately describe the sensation.  But it was a lot of fun and something that I would encourage you to try.  Amy shared with us that lots of people drive to the area all the way from the Chicago area every weekend, just to scale these cliffs.  Try it for yourselves and you'll surely understand why.  It's a great place for novice or experienced climbers, as well as groups that want to share an exceptional experience.  We thanked our gracious hosts for their patience and headed back down the road to our next night's lodging in Hemlock Lodge at Natural Bridge State Park.

An attempt at rock climbing

Before entering the Park, we stopped at Miguel's Pizza and Rock Climbing Shop for a bite to eat.  Not only is this little gem a hang-out for climbers, it is a picturesque -- and inexpensive ($2 per person per night) -- spot to pitch a tent and camp for a night or two.  They have some of the best pizza I have tasted: Miguel makes his own dough and pizza sauce every morning and always has a couple dozen different toppings available. 

The place also has all the requisite rock climbing equipment you would need.  And you can scour the 'net, but you simply will not find anything less than a five-star review of the place.  The parking lot is always full, and that is testament to the quality of the food.  Even as the rain started again, it didn't dampen the spirits of the climbers we saw there.  It's a must-stop destination, whether you are a climber or not!

Natural Bridge State Park

Almost directly across the street from Miguel's is the Natural Bridge State Resort Park.  As State Parks go, this one is very cool.  About 50-60 feet below Hemlock Lodge (where we stayed), a small river runs through the park and surrounds an area called Hoedown Island -- an open-air dance patio for weekly square dances; Pedal Boats and Hydrobikes are available for rental there.  There is also a swimming pool... but our choice was the many miles of hiking trails up and around the cliffs. 

The rain seemed to let up in response to our desire to go for a hike, so we headed up one of the trails -- which range by the way from easy to advanced -- to reach the natural bridge for which the park is named.  The trail we selected is only about three-quarters of a mile in length from the lodge to the bridge... but the ascent on this the "Original Trail" is some 500 feet up.  Even done slowly, it'll get your heart pumping!  Though spring hadn't yet fully arrived, the redbuds were starting to show their colors and the dense stands of rhododendron were looking as if they were about to burst, while the yellow poplar still held tightly to last season's leaves.

The 'Original Trail' at Natural Bridge State Park

The climb took only about 45 minutes and views were breathtaking --- certainly worth the time and effort to get there.  Crossing under the arch and then sliding through a narrow fracture in the rocks, we emerged and climbed a number of stairs in order to reach the very top of the natural arch.  Wow!  What a place to be.  The product of some 300 million years sculpting by Mother Nature, the sandstone arch is quite a sight to behold.  And except for a few hollers and whistles from folks wanting to hear the echoes, the peace and quiet was deafening.  After snapping a plethora of pictures, we headed back down, selecting Trail #2 -- otherwise known as "Balanced Rock Trail" -- for our return trip.  It, too, was only three-quarters of a mile in length back to the lodge. 

Standing beneath the 'Natural Bridge'

Though we did have another choice... a trail which was nine and a quarter miles long, my legs said an immediate NO to that thought!  Balanced Rock Trail -- sporting a huge and precariously-balanced block of sandstone for which the trail is named -- was much steeper, and I was glad that we chose it for going down rather than up.  By the time we got back to the lodge, our legs had been replaced by something that I can only describe as an alloy of rubber and spaghetti.  Oddly, it was a good feeling, and I knew that we would sleep well tonight.

Balanced Rock

We took showers and headed to dinner at Sandstone Arches Restaurant in the lodge.  The menu is fairly large and boasts many Kentucky favorites that utilize locally grown meats and produce when available.  With offering such as Fried Catfish, Fried Green Tomatoes, and the popular Kentucky Hot Brown (an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and broiled, then topped with tomatoes -- originally created at the Brown Hotel in 1926), as well as a giant buffet and serve-yourself ice cream for dessert, how could one go wrong?  It was a severe case of "the tireds" that kept us from having any dessert; we gingerly arose from our chairs and headed to bed early.  Another long but satisfying day had come to an end.

Read about the next leg of our Bourbon Trail trip: Whisky For My Horses

Related Products

50 Hikes in Kentucky: From the Appalachian Mountains to the Land Between the Lakes (50 Hikes Guides)