10 Best Kentucky Hikes For Fall Color

Crisp days and cool nights announce the arrival of autumn in Kentucky. The best way to celebrate is to get outside. While the Commonwealth boasts hundreds of beautiful trails, these are particularly breathtaking at this time of year. So put on your walking shoes, grab your camera and enjoy nature’s colors! (And if you get the chance, share photos of you enjoying fall with us on our Facebook page!)

  1. Overlook and River Trails
    Dupree Nature Preserve
    Difficulty: Easy
    Length: 1 – 1.5 miles
    The Dupree Nature Preserve features savannah, woodlands, views of the Kentucky River and the Palisades, and interpretive materials along the trails. Begin on the main trail from the parking area along a wide gravel path, through savannah grasses evoking the historic landscape of central Kentucky. Upon entering the woods, you can choose to take the shore-level River Trail or the Overlook Trail, which provides panoramic views. The Cliff Trail connects both for those willing to put forth a little more effort. Hiking here in early November will usually reward you with a gorgeous display of fall asters.

    Fall Astors Palisades © Ken Brooks
    Fall Astors Palisades © Ken Brooks
  2. Lucy Braun Memorial Trail: Knobby Rock Loop
    Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve
    Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
    Length: 2.5 miles round trip, with optional 1.3 mile loop
    For wonderful views of fall foliage and a chance to walk among giants, explore the largest remaining old-growth forest in Kentucky. The Knobby Rock Loop takes you to a massive sandstone rock outcrop which offers an expansive view of the mountains. If you are looking for a longer hike, consider adding the Sand Cave Loop which takes you through a maze of jumbled sandstone blocks to a unique sandstone rock shelter. The trail begins with a short walk along a gravel path at the edge of Camp Blanton, a scout camp at the base of the forest.

    Blanton © Greg Abernathy Kentucky Natural Lands Trust
    Blanton © Greg Abernathy Kentucky Natural Lands Trust
  3. Jim Beam Nature Preserve Trail
    Jim Beam Nature Preserve
    Difficulty: Easy
    Length:  1.5 miles
    As one of the easiest trails on the list, the Jim Beam Nature Preserve Trail is perfect for a quick walk with small children. The inner woodlands take you through tulip, poplar, beech and hickory trees, along with beautiful plants and wildlife. Lookout point offers a nice view of the Kentucky Palisades, but the diverse variety of trees make leaf color the star attraction of this trail during the fall season.

    Jim Beam Nature Preserve Trail Sign © TNC Staff
    Jim Beam Nature Preserve Trail Sign © TNC Staff
  4. Auxier Ridge Loop
    Daniel Boone National Forest
    Difficulty: Moderate
    Length: 5 miles
    The Auxier Ridge Loop, which combines the Auxier Ridge Trail and Courthouse Rock Trail, offers some of the best views of the Red River Gorge. Along the way you will see several of the area’s famous sandstone arches while sheer cliffs extending on both sides of the ridge add a thrill to the hike. The terminus has views of Double Arch, Haystack Rock, Courthouse Rock and Raven Rock. This time of year, the gorge will be alive with color!

    Auxier Ridge © Sallie Carter
    Auxier Ridge © Sallie Carter
  5. Mantle Rock Loop Trail
    Mantle Rock Nature Preserve
    Difficulty: Moderate
    Length: 2.75 miles
    Just as its name implies, the centerpiece of the Mantle Rock Nature Preserve is a 30-foot high natural sandstone bridge spanning 188 feet and embellished by bluffs, shelters, honeycomb formations, fluorite deposits and a rock-lined stream. The bright fall foliage really stands out against the sandstone glades. History buffs get an added bonus at Mantle Rock; the nature preserve is a certified site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail with exhibits highlighting the preserve’s cultural history. Note: The hunting rights on a portion of the Mantle Rock Nature Preserve are owned by a third party; therefore, hunting is not managed by The Nature Conservancy. Visitors should check hunting season dates in this area by consulting the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources.

    Mantle Rock © Kevin Palmer/photoshelter.com
    Mantle Rock © Kevin Palmer/photoshelter.com
  6. Lyons Brown Trail
    Brown/Crutcher/Wallace Nature Preserve
    Difficulty: Easy
    Length: 3 miles
    Rocky riverbanks, bluff-top ridges and old sandy river terraces offer a chance to see a wide range of foliage, including blue ash, chinquapin oak, sugar maple, rock elm, yellow buckeye, beech and tulip poplar. The trail also offers great views of the river and the limestone cliffs. Early in the season take in a burst of color from fall wildflowers and changing autumn leaves. Later on, thinning leaves provide a better glimpse of the area’s many geological features.

    Brown/Crutcher/Wallace Nature Preserve © TNC Staff
    Brown/Crutcher/Wallace Nature Preserve © TNC Staff
  7. Big Hollow Hike and Bike Trail
    Mammoth Cave National Park
    Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous (depending on route)
    Length: 6.7 to 12.6 miles (depending on route)
    Usually associated with underground adventures, Mammoth Cave National Park also boasts more than 84 miles of terrestrial trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Big Hollow, a mixed-use trail, is one of the park’s newest trails and perfect for fall. The trail follows a barbell pattern with two distinct loops: the North Loop first leads adventurers into a beautiful hardwood forest; the South Loop covers more challenging ridge terrain following the Green River to a perfect lunch spot on limestone slabs overlooking the valley. As leaves begin to drop, they reveal the dramatic karst landscape supporting the park’s famous cave system below.

    Fall Colors at Mammoth Cave National Park © John Shuster/Creative Commons
    Fall Colors at Mammoth Cave National Park © John Shuster/Creative Commons
  8. Rock Run Loop
    Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest
    Difficulty: Moderate
    Length: ½ mile
    Bernheim’s most popular trail traverses slopes along a portion of Rock Run, an intermittent, spring-fed stream. The Rock Run Loop provides an opportunity to view limestone and shale outcroppings that reveal this region’s geological past. Fossils of ancient invertebrate sea life can be found along the creek bottom. At the turn of the century, many horse-drawn wagons transported water along the creek to the small community of Clermont just downstream. Though the trail is short, the terrain challenges hikers with steep slopes and obstacles that include creek crossings. The transition from beech-maple lowland forest to oak-hickory along the upper slopes features spectacular shades of red, yellow, and orange throughout the fall.

    Bernheim Forest © Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest
    Bernheim Forest © Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest
  9. Honker Lake Trail
    Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
    Difficulty: Moderate
    Length: 4.5 mile loop
    Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to manage waterfowl, this trail winds around Honker Lake through a variety of habitats: dense forest, meadows and a shallow, 180-acre lake harboring several wildlife reintroductions such as beaver, osprey, giant Canadian geese and otters. Don’t leave your camera at home; besides several stunning views bursting with color, you will likely get some great wildlife shots.

    One many species of wildlife you may encounter along the 4.3 mile long Honker Trail. © Mal Cunningham/Creative Commons
    One of many species of wildlife you may encounter along the 4.3 mile long Honker Trail. © Mal Cunningham/Creative Commons
  10. Bad Branch Falls Trail plus High Rock Loop
    Bad Branch State Nature Preserve
    Difficulty:  Strenuous
    Length:  7.5 miles
    You can hear the 60-foot waterfall before you see it on this trail leading through Bad Branch Gorge. Most of it follows an old logging road before becoming narrower and steeper as it approaches the falls and surrounding sandstone cliffs. Continue on the Upper Gorge Loop Trail, which follows steep terrain, to High Rock — an extensive sandstone outcrop at around 3,000 feet in elevation providing spectacular views of the Cumberland Plateau and Black Mountain. This is an ideal spot for watching hawks migrate during the fall. The nature preserve protects numerous rare species and houses Kentucky’s only known nesting pair of common ravens, so be on the lookout for a chance to spot wildlife.

    Bad Branch Nature Preserve © TNC Staff
    Bad Branch Nature Preserve © TNC Staff

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