Facilities for picnicking, camping, hiking, horseback riding, and other forms of outdoor recreation are found throughout the state, especially in the various units of the state park system. Many of these units lie on rivers, lakes, or reservoirs and are popular areas for swimming, boating, fishing, and water-skiing. Hunting and fishing are two very popular pastimes.
The Kentucky countryside, noted for its scenic diversity, is considered one of the state's principal tourist attractions. In addition, Kentucky is noted for its numerous places of historical interest.
The four units administered by the National Park Service are among the state's most popular attractions. The underground passages of Mammoth Cave National Park are still being mapped by explorers. Mammoth Cave itself is a series of limestone chambers and narrow passages on five separate levels. It connects with two other cave systems that together extend 348 miles, making it the longest explored cave system in the world. In this vast subterranean world are giant vertical shafts, including the towering Mammoth Dome. Some passages and rooms are decorated with sparkling white gypsum crystals, while others are fitted with the sculpted shapes of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. Underground rivers, with names like Echo River and the River Styx, flow through Mammoth's deepest chambers.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, located near Hodgenville, includes the cabin where the 16th United States president was born. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was established in 1940 to preserve the historical Cumberland Gap area, a route through the Appalachian Mountains used by pioneers to enter the Kentucky territory. A portion of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the Cumberland River is located in southeastern Kentucky. The free-flowing river passes through scenic gorges and valleys containing a variety of natural features.
Daniel Boone National Forest covers more than 670,000 acres of the Appalachian Plateaus region of Kentucky. The forest, a relatively narrow ribbon of land, extends across the region from the Tennessee state line to within about 20 miles of the Ohio state line.
Within the forest is the Red River Gorge, a protected geological area. Kentucky also contains a small section of Jefferson National Forest, most of which is in Virginia.
Kentucky maintains a widespread system of 47 state parks, 15 of which are resort parks. The Pennyrile Forest State Park is located south of Dawson Springs. Grouped around the vast Kentucky Lake, which lies on the Tennessee River behind Kentucky Dam, are Kenlake and Kentucky Dam Village state resort parks.
Situated in the western part of the state, both of these state parks provide excellent facilities for fishing and water sports. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, surrounded by Daniel Boone National Forest, is on the Cumberland River. The Cumberland Falls, the park's principal attraction, are 125 feet wide and have a drop of 68 feet. They are known for their moonbow, a rainbow that forms at full moon in the mist over the falls. In Natural Bridge State Resort Park, which is also surrounded by the national forest, is a spectacular, natural stone arch. The Kentucky Horse Park at Lexington features a great variety of horses and international competition.
In addition, there are units of the park system that are noted for their historic associations. Jefferson Davis Monument State Historic Site, at Fairview, in southwestern Kentucky, commemorates the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, who served as the only president of the Confederacy. John James Audubon State Park, near Henderson, in northwestern Kentucky, is named for the famous 19th-century naturalist and artist John James Audubon, who lived and worked in Henderson. In the park are a bird sanctuary and a museum that houses some of Audubon's famous works.
At Bardstown, about 30 miles southeast of Louisville, is My Old Kentucky Home State Park, one of the state's most famous landmarks. The park preserves Federal Hill, the mansion where, according to tradition, Stephen Foster was inspired to write the famous song for which the shrine is named. This song is now the state song of Kentucky.
Old Fort Harrod State Park, at Harrodsburg, commemorates the first permanent white settlement in Kentucky. It includes a reconstruction of the original Fort Harrod, which was built in 1775, the year after the first settlers arrived. The site of a settlement organized by Daniel Boone is in Fort Boonesborough State Park. In Levi Jackson State Park, near London, in southeastern Kentucky, are reproductions of pioneer buildings. Two other units, Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site, in central Kentucky, and Blue Licks Battlefield State Park, northeast of Lexington, commemorate the bloodiest battles that occurred in Kentucky during the Civil War and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Other state park units include Columbus-Belmont Battlefield State Park, which marks the site of a Civil War engagement; Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site, which is dedicated to the first white person to discover the Cumberland Gap; and William Whitley House State Historic Site, in which is preserved what is said to be the first brick house built west of the Allegheny Mountains. The house, which has been restored, was completed in 1794.