Water parks, winding roads, and Lake Cumberland all add up to fun in this part of the Bluegrass State.
By David and Ritsuko Robinson
It was happening right before our eyes. Our family vacation was going down the tubes.
Three tubes, in fact. They even had names: Aqua Whiz, Blue Twister, and Crazy Cruz. From a 40-foot tower, the three water slides corkscrewed downward like monstrous blue earthworms to a pool at the bottom. Our three fearless kids hurled themselves into the three sluices as we exchanged worried-parent glances. Then, what the heck; we shrugged, laughed, and slithered down the vertiginous pipes and flumes to a nose-filling SPLASH! at the bottom.
Call it a Kentucky splash. It was the first of many splashes in our journey through the lake country of southeastern Kentucky. It’s also the name of the water park where our motorhome trip began. Whether you start your own explorations at Kentucky Splash water park in Williamsburg; Lake Cumberland; or in a raft sidling up to thundering Cumberland Falls, you are bound to get wet.
A few years ago you could zip through Williamsburg, Kentucky, on Interstate 75 without slowing down. Not any more “” especially if you have kids in tow and they’re looking out the window. Get your brake foot ready, because Kentucky Splash sits right next to the interstate, and the moment the youngsters spot this new water park with its miniature golf course, driving range, go-cart track, batting cages, 18,000-square-foot wave pool, and other fun stuff galore, you are headed for the exit 11 off-ramp and a day of wild, wet fun. One look and you’ll be hooked.
Williamsburg calls itself the “Gateway to the Cumberlands,” and it’s an appropriate name. If you start there, you’ll be in the middle of things: Cumberland Gap to the east, Lake Cumberland to the west, and all the delights in between. Kentucky Splash is the centerpiece of the city-owned Hal Rogers Family Entertainment Center. Williamsburg also boasts one of the largest tourist information centers between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast, with brochures and local savvy on everything from a bluegrass hoedown to an art exhibit to the superb state resort parks, most of which have fine campgrounds. If your trip were a board game, Williamsburg would be GO.
But before you do go, take your appetite across the interstate to the elegant Cumberland Inn & Museum. It’s owned by Cumberland College and staffed by professionals and more than 100 students who will treat you like royalty as they prepare for careers in the hospitality profession. A fascinating museum can be explored at the inn, and a gorgeous dome painted with clouds and cherubs in the stately lobby will give you a stiff neck from gawking up at it. Not us; we opened Ritsuko’s compact and admired it while looking down into the mirror.
Don’t leave without a map. The map of these parts is sprinkled with colorful names such as Redbird, Blue John, and Goldbug; names that hint of a story to tell, including Number One, Touristville, Co-Operative, and Tidal Wave; and monikers right out of nature, such as Blue Heron, Black Snake, and Honeybee. You’ll also notice that many of the smaller roads squirm like spastic serpents across the flat paper, a sure tip-off that this is hill country.
You turn into Kentucky Splash after a few hundred feet on one such road, State Route 92. Should you take it east from there in a motorhome? Opinions vary. One local took a long look at our 26-footer and said that he didn’t advise it. But a large type A coach towing a car pulled in as we were gassing up, and the driver called the road a piece of cake. So, it’s your call. Our call was another what-the-heck; we decided that if that man could do it, so could we. Traveling east on State Route 92 for 36 roller-coaster miles, then southeast on U.S. Route 25E for a 17-mile run on divided highway, we arrived in Middlesboro in an hour and a half. If you’re short on what-the-hecks, you can head north on I-75 approximately 18 miles and pick up U.S. 25E in Corbin.
Either way you get there, you’ll find Middlesboro right where Kentucky’s straight-line southern border gets bent northeastward by the jab of Virginia’s western spearpoint. Pull in for a bite at Avenue Café and Antiques downtown; the food is fine and the old stuff is folksy and fascinating.
If you don’t stop, you’ll tunnel through Cumberland Mountain on U.S. 25E and come out in Tennessee. Well, as long as you’re down there, there’s someone you ought to meet. His name is Abe. Honest Abe, in fact.
He almost comes to life in the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, two miles beyond the tunnel. There you’ll see a ticket to Ford’s Theatre for the night he was shot, a silver-tipped cane he carried as he entered the place, and a lock of hair clipped as he lay dying. Letters, photos, recollections “” exhibits on two floors with more than 30,000 artifacts from his life “” make this one of the finest links to Lincoln you’ll find in the nation he loved and fought to preserve.
The museum is open daily. Admission is $3.50 for seniors (age 60-plus), $5 for adults, $3 for children 6 to 12, and free for children under 6. Call (423) 869-6235 for more information, or visit www.lmunet.edu/museum/index.html.
As you tunnel back into Kentucky, where Lincoln was born, maybe you’ll wonder why the highway doesn’t take the easy route through that nice low gap in the ridge a mile to the north. Well, it once did. That’s the famous Cumberland Gap, a natural notch where deer and bison trampled their own highway far back in the mists of prehistory. When Indians came, they took over the trail and trod it for war and trade. The legendary Daniel Boone guided settlers westward along the ancient track while the American Revolution raged back east, and by 1792 the Kentucky wilderness was tamed and populated enough to become a state.
The Wilderness Road continued to funnel pioneers westward and crops and livestock eastward, because it was the only deep cut in some 400 miles of mountain. By modern times, the old four-foot-wide trail was gussied up in pavement, speed limit signs, and the familiar shield with the route number 25E.
Then in 1996 a tunnel was blasted through the ridge. The old pavement was peeled up, and the National Park Service began restoring the gap to its original appearance. Now as you take a leisurely hike on the Wilderness Road Trail, you can tread sections of the actual pathway where the settlers prodded their oxen westward. Listen! Is that a branch rubbing another, or the eerie echo of a wagon creaking and jouncing with a mother nursing her babe inside?
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park has a visitors center that interprets the area, where maps and rest rooms are available. A winding road leads up to the Pinnacle Overlook, a viewing area high above the gap, where you’ll find several walkways and trails. A vehicle length limit of 20 feet is imposed on the narrow, winding road that leads to the top. Drive your towed vehicle, or ask at the visitors center about whether staff are available to drive the park shuttle to the top. Cost is $5 per person.
Hike to Cudjo’s Cave with a park ranger and catch the whispers of Civil War soldiers who dodged a startled bat or two and gazed in wonder at stalactites that looked almost polished. Then pull into the park’s campground and snuggle into your soft, warm bed with a hearty appreciation for travelers of yesteryear. They would goggle in amazement at how you breeze along in their wagon tracks, covering more in an hour than they would in several days. Did you find State Route 92 a bit tricky? They’d have thought it a boulevard.
Back in Middlesboro, a slender debutante who looks better today than she did 60 years ago is waiting for you to come a-calling. Go to the Lost Squadron Museum at the Bell County Airport in Middlesboro and meet the lovely Glacier Girl. She’s a beautiful Lockheed P-38F Lightning, one of six brand-new P-38 fighters that were flying to England with two B-17 bombers in 1942. Bad weather forced them to belly in on the Greenland icecap. The airmen were rescued, but the planes were abandoned.
After 50 years of snow buildup, the planes became buried under 268 feet of ice. In an incredible feat of ingenuity, a crew melted a shaft down to a P-38, took the craft apart, and hoisted the pieces gingerly up the shaft. It took another decade of meticulous restoration at Middlesboro, but Glacier Girl flew again in October 2002, flaunting her svelte figure before 20,000 cheering spectators. Now she poses demurely for her adoring admirers in the hangar where she was reborn, a fast lady with an amazing past.
The Lost Squadron Museum is open daily and admission is free. One caveat: the famous plane is in great demand to appear at air shows around the United States, so you might want to check to be sure she’s there when you are. Call (606) 248-1149 or visit www.thelostsquadron.com for more information.
A piece of ground in Middlesboro also has an intriguing past. Middlesboro Country Club claims to be America’s oldest continuously played golf course. English settlers, homesick for faraway links they would never play again, created the course in 1889. Today centuries-old oaks rustle their leaves in dismay as you slice into the rough on one of the toughest little courses you’ll ever challenge.
Kentucky is famous for its smooth bourbon whiskey, but surprisingly, many of its counties are dry. You can make it there but you can’t buy it there. No matter; we’re going where it’s wet “” not for the bourbon, but for the water at Lake Cumberland.
From Middlesboro, travel west to Williamsburg using U.S. 25E and State Route 92. Stay on 92 east, and a mile short of U.S. 27, you’ll see the Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Stearns.
Steam trains that chugged from here to the South Fork of the Cumberland River weren’t out for the scenery, but first for lumber and then for coal. Today a burly diesel with a cargo of tourists rumbles out of Stearns and into history, a 5-mile run into the valley 600 feet below. There it stops at the Blue Heron Mining Camp, deserted in 1962 when the coal played out and restored in 1989 by the National Park Service. Here you can walk across the river “” hang onto your camera! “” on a dizzying bridge, part of the coal tipple where the cars were loaded. Meet the miners and their families on the hillside behind, where recordings of people who lived and worked here speak to you from the framework of houses that once stood there. Visit the Barthell Mining Camp, and for an extra fee you can spend the night in a miner’s cabin.
From there, continue west on State Route 92 to Monticello. We stayed near Albany, 25 or so miles south of there via State Route 90 and U.S. 127. We had a shady campsite with a deck and grill on the hilltop behind Grider Hill Dock and Indian Creek Lodge (866-387-7656; www.griderhilldock.com). Set your watch an hour ahead; you’re now in Central time. But who cares about time? Let someone else cook dinner as you relax at your table in the rustic lodge or out on the stone terrace, with a sweeping view of the lake at your feet. With the patience of eons, the ancient Cumberland River carved a deep canyon out of the rock and soil of Kentucky. Now a massive dam has refilled the canyon with the river’s own water.
Today Lake Cumberland sprawls across more than 60,000 acres and stretches its tendrils into countless coves and bays, a playground for boaters, anglers, and nature lovers. That’s why those big, boxy houseboats hug the dock; they’re waiting to take a dozen people into a secluded inlet or up to the foot of towering 76 Falls. Another splash awaits you at the bottom of a slide sloping off the houseboat’s stern. Rent one for a week’s adventure, and you’ll feel right at home. It’s an RV, only bigger. And it floats.
Another campground choice is Conley Bottom Resort, just off State Route Route 1275 out of Monticello. Here the campground lies along the shore of Lake Cumberland, and the far section is where the big rigs settle. Sites have water and electrical hookups; a limited number of sewer hookups are available. We nestled next to a large type A motorhome with a boat and trailer in tow.
Soon, to our immense delight, we were in that boat, zipping down the lake and into a wooded cove as guests of our new friends, Diane and Gordon Porter. Time for another splash! One by one we jumped into the cool, clear water, first the kids, then the grown-ups acting like kids. If someone tells you the people here are friendly, believe it.
If you don’t have a boat, or a neighbor with one, you’ll find no trouble renting one, from houseboats to personal watercraft. Rent a fishing boat, and you might come back with a 40-pound striper!
One more splash awaits. It’s at Cumberland Falls, a roaring cascade 68 feet high sometimes called the “Niagara of the South.” To get there from Conley Bottom Resort, travel east on State Route 90; the park is located on State Route 90 in between U.S. 27 and I-75. And one more what-the-heck: you came here to get wet, so take the Rainbow Mist Ride raft trip from Sheltowee Trace outfitters (800-541-7238) right up to the mist cloud at the base. If you’re very lucky and the moon that night is round and full, you can marvel at an evening moonbow as the pale moonbeams glance off the mist.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park offers a lodge with a restaurant; fishing in the Cumberland River; camping (with electrical and water hookups); hiking; and white-water rafting. For more information, call (800) 325-0063 or visit http://parks.ky.gov/resortparks/cf/.
A short jaunt east on State Route 90 and south on U.S. 25W takes you back to I-75. You won’t want to leave, but what the heck; from start to finish, didn’t you make a splash in Kentucky?
Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association
22992 S. Highway 27
Somerset, KY 42501
Kentucky Department Of Tourism
Capital Plaza Tower
500 Mero St.
Frankfort, KY 40601