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Want to go for a walk? Here are five tree hikes to take this summer in Kentucky

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

This time of year, many of us are out there in our gardens, derriere in the air, plucking weeds, checking soil moisture and generally obsessing about fine scale garden details. But as summer temperatures rise, it’s time to turn our attention to the trees – for their shade and for a little inspiration.

While the woodlands and meadows of Kentucky are well known for the magic of their spring and summer wildflowers, we often forget about the trees. They stand there all year long, year after year after year. They endure summer droughts and winter gales. They stand there, their entire world consisting of once small spot of earth that they protect and shade and shelter, some for a hundred years
or more.

When you think about it that way, seems it’s worth setting aside a few days this summer to walk among our venerable trees.

Across Kentucky we are blessed with tremendous botanical diversity. From the mountains and acid soils of the east to the inner Bluegrass to the western waterlands. And that diversity provides a wealth of tree (and wildlife) viewing, perfect for the summer tree hike.

Here’s a list of a few favorites:

Yes, you can drive four hours southeast from Louisville and still be in Kentucky! This magical place sits in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian country with more mountains than you could climb in a reasonable lifetime. And clothing those mountains and valleys is a tremendous list of noble trees. From the oaks and maples you’d expect to see, all the way to a superb collection of native magnolias – including the elusive Magnolia fraseri that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere in Kentucky. Massive white pine (Pinus strobus) and Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) tower 150 feet or more over an understory filled with rhododendrons and mountain laurels. Most of the trails are less than a mile but can be linked to make for a longer walk. The Little Shepherd Trail is a miles long, 1-lane paved road that follows the crest of Pine Mountain, providing spectacular views and easy access to a host of trees for those who choose not to do it on foot. Plan to spend the night!

Ridgetop view from Little Shepherd Trail, Kingdom Come State Park, Cumberland, KY. - one of many excellent sites to see outstanding native tree populations across the commonwealth.

Still offering up a wonderful sampling of eastern Kentucky flora but a bit closer to home, the Gorge offers miles and miles of hiking trails and acres upon acres of wonderful tree country. From big leaf magnolias (Magnolia macrophylla) with their giant, 3-foot-long, white backed leaves to 100-foot-tall cucumber magnolias (Magnolia acuminata), it is a tree lover’s paradise. If you’re lucky you might even get a glimpse of the elusive (and maddeningly difficult to grow in a garden) mountain stewartia, Stewartia ovata, Kentucky’s only tea relative. While most visitors flock to the famed Natural Bridge, I lean toward the Auxier Ridge Loop, a relatively easy 5 miler.

If bottomlands are more your style, head to just west of Paducah to check out the Beaver Dam Slough area/trail in this national recreation area. Big old bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) rise from the wetlands, giving this place the look of about the closest thing to Jurassic Park you can find in Kentucky. And if you happen to have the birder gene as well as the tree gene, you’re in luck. This is one of my favorite birding places in all of Kentucky! Keep in mind that this is not a state or national park so facilities are minimal.

While most people flock to this national treasure, understandably, for the caves, it offers some of the best woodland hiking trails in the commonwealth. The south section of the park (Visitor Center area) offers miles of easy to easy/moderate trails through varied forests full of black gums (Nyssa sylvatica), sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and a whole lot more, and splendid views of the Green River. The north section is for the more back country hiker and offers more than 60 miles of trails. Sure, the trails are known for their spring ephemeral wildflowers but the trees are hard to beat too!

Moss Gibbs Woodland Garden – Amazingly, this gem of a world class park is still one of the most underappreciated feathers in Louisville’s cap. One of the largest visitor/donor funded parks in the nation, it follows a 20+ mile section of Floyds Fork and covers tremendously varied terrain from ridgetop to floodplain. And its trees vary with that terrain.

For a close to home, half a day tree outing, head down Bardstown Road, just a few miles south of the Snyder Freeway (I-265) where you’ll find a mixture of fully paved and artfully set natural stone paths that wind through a beautifully preserved and tended Kentucky woodland.

And if for no other reason, the trip is worth it for what I count as my top two wonders of the whole park system. The Venerable Oak, a massive, 125-year-old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) seems to watch guard over the whole garden and almost insists that you pause a moment to ponder its history on that patch of land. Further up the trail, the dry-set limestone bridge, is a piece of construction reminiscent of John D. Rockefeller’s Acadia National Park bridges on the coast of Maine.

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on June 13, 2023.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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