There’s a common misconception that to get the full experience of all there is to do outdoors, there’s a cost involved. Most of us are aware of our public parks here in Lexington, but both the central Kentucky region and the state as a whole feature a plethora of ways to fully immerse yourself in the natural landscape, all free to the public.
Nature Sanctuaries and Parks
Lexington’s McConnell Springs Park is famous for its gorgeous display of the central Kentucky natural world, and as the name suggests, the multiple artesian springs found here are a rare but beautiful sight. It’s also located on historic land, with the area’s ties to Kentuckian history dating back to the Revolutionary War era. Also in Lexington is Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, a preserve spanning over 300 acres and aiming to teach its attendees about the natural vastness of the Bluegrass. While many of their guided tours involve fees (albeit usually small ones), there are periodic in-person free events and webinars open to the public. In nearby Frankfort, you can also find Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, which has both its sanctuary and trails open to the public.
As it turns out, Kentucky just might be one of the best places to hike in the country. In Lexington alone, there are several great opportunities, the best-known of which is arguably Raven Run. This nature sanctuary features multiple trails of varying difficulty traversing a variety of landscapes, laid out across more than 700 acres of land just outside the city limits. There are historical landmarks like the Evans Mill Pond, the site of a former grist mill built in the 19th century; as well as the Prather House, which was the farmstead of a revolutionary war soldier in early Kentucky. Other local hiking opportunities include Veteran’s Park as well as Floracliff Nature Sanctuary. McConnell Springs is also known for its short but beautiful walking trail, as are a number of public recreation parks in the area.
Not far from Lexington, you can find Pilot’s Knob in Powell County, which has two trails (a difficult and moderate trail respectively.) Few hiking experiences parallel that of Daniel Boone National Forest, particularly at the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge. The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail crosses through this iconic national forest, although for the adventurous, the entire trail stretches over 300 miles from Rowan County to Tennessee.
Once again, the Daniel Boone National Forest takes the cake for some of the best free outdoor recreation in the state. While there are various campgrounds throughout the area, some of these are completely free to the public (or near free, requiring a fee of a dollar or a couple of dollars) like Turkey Foot Campground or Great Meadows Campground. A drive to Elk Horn, Kentucky means access to the Wilson Creek Recreation Area, another free campground, albeit a slightly longer trip than to Daniel Boone Forest.
There are numerous other free-to-the-public camping areas throughout the state, and oftentimes simply researching or making some calls can clear up any questions of fees or lack thereof.