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Art Lander’s Outdoors: State’s natural wonders awe visitors with big timber, soaring rock bridges, caverns

Kentucky’s five physiographic regions are home to several natural wonders of worldwide importance.

Diverse communities of plants and animals, and spectacular landscapes, evolved over millions of years, created and enhanced by the action of wind and water, and made possible by Kentucky’s unique location, south of the Ohio River.

Here are three destinations that awe visitors with their uniqueness and rugged beauty:

Lilley Cornett Woods, owned by Eastern Kentucky University, is now known as the Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station.

Located in Letcher County, Lilley Cornett Woods is just south of Hallie, Kentucky, on Linefork Creek.

Its 554 acres of mixed mesophytic forest include 252 acres of which is designated as “old-growth, ” unaltered by human activity for more than 150 years. Some of the trees are estimated to be more than 400 years old.

Lilley Cornett Woods panorama (Photo by Don Sniegowski, Flickr Commons)

Named for the man who spent most of his life protecting the forest from fire, timber cutting and strip mining, Lilley Cornett first saw the woods in 1915 and decided the unique area was worth protecting for the generations of Kentuckians in the future. He bought up all the adjoining land he could until 1933.

Botanists speculate that the forests of eastern Kentucky were the seed producers for all the great American forests.

An Ice Age, in distant prehistory, which ended about 10,000 years ago, destroyed most northern forests.

But Kentucky’s location, south of the Ohio River, with its plateau lands, hilly terrain and milder climate, enabled pockets of the forest to survive upheavals in the earth’s crust caused by a series of advancing and retreating glaciers.

Lilley Cornett Woods boasts some trees as old as 400 years (Photo by Kira, Flickr Commons)

Lilly Cornett Woods is the last remnant of the great forests which once stretched from the Big Sandy to the Mississippi River in Kentucky, the “progenitor” of all the diverse forest types of this country.

Plants and animals abound on this biodiverse property. There are over 530 species of flowering plants and an estimated 700 breeding pairs of birds present. Additionally, there’s a wide variety of small mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

Lilley Cornett Woods is a U.S. Department of the Interior registered national landmark and a registered natural area of the Society of American Foresters.

Visitor Center hours are: April 1 to October 31, open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and November 1 to March 31, by appointment only.

Public access on two designated trails through Lilley Cornett Woods is by guided tour only.

Tours are not regularly scheduled but are available during Visitor Center hours on a first-come, first-serve basis. Calling ahead to schedule a tour, especially for groups, is recommended.

For more information contact: Curtis Cox, Manager, Lilley Cornett Woods, 91 Lilley Cornett Branch, Hallie, Kentucky 41821, telephone 606-633-5828.

Red River Gorge is a canyon system on the upper Red River, a tributary to the Kentucky River.

The “Gorge,” as it is known to those who love this rugged landscape, is east of Stanton, Kentucky in Daniel Boone National Forest.

Sandstone clifflines throughout Red River Gorge have made it one of the world’s top rock climbing destinations (Photo by Jill Gadz, Flickr Commons)

The Red River Gorge Geological Area, about 29,000 acres, including the 13,379-acre Clifty Wilderness, has been designated a National Natural Landmark, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The canyon has an abundance of high sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, waterfalls, and natural bridges, including more than 100 natural sandstone arches.

There is evidence in rock shelters and other sites in the Gorge of prehistoric occupancy by indigenous people, beginning with the Paleo-Indian period, 10,500 B.C. to 8000 B.C.

In 2003 the Red River Gorge Geological Area and some adjoining private and public lands were designated as a National Archaeological District. The 37,217 acres contain 664 known sites.

Recreational opportunities abound.

The numerous sandstone cliff lines of the Gorge have become one of the world’s top rock climbing destinations.

The Red River in the upper gorge offers good fishing and paddling opportunities and was designated a Kentucky Wild River by the Kentucky General Assembly through the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves’ Wild Rivers Program.

There are lots of day-hiking and backpacking opportunities, with over 60 miles of trails, maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

One of the many sandstone arches in Red River Gorge (Photo by John Johnson, FLickr Commons)

The Red River Gorge Geological Area is home to a great variety of wildlife including hawks, owls, peregrine falcons, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, white-tailed deer, fox, black bears, and two venomous snakes, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.

It is also home to several endangered species including the white-haired goldenrod which is found only in the Gorge. Plants of Canadian origin are believed to have been established in the Gorge area during the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation which started about 2.58 million years ago.

Other rare of endangered plants include the Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes), Canadian Lily (Lilium canadense), and Canadian Yew (Taxus canadensis).

The Daniel Boone National Forest Gladie Visitor Center is located in Slade, Kentucky.

There are interpretive exhibits about the area’s geology, natural history and cultural history. Visitors can get maps, information about trails, camping and other activities.

Another source of up-to-date information is a USDA Forest Service website.

Mammoth Cave National Park is an international treasure.

The National Park Service offers several tours of Mammoth Cave (Photo by Kim Shoo, Flickr Commons)

The national park was established on July 1, 1941, was designated a World Heritage Site on October 27, 1981, and an international Biosphere Reserve on September 26, 1990.

Mammoth Cave National Park is 52,830 acres, located primarily in Edmonson County, extending eastward into Hart and Barren counties. The Green River runs through the park, with the Nolin River flowing into the Green near the park’s western boundary.

Evidence suggests that Mammoth Cave was extensively explored by Native Americans during the Archaic Period (8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) through the Woodland Period (1000 B.C. to A.D. 1000). The historic entrance to Mammoth Cave was discovered in the late 1790s by a hunter trailing a wounded bear.

Wild Cave Tours (Photo by Keith Allison, Flickr Commons)

In 1972 the cave became the longest cave system known in the world after researchers discovered a passageway that linked Mammoth Cave to adjacent Flint Ridge Cave.

The National Park Service offers several cave tours to visitors.

Some notable features of the cave, such as Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man’s Misery, can be seen on lighted tours ranging from one to six hours in length.

Two tours, lit only by visitor-carried paraffin lamps, are popular alternatives to the electric-lit routes, and several “wild” tours venture away from the developed parts of the cave, where participants make several crawls through muddy and dusty tunnels.

Other recreational activities at the park include hiking, camping, fishing and nature study.

For complete visitor information visit the National Park Service website.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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