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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Kentucky River basin extends 255 miles through heart of Commonwealth

Editor’s note: This is the third article in an occasional series profiling the river basins of Kentucky.

The Kentucky River flows through the heart of the state for 255 miles, draining about 7,000 square miles.

Arising on the northwest side of Pine Mountain, in the Cumberland Plateau, the Kentucky River flows in a northwesterly direction through the Knobs and Bluegrass Region. The river deepens and widens from the confluence of its North and South Forks at Beattyville, and joins the Ohio River at Carrollton.

The Kentucky River basin (Image from USGS)

The North Fork of the Kentucky River is 168 miles long, arising in eastern Letcher County. It flows in a winding course past Whitesburg, Hazard and Jackson, merging with the Middle Fork near the Breathitt/Lee county line, along Ky. 52.

The Middle Fork of the Kentucky River, a tributary of the North Fork, is 105 miles long, arising in southern Leslie County, about 16 miles from the Virginia line, flowing north past Hyden.

The South Fork of the Kentucky River is the shortest of its two main forks, just 45 miles long. It arises in Clay County, at Oneida, in Daniel Boone National Forest, at the confluence of Goose Creek and the Red Bird River.

Early History

Frontiersman Christopher Gist (1706–1759) is believed to have been the first white Colonial to arrive at the mouth of the Kentucky River in 1751, during a mapping trip down the Ohio River that took him as far as present-day Louisville.

Illustration of Ft. Boonesborough (Image from Wikipediac ommons)

In 1769 the pathfinder, Daniel Boone, America’s quintessential frontiersman, came through Cumberland Gap, and explored the “New Eden of the West,” following streams from the upper Kentucky River basin as far north as the Bluegrass Region, during a two-year-long hunt.

In the spring of 1775 Boone, and business partners established Ft. Boonesborough along the Kentucky River in modern-day Madison County, one of Kentucky’s earliest fortified settlements.

Hancock Taylor, and brothers Robert and James McAfee, surveyed what was to become Frankfort, located 65 miles upstream of the Kentucky River’s mouth. The Virginia legislature formally established the town in 1786, and Frankfort was chosen as the state capital in 1792 when Kentucky became America’s 15th state, the first west of the Appalachians.

Geologic Features

The oldest rock formations in the state are found along the Kentucky River in the Bluegrass Region.

Ordovician rocks, some 460 to 425 years old, are exposed as rugged limestone cliffs known as the Kentucky River Palisades, which extend for about 100 river miles, from Clays Ferry, in Madison County, to Frankfort, in Franklin County.

The state’s oldest rock formations are found along the Kentucky River in the Bluegrass region (Photo from Kentucky Tourism)

Another important geologic formation is the Red River Gorge, a canyon system of the upper Red River, a 69-mile tributary to the Kentucky River that arises in Wolfe County, and flows westerly through three counties to near College Hill, in Madison County.

The “Gorge” is east of Stanton, in Daniel Boone National Forest.

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.

Streams and Lakes

• Elkhorn Creek, the basin’s second-longest tributary, empties into the Kentucky River eight miles north of Frankfort. Its two forks and main stem drain the heart of the Bluegrass Region in Fayette, Scott, Woodford and Franklin counties.

Elkhorn Creek (Photo by Gene Burch)

The South Fork of Elkhorn Creek arises in Fayette County and flows through horse country. A popular float is the 15.31 river miles from Fishers Mill Road to Forks of the Elkhorn.

The North Fork of Elkhorn Creek arises in Scott County and is a much shallow, slow-moving stream, with several low dams. From Georgetown to Forks of the Elkhorn, the stream is 35.95 miles long.

The main stem of Elkhorn Creek, from Forks of the Elkhorn to the Kentucky River, is 17 miles long. The stream’s high-quality smallmouth bass fishery has excited anglers since the 19th century.

There are four major lakes in the Kentucky River basin.

• Buckhorn Lake is in Perry and Leslie Counties, about 28 miles west of Hazard, in the Redbird Purchase Unit of Daniel Boone National Forest.

The dam is 43.3 miles above the Middle Fork’s confluence with the North Fork in Beattyville. Buckhorn Lake was impounded in 1967, is 21 miles long at summer pool (elevation 782) and has 1,230 surface acres, with 65 miles of shoreline.

Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park, encompassing 856 acres, is on the east shore of the lake off Ky. 1833.

Facilities include a thirty-six-room lodge, five cottages, dining room, conference center, gift shop, hiking trail, beach and playground. For information telephone 606-398-7510.

Buckhorn Lake supports populations of Muskellunge, White Bass, two species of sunfish — Bluegill and Redear Sunfish, Largemouth Bass, White Crappie, and catfish.

Buckhorn Lake special regulations on fish species and access.

• Carr Creek Lake is in Knott County, about 11 miles south of Hindman.

Completed in December 1975, the dam is 8.8 miles above the mouth of Carr Fork, a tributary to the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

Carr Creek Lake (Photo from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The 710-acre lake is 8.2 miles long at summer pool and has a maximum depth of about 65 feet, with an average depth of about 40 feet.

Carr Creek State Park, encompassing 29 acres, is on the north shore of the lake off Ky. 15.

Facilities include a thirty-nine-site campground, with water and electric hookups, a beach and a playground. For information telephone 606-642-4050.

The highland reservoir supports populations of three species of black bass — Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, and Spotted Bass, two species of sunfish — Bluegill and Redear Sunfish, two species of crappie — White Crappie and Black Crappie, Walleye, and four species of catfish — Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Blue Catfish and White Catfish.

Carr Creek special regulations on fish species and access.

• Herrington Lake is about 25 miles south of Lexington, forming the boundary between Mercer, Garrard, and Boyle counties.

The lake was impounded from the Dix River, a tributary to the Kentucky River. The dam is about three miles above the confluence of the Dix River and the Kentucky River at High Bridge.

Summer pool elevation varies from 735 to 740, so the lake ranges in size from 2,410 to 2,580 surface acres. Herrington Lake is 35 miles long with 92 miles of shoreline.

Herrington Lake supports populations of two species of black bass — Largemouth Bass and Spotted Bass, two species of temperate bass — White Bass and hybrid striped bass, Bluegill, two species of catfish — Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish, and two species of crappie — White Crappie and Black Crappie.

Herrington Lake special regulations on fish species and access

• Cedar Creek Lake is five miles southeast of Stanford in Lincoln County, impounded from Cedar Creek, a tributary to the Dix River.

The 792-acre lake is 60 feet deep at the dam with an average depth of 22 feet.

The lake supports Largemouth Bass, two species of sunfish — Bluegill and Redear sunfish, two species of crappie — White Crappie and Black Crappie, and two species of catfish — Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish.

Cedar Creek special regulations on fish species and access.

Fish and Wildlife

The Kentucky River basin supports a wide variety of fish and wildlife species.

Its streams and lakes are full of gamefish species, and its woodlands support white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. In some of the counties in the basin’s headwaters, black bear and elk are present.

Boat Launching Ramps

Beginning in 1842, a series of 14 locks and dams were built which transformed the river from a series of pools, riffles and sandbars to a navigable waterway with a year-round depth of six feet or deeper. This enabled steamboats and other commercial vessels move people, bourbon whiskey, tobacco and other goods up and down the waterway.

Today, the river is no longer navigable between pools above Lock 4 at Frankfort for trailered fishing boats, pontoon boats, houseboats and other large boats.

But, there are lots of boat launching ramps in the pools of the lower and upper river, and carry-down opportunities abound for kayaks and other small boats.

Lower Kentucky River Boat Ramps

Upper Kentucky River Boat Ramps

The Kentucky River basin offers lots of outdoor recreational opportunities and historical adventures for the curious traveler. Get a map, choose your destinations, and hit the road… good times await.

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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