By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
The Ashland Beacon
Kentucky is a beautiful state. That’s why I moved here, but there are times when the awesomeness of one of its natural wonders really captivates me and serves as a reminder about how lucky I am to live in a place that values these places and has set them aside in large numbers for its citizens, and others, to enjoy.
This past month, traveling to numerous parks, forests, recreation and wildlife management areas in far western Kentucky I was struck by the diversity of the landscape there. It was the first time I’d ventured west of I-65 and south of I-64 for the purpose of visiting the area and not just to travel through it en route to somewhere else.
I admit I was a little leery visiting the farthest western corner in July to hike. It was going to be flat, hot and boring, I thought.
When I spotted the first Cyprus trees rising out of the shallow waters of Sloughs Wildlife Management Area near Henderson, Ky. my preconceptions melted away. Even in the blazing heat of a late July afternoon, a rumble of thunder threatening in the distance, the peacefulness of the area was magnificent.
The hiking, of course in western Kentucky is very different than the trails I’m used to here in eastern Kentucky. Yes it was flatter, but not really flat.
At the sloughs, hiking is really walking on graveled access roads. That said, the roads are deserted, isolated and certainly afforded a wander like me a nice place to do some wandering.
In addition to a healthy population of deer, I spotted some vivid iridescent blue birds darting about the field of sunflowers that lined the roads opposite the sloughs. I later learned that this bird was most likely an indigo bunting. There were dragonflies, butterflies and some large fish that startled me on a number of occasion when they jumped to catch a meal. Not to mention the wildflowers and the marsh vegetation including blooming water lilies as far as I could see across one area.
This area of open marsh and wooded areas is a destination for migrating songbirds and waterfowl. In the winter it is a stopover for thousands of migrating shorebirds and other waterfowl. Wildlife managers flood the fields during that time to create more habitat for the birds, which include dozens of varieties including geese, ducks, shorebirds and pairs of nesting bald eagles.
As for hiking, spring and fall is what I’d recommend, not the middle of July. (I was there working on my book, and couldn’t time my visit for cooler weather.)
The diversity of the state’s western landscape is particularly apparent after making a short drive southwest to the Pennyrile State Forest near Dawson Springs, Ky. Hardwoods and pines dominate the forest here, but the area is a popular destination for locals who like to swim and fish in Lake Beshear.
A flood control lake that buried historical farmland beneath its waters, Lake Beshear stands out from some of our eastern lakes because it required no blasting. The natural bluffs that occur here are not as high as say, Grayson Lake, but they are wonderful places to sit and take in the view of the peaceful lake and, of course, jump off for a swim.
On my visit, we made a quick side trip down an access road from the 13.5 mile long Pennyrile Nature Trail to a popular point on the lake. There we watched steam rising off the water during an early morning rain shower. It was mesmerizing, as it rolled in a lacy pattern along the surface forming larger streams and then rising into the air.
Like it’s eastern Kentucky cousin, the forest also features sandstone formations carved by water flowing in deep ravines. Again, save for the steamy July weather, giant mosquitos and some untamed briars along the trail, the hiking was comparable to any place in eastern Kentucky for its solitude and scenery.
The place that struck me the most though was Columbus-Belmont State Park along the Mississippi River in the farthest western corner along the border of Missouri. The site of a Confederate fortification built during the civil war, the park is gem both because of its place in American history and the natural beauty it preserves.
It’s a bit of a stretch to describe the 2.5-mile walk along the trenches of the old fort as a hike, but it’s nonetheless worth visiting. The hike takes you through the trenches between the massive earthen works built by Confederate soldiers. Towering poplar, oak and maple trees now grow out of these embankments that wind through the landscape just steps from some massive bluffs above the Mississippi River. Again, if you visit in July pack some bug spray of the Deet variety…
Watching the sunset from the bluffs high above the mighty Mississippi, which during my visit was muddy and raging with debris from recent heavy rains, was particularly memorable. It helped to convince me that maybe, just maybe, the western part of the state is as scenic as my beloved eastern Kentucky.
Mudfoot’s Meanderings is published monthly in The Greater Ashland Beacon. To read about more of Mudfoot’s adventures visit www.CarrieStambaugh.com