Biking Through the Bluegrass State

Unspoiled Kentucky is Prime Touring Country

Summer may be officially over, but in many parts of the U.S., that just means it's the beginning of prime riding season. Take the southeastern part of the country, for instance: the area's normally, unbearably hot temps are now fading into a more tolerable warmth index, and even stamina-sapping humidity is diminishing. The days are still reasonably long and usually sunny, and the RV-and-camper set have, for the most part, turned their land yachts elsewhere.

It's a great time to ride, and Kentucky's unspoiled back roads are one of those southern places that beg for exploration by motorcycle. Bikers in the Bluegrass State know it offers some of the most interesting roads in the eastern U.S., but up to now, word hasn't spread too far beyond Kentucky's borders. That means plenty of open pavement for riders looking for some true, spirited adventure.

There's no shortage of local enthusiasts, though: Kentucky-based rider groups, including a half-dozen H.O.G. chapters, organize a slew of tours, poker runs and charity rides on weekends throughout fall. And the Kentucky Adventure Riders, which counts BMW and other adventure bike owners, can be found exploring roads -- both paved and unpaved -- year-round, especially in the mountainous part of the state.

Jeff Cooke, a 57-year-old former BMW dealer in Louisville who has been riding since he was a teen, can testify to that. "There are some really fun roads, especially in eastern Kentucky." He says Kentucky roads match the best of any other states he's ridden in, including North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana.

Harley riders sing the Bluegrass state's praises as well.

"Kentucky has some of the finest scenic areas I've seen," says Jay Huber, president of the Kentucky Motorcyclists Association/Kentucky Bikers Association.

Huber, who hails from Independence (in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati) and rides an H-D Electra Glide, likes the variety of roads in his native state. "You've got the twisty-turnies in eastern Kentucky, scenic routes in northern Kentucky with sweeping curves along the Ohio River, and the rolling hills of western Kentucky that are great for wide-open cruising."

Huber, whose organization represents about 250,000 on and off-road riders throughout the state, says Kentucky's welcoming business owners and just plain friendly people make for a great climate for visiting bikers.

Nick Harrison, director of H.O.G. Chapter 2032 in Louisville, is a career Army man who's toured on his Ultra Classic in all but seven of the lower 48 states. Currently based at Ft. Knox, Ky., Harrison especially likes the touring roads that connect the distilleries clustered along central Kentucky's famous Bourbon Trail. He says it beats the winery routes of California's Sonoma Valley or New York's Finger Lakes region.

"On any road in Kentucky off the main highways you've got beautiful scenery," he says. "I pick a road that looks interesting and just go."

On a recent weekend, Harrison wanted to join up with a H.O.G. ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway in neighboring Virginia and North Carolina. So he turned on his GPS and navigated along I-64 east to Lexington and Winchester, where he picked up the Mountain Parkway through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Campton. There he ventured onto Ky. 15, one of eastern Kentucky's great two-lane roads, and snaked along its twists and turns all the way down to Hazard.

"You've got to be a little watchful for coal trucks on some of the switchbacks. But the curves and mountains are just as good as North Carolina."

H.O.G. Chapter 2032 road captain Joe Welsh of Louisville also relishes touring south-central and western parts of the state. Welsh, who rides an Ultra and keeps a Road King in his garage, likes to cruise from Barren River State Resort Park southwest of Glasgow to Green River State Park near Campbellsville. The route includes U.S. 31E and U.S. 68, features a ferry crossing of the Green River and traverses Kentucky's unique Amish country.

Harrison and Welsh both have a couple of regular pit stops they frequent. The Wah-Bah in Bowling Green, where you can pick out your own steak and grill it yourself is a long-time favorite; Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, which has been serving food and drink continuously since the 1790s, makes the list too, and finally, there's Patti's 1880s Settlement in Grand Rivers on Kentucky Lake, where you can gorge on "mile-high" meringue pie, play miniature golf and browse a huge gift shop for souvenirs.

Louisville talk-radio host Tony Cruise counts a Suzuki V-Strom and a Honda ST1300 among his bikes, and he loves to cruise parallel to the Ohio River along Ky. 22 through Eminence, Owenton and Falmouth to Ky. 10, where he snakes over to historic river towns Maysville and Augusta, childhood home of Rosemary and George Clooney.

"Riding down U.S. 421 from Bedford to Frankfort has some great turns and sights. Also check out the road to Lockport over the Kentucky River."

Old Frankfort Pike, which links the Kentucky state capital with Lexington, is another scenic favorite. This historic road, Ky. 1681, is a designated Scenic Byway that meanders through horse farms outlined with picket fences and hand-laid stone walls dating to the early 1800s. Those are all great suggestions, but most bikers eventually find their way to the Red River Gorge National Geological Area, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. That's because this area boasts some of the most deeply forested terrain you can ride through on a pavement. You're reminded of that unique quality when you come up on the Nada Tunnel, a 900-foot stretch of Ky. 77. A one-lane passage through a towering mountain, the tunnel was blasted from solid rock in the early 1900s so that timber could be hauled through via narrow-gauge railroad. Take a ride through Nada for a really different experience.

Kentucky's 17 state resort parks (all feature lodging for overnighters), are also high on bikers' lists of favorite places to visit. From Jenny Wiley State Resort Park near Prestonsburg in the east to Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park on Kentucky Lake in the west, these parks will welcome you with scenic settings and comfortable accommodations.

Other rider favorites include Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, an unspoiled tract teeming with wildlife that separates Kentucky Lake from Lake Barkley, and Mammoth Cave National Park, near I-65 in south central Kentucky.

For information about traveling through Kentucky, check out:

Biking Through the Bluegrass: Unspoiled Kentucky Is Prime Touring Country

The Ride for Freedom is one of many rallies held throughout the Bluegrass State. Photo by Bob & Suzie Stewart
The entrance to Nada Tunnel -a 900 foot passage bored through solid rock, along Route 77. Photo by Ky. Dept. of Travel
Cruising down Old Frankfort Pike means you're in the heart of horse country. Photo by Jim Blair IndieImages
You'll have to inhale as you enter the Nada Tunnel - it's that narrow. Photo by Ky. Dept. of Travel
The Ride for Freedom, part 2. Photo by Bob & Suzie Stewart
H.O.G. Chapter 2302 takes a rest stop