“Welcome to Kentucky”
The hotel breakfast is OK, just, but there’s not much choice. The hotel itself was good, reasonable value for what it cost. As I walk out of the hotel after checkout just before 11 am, it’s very hot already under a clear blue sky. Initially I drive west on I-64 and after a few miles Google Maps announces “Welcome to Kentucky”. Soon after that I turn left onto US-23 S, heading towards the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway.
I was struck yesterday by the general greenery of the landscape. There was lots of trees and with Fall approaching some leaves are already starting to change colour. Today, on this part of the journey, the road is cutting through forests, which coat the hillsides on both sides of the road. Here it’s a 2 by 2 lane freeway, an autobahn through the trees, and very pretty it is too. There is no ‘romance’ to this road though, it’s a proper highway in good condition. In places it’s dead straight but in others there are languorous curves that carve through the landscape. There’s nothing tricky about the drive either, it’s a fast road with little traffic and the cruise control is on. Speed limits here are a bit higher at 70 mph, and most people are safely cruising along around 75 mph.
In fact there’s so little traffic I could stop on the road and walk across to the central median. No-one would know it’s that quiet. Sometimes though, what little traffic there is starts to bunch up. This is usually caused by idiotic lane management driving by some people. These twats just drive in the fast/outside lane at 55 or 60 mph oblivious to the world and force everyone to undertake on the inside to get past. Then 10 minutes later there’s not a car in sight on either side of the highway.
Highway 23 is a nice drive as it cuts through the forest and the scenery changes enough every now and again to make it interesting. There’s a slight right from US-23 onto US-460 W for about 15 miles, where the road goes down to a single lane each way, then a right turn onto the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. I had no idea what type of road this was when planning my route, I just thought it was another highway with a fancy name. It turns out that in Kentucky a Parkway is like an Interstate but with a higher speed limit, fewer junctions with other roads (where there are, they are often 20 miles apart) and no distractions like rest areas. A kind of ‘expressway’, it is 2 lanes either way of fast, non-stop, high speed traffic. And pretty boring because of that. Flat, with few curves of significance, they appear designed to get you from A to B as fast as possible. Which is fine, and probably brilliant for 99% of drivers, but not really what I’m looking for. Luckily I’ll be getting off it soon.
Before then however it’s clear the authorities like Bert’s Parkway because when I turned onto the Parkway at Burning Fork – great name for a town – there is some mega-construction going on to expand the existing single lanes into two each way. The chunks of earth and rock they are taking out of the hillsides is staggering. There are signs everywhere along the road for ‘Blast Site’ where they are literally blowing up the hills to create the new lanes. The convoy of trucks to remove this amount of soil and rock from the construction areas must be huge. And there are currently 3 different sites where the expansion is underway… it must be costing $$$bns!
I can however understand why the Parkway was built in the first place when, later on, I travel on part of the old road across this region. I see how the Daniel Boone National Forest cuts Kentucky in half and creates a natural barrier to commerce and tourism. In the old days the roads I’ll soon drive on, like highways KY-11 and KY-15, were the only option. But they are single lane roads that snake up, down and around the hills. Bert’s Parkway must have made a huge difference in opening up Kentucky. As commerce grows though, I guess the road is feeling the strain, hence the expansion.
There’s still great scenery though even where there are scars of construction. It’s clear from the recently completed sections that the expansion is being done in the right way. I actually spend about 35 miles heading west on the Parkway but just before it starts to bear north, I come off. Firstly onto KY-715 S, still heading west, then south. I’m getting into the rural areas I wanted to see, with the highway following the contours of the landscape. The road is mostly quite open, travelling through countryside, fields and small communities. I can see into the distance as and when the road crests small hills. But on some of these hills I’m completely blind as to what’s over the brow on the other side, so care is needed.
The Scenic Byway Starts
There’s also lots of bends to negotiate, nothing too tricky but a really good drive. Just before Zachariah I switch north onto KY-11 N, on which I travel all the way up to Slade. This is the official start of the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway. The road routes mostly through trees and mountains as I’m now in the heart of the Boone Forest. It’s another great road to drive on.
At Slade I meet an old friend again as I pass underneath Bert’s Parkway and come across a Shell gas station on the other side, where I stop for lunch. The station is very busy, it’s obviously a food and gas fuelling hot spot for folks visiting the Forest. It’s very hot as I get out of the car and I shelter under the station roof to sit and eat a very good egg salad sandwich I purchased inside for lunch.
Rested and watered I turn left out of the gas station onto KY-15 S, which is actually heading east, and briefly away from my eventual destination tonight. For about 5 miles this old road tracks the Parkway but it’s built into the mountain and the road has tight bends cut into the rock, twisting and turning, as I climb higher and higher. At Pine Ridge I turn left back onto KY-715, Sky Bridge Road, this time heading north. This point is just a few miles away from where I initially left the Parkway earlier – so I’ve done a round-about route in search of some nice scenery and a good driving experience! Something that so far has been worthwhile. You might think this a bit mad, but as mentioned, from Zachariah via Slade to here at Pine Ridge has all been the Scenic Byway route. It’s been great so far and hopefully there’s more to come…
Fall Is Coming
Crossing over the Parkway once more, I’m soon deep into the most wonderful forest, on a very, very narrow road barely wide enough for two cars. The trees here are amazing: the kaleidoscope of colours – greens, browns, yellows, orange, red and gold – on display as they change for Fall is incredible. The sunlight cascades through the tree canopy creating stunning shadows and brilliant pools of light. There are no turn-outs or run-off areas to stop and marvel at the views, and the road surface stops abruptly at the road edge with a drop of 2-3 feet into the undergrowth. The few cars coming the other way were way too close for comfort and how you’d go on if you met a truck on this road is anybody’s guess. There really is nowhere to go.
The road is not flat or straight either. There are tight bends and small, rolling gradients, plus in places the camber of the road adds to the fun by dropping off rapidly. It’s like doing a banked curve on a stock car circuit! So it’s a very technical drive, and not one that can be done at any great speed: I average about 25 mph and it needs great concentration.
This is such an amazing drive. I stop at the Sky Bridge Recreation Center and walk to the Sky Bridge. I decline to walk down to see under it as it’s very hot and humid (84º F) and the walk from the car has had me breaking into a sweat. Later on the temperature climbed another couple of degrees but I was back in the car by then, with the comfort of air con. The views from the top of the Sky Bridge are great, allowing you to see the expanse of the Forest.
Into Red River Gorge
Back in the car and on with the journey. I cross the Red River, which KY-715 then tracks for the next 6 miles or so, although you can’t see it much. The River looks more like a stream however. I expected a wide, raging torrent that would explain the creation, and depth, of the gorge through the mountains, but no. Maybe there’s a drought?
The road has widened a bit now, but not by much. There are also occasional places to pull-over by the roadside but most are taken. What road-side ground is not being used for parking looks dangerous – and I don’t attempt it. The verges are soft and look as if they fall away sharply. I’m not risking my car by attempting to create a new parking spot!
I turn left onto KY-77 W and then cross the Red River for a second time. Soon the Nada Tunnel comes into view. Looks quaint enough, it’s just a tunnel through the mountainside. But how this Tunnel functions during peak season is beyond me. It’s 900 ft long, with no passing places, and whilst straight it has no lights inside – so it’s pitch black – or signals at the ends to control traffic. It relies on a driver not entering at one end if they can see someone coming the other way. 900 ft away! I was fifth in a convoy of cars that entered and we got about three-quarters through before coming to a halt.
A van had entered from the other end. It obviously hadn’t bothered to look ahead and see us coming. When it reached the lead car in our line it stopped (obviously!) and, I guess, our ‘leader’ pointed out that our convoy was nearer the ‘exit’. So they needed to reverse back out. By this time there were about another ten cars behind me. It then took the van, and the two cars that had followed it, about 5 minutes to slowly reverse out of the Tunnel. Whilst this goes on, we’re all stuck in a dark, damp tunnel. It was a bizarre experience. Get some traffic signals on this now!
A few miles further on, the Forest starts to flatten out and soon I pass under Bert’s Parkway, turn right onto right onto KY-11 N/KY-15 N and track the Parkway until Stanton, where the Byway ends. The Byway is awesome. Do it someday!
An Airbnb And Dinner In Lexington
Here, I re-join the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, which takes me up to its junction with I-64 W. I then take this road all the way into Lexington, arriving at my Airbnb for the night around 5.30 pm. My host has gone out to a wedding and left me a key under the mat. I’d asked her for a few recommendations for a music or sports bar when we talked earlier, and she kindly left me a couple of Maps print-outs with suggestions. So after settling in I Google her suggestions and, in the absence of any music options, settle on Lynagh’s Irish Pub, about 5 minutes walk away.
I leave around 8 pm to find it. Now TripAdvisor gave the place a reasonable (but not excellent) ranking, otherwise I wouldn’t be going. However when I get there it is, shall we say, a bit rough and ready. It’s the first place I’ve been in since my student days when my shoes literally did stick to the floor when I was standing at the bar!
I sit at the bar and there are 2 or 3 weird “characters” around me. I’m hoping I’ve not made a bad decision to come here, but they keep themselves to themselves. The rest of the crowd in the place are students from the nearby University of Kentucky, or UK, as I learn everyone calls it, sitting at various tables.
The barman, Taylor, gives me great attention from the start but it becomes very clear within a few minutes that the bar is seriously understaffed. What few staff there are, are all rushed off their feet. But Taylor does me proud all night long, keeping me fed and watered pretty quickly whenever I wanted service. The UK football game – and the team are playing at home just down the street – is on TV so I watch that. But given it’s on all the TVs, there’s not much option! I had a burger to eat and it was good.
Later on I visit the restroom and it is absolutely disgusting. I’m amazed, I think as I walk back to the bar, that this place is open with a facility as bad as that. I haven’t seen anything as awful in years. The game is still on but it’s gone 10 pm and I promised my host, Jennie, that I wouldn’t be back late. Even though I have a key, I just thought it polite to not be too late. Plus I’m also behind in my diary and I need to be on the road by 10.15 am tomorrow, so I don’t want a late night.
I check-out with Taylor, with a handshake and fond farewell. I comment on the apparent rush. It’s quieter now as most of the students have left and he tells me that earlier about 60 students all came in at the same time. Literally. And they were in 5 or 6 separate groups, so this just slammed the kitchen. There was only one cook working, plus Taylor behind the bar, with a junior guy who collected glasses but couldn’t serve alcohol (not sure why). So kudos to Taylor for keeping me happy with all that stress. However earlier on I did hear some unhappy punters complaining about slow service, I just hope it wasn’t too bad.
I walk back ‘home’ and Jennie has returned – her car is in the drive – but she has gone to bed. I manage a few more diary pages before also calling it a night.