When I moved to Kentucky seven years ago, it took me a long time to warm up to the state's uniqueness and natural beauty. I had previously lived in upstate New York, Florida and Colorado, and I struggled to see the diversity of the landlocked Bluegrass State.
Yet eventually my eyes opened to Kentucky's gorgeous and dynamic landscapes. Now, there's nothing more majestic to me than a foggy morning bicycle ride past pristine horse farms nestled on a winding country road. Even the horses seem to embrace the beauty of their pastures as they trot around and whinny.
Part of this discovery came courtesy of the state's network of recreational and driving trails. Even though Kentucky ranks a paltry 45th in the nation in total rail-trail mileage with 36 miles of corridor developed, we are finally making headway—thanks in part to great local advocates such as theKentucky Rails to Trails Council—and there are other non-rail-trail systems to brag about.
A crowning achievement of late (just in time for Kentucky to host the World Equestrian Games last summer) is the Legacy Trail, which snakes through Lexington's iconic horse country and was recently voted the state's best trail. The 12-mile paved recreational trail also is a public art venue, and it culminates at the state's famed Kentucky Horse Park.
Councilman Jay McChord of Lexington's 9th District has devoted nearly eight years of public service to trail development in the city and state. In 2005 he began working on branding the Healthway Trail System in Lexington as a means to help the city get healthy and change the culture. The Legacy Trail is part of the Healthway.
The Healthway Trail System has raised more than $15 million and resulted in close to 10 new trails (including the Legacy Trail) all around Lexington.
"We are now seeing groups from around the region looking to connect into these trails, specifically Legacy," McChord says. "This then leads to a growing tide of culture change as it relates to health, transportation, economic development, regionalism, etc."
Of course, Kentucky is also is known for a less healthy indulgence—bourbon—and not all trails are meant for exercise, necessarily.
Thanks to a different kind of trail—the Kentucky Bourbon Trail—I have been able to see some wonderful countryside and historical distilleries all over the state. The trail visits six famous bourbon whiskey distilleries and attracts nearly 2 million visitors every year. Although it is not a trail for physical activity, the 200-plus-mile Bourbon Trail is the state's most popular pathway. Its route includes views of distilleries, the steep Kentucky River Palisades, rolling hills, picturesque towns, great eats and meandering country roads. And now a bike route is being developed.
But my biggest area of newfound appreciation for Kentucky is the thoroughbred horse business. Imagine the best landscaping you could fathom, combined with the most elegant animals you could find, rows of stately fences, and the greenest grass this side of the pond. I have enjoyed many miles of bike rides and runs in horse towns like Midway, Georgetown, Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington. I would love to have more opportunities to explore them via trails, and McChord feels the same.
"Lexington and Kentucky have some of the most amazing landscape, but you cannot enjoy it outside of a car," he says. "We have these astounding horse farms here in Lexington with beautiful fences. Unfortunately those fences tell runners and cyclists, 'Stay Away!' Thus runners and cyclists who want to enjoy that beauty must take their life in their hands and attempt it in the road.
"What I have continually stressed to the farm community is that trails can be the most effective preservation tool we have," he says. "If you allow younger generations onto that landscape through the use of a 20-foot easement, they will defend that farmland forever."
McChord says permission from landowners is the most challenging part of trail development.
"For every landowner along a potential trail, you have to obtain their approval to the easement," he says. "In Lexington a few years ago, it took us eight years to obtain 88 easements to build one mile of trail."
Landowner permission was also part of the puzzle for the Dawkins Line rail-trail project in eastern Kentucky. The first half of the 36-mile Dawkins Line rail corridor is slated for a spring 2013 completion. It will be the longest of its kind in Kentucky, and Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Deputy Secretary Matt Sawyers compared its length and design to the Virginia Creeper Trail.
"We are currently prioritizing different design options which, in part, will determine the cost and timeframe for the project," Sawyers says. "Aside from that, there are no major hurdles that would prevent the construction of the trail."
Situated in rural Breathitt, Magoffin and Johnson counties, the Dawkins Line trail is set in the Appalachian foothills and will have a mild grade to accommodate bikers, hikers and horseback riders of all ability levels.
I am so excited to explore this trail in an area of Kentucky where I have yet to spend a lot of time.
"We have a lot of outdoor enthusiasts living in Kentucky, so we want to expand adventure tourism opportunities for our people," Sawyers says. "This fits into the administration's desire to promote healthier lifestyles by encouraging Kentuckians to be more physically active. And these ventures have proven to spur economic development and build stronger communities."
Sawyers says that, generally speaking, residents of the area are supportive of projects like the Dawkins Line because they understand the benefits attached to them.
McChord adds that rail lines run through some of the most interesting and diverse countryside in Kentucky, connecting little towns across the state and exposing unique and charming communities that people might not otherwise visit.
"When you study the economic effect of developing rail-trails, and what it means to the communities along that line, it is amazing," he says. "You just have to go to Cincinnati [Ohio] and traverse the Little Miami Scenic Trail. It is a great example of the rediscovery and revitalization of old rail communities due to families on bikes coming into those towns."
For me, I'm excited to have new ways to explore the state I now call home and have grown to love.