If it’s approaching autumn, and I haven’t specifically planned a trip around the Fall Color Report findings, well, that’s a serious hit to both my sense of prioritization (I mean, what could I possibly be occupied with that’s more important than peak foliage?) and—I say this without any hint of overstatement—my very quality of life.
So last November, Dan and I headed southeast into Kentucky—Shenandoah would’ve been too far of a drive for a four-day weekend, but the Red River Gorge wasn’t. And if we planned things right (spoiler alert: we did!), we could hit up Lexington and Louisville on the way back, for equal doses of horse country, bourbon, and barbecue.
I’d like to share the photos I took that weekend, as well as our full Kentucky itinerary—because if you ever find yourself in the Bluegrass State, I can give a wholehearted recommendation of everything listed below.
Rental car underfoot, tent and sleeping bags in tow, we spent the afternoon and evening driving to the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky—more specifically, to the little town of Slade. The destination was Miguel’s Pizza, a fantastic pizza joint that also served as a climbing gear shop; out back, you could reserve a spot to camp overnight in the huge, wide-open field encircled by forest.
If you’re smart, you’ll arrive when the sun is still hanging low in the sky; if you’re us, you’ll arrive at 11 p.m. in the pitch-black cold, realize your tent didn’t come with setup instructions, and struggle in vain to create something structurally sound out of the metal rods and plasticky tarps packed into the tent box, all of which are made of noisy materials that are almost certainly disturbing every sleeping human already tucked into their perfectly-constructed campsite. So you’ll sleep in your car, which—despite the ensuing depletion of fresh oxygen over the course of the next eight hours—ends up being quite cozy. The sheer number of stars littering the inky sky, and the last smoky sparks of the bonfire built by your fellow campers, makes up for everything. Even the 4 a.m. brush with hypothermia. You’ll laugh yourselves to sleep.
Waking up at Miguel’s was wonderful. The other overnighters—twentysomethings and families, couples and groups of friends alike—lent a buzzy energy to the morning, as they kept busy brewing coffee, making breakfast on their campstoves, stuffing backpacks full of gear, and toting around toothbrushes as they freshened up for the day.
We fueled up at the nearby Red River Rockhouse, a bright, airy gem of a café dishing out breakfasts made from all local ingredients (don’t miss the biscuits!), with all the laid-back, self-serve elements befitting a hiking stopover. We spent the next few hours hiking the Natural Bridge trail and its many offshoots. (Need photographic evidence of that? Just scroll down.) For lunch, we finally got to sample what Miguel’s was famous for, dutifully checking off our desired pizza ingredients on an order form, then washing down the made-to-order slices with Ale-8-One sodas. From there, we drove to Lexington, where we checked in at our AirBNB apartment—by that point, finding a shower was of the utmost importance.
That night, we grabbed dinner in town at Willie’s Locally Known, which marked our first, reverent run-in with burnt ends. We brought those, a baked potato topped with pulled pork, and an extra-crispy side of fried green tomatoes to West Sixth Brewery. Between the welcoming communal setting, the warm service, their commitment to community involvement, and—oh, right!—the refreshing beer itself, I felt very good handing over my hard-earned dollars to the folks at West Sixth.
This day’s itinerary isn’t for the faint of heart. It started early, too: since we visited during the horse-racing off-season, our only chance to see the Thoroughbreds run at Keeneland was to get there for the morning workouts. So we took a hint from the New York Times’ doughnut tour of Kentucky, grabbed the best doughnuts I’ve ever tasted (the apple fritter! the cream-filled yeast doughnut!) at Spalding’s, and headed to the track. Between the doughnut fuel and the track cafeteria coffee, we were content to watch the equine athletes being put through their graceful, rhythmic paces, galloping around and around the track, for close to an hour. With the little time we had left there, we walked ourselves through their self-guided tour, and caught the very beginning of Keeneland’s fall sale. (Because, beautiful horses coupled with the fast-paced, singsongy environment of an auction? Mesmerizing.)
Due to the Keeneland sale, most of the professional racing barns had paused their regular tour schedules; ultimately, I’m glad they had, because otherwise we wouldn’t have discovered Old Friends, our next stop. Old Friends is, essentially, a retirement home for racehorses, an absolutely necessary concept in a sport whose most successful sires and broodmares are treated like kings and queens through their golden years, but whose less lucrative animals are all but forgotten. For two hours, we walked around the farm, feeding carrots to the retirees and learning more about Old Friends’ amazing mission from two truly dedicated volunteers. Hearts warmed, but bellies empty, we stopped by Wallace Station for sandwiches to eat on the road (me: a pesto grilled cheese; Dan: a Hot Brown, the unfortunately-named but oh-so-classic Kentucky staple).
We caught the last tour of the day at Willett Distillery in Bardstown by the skin of our teeth, but we scored a bottle of something quite delicious, plus the knowledge that rackhouses—the buildings that bourbon barrels are stored in for aging—wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. We dropped off our bags just outside Louisville, checking in at our VRBO pick America’s Barn (more on that later!).
Somehow, after a nap, we regained the energy to go on; this was fortunate, because Holy Grale, a church renovated into a craft beer bar, was an unmissable place to eat and drink. The most memorable menu item? Sauerkraut pancakes, which were featured as one of The Next Trendy Food Items in Bon Appétit a month after our visit. Also memorably, I experienced my first Pauwel Kwak there, replete with its de rigueur-but-ridiculous drinking vessel. Gluttons for punishment, we apparently couldn’t help making one more exhausted stop for bourbon, Derby pie, and architecture-gaping at the fancy Brown Hotel lobby bar.
We desperately needed to sleep in; as a bleary-eyed breakfast, we fried up fresh eggs from the hens out back (seriously! We hung out with them!) at America’s Barn. It’s a private one-room house run as a B&B by very kind owners, and decorated in true B&B style, with an amazing amount of chicken-related décor that still managed to remain tasteful. (My favorite detail: the informational binder whose cover pictured a rooster pouring a pot of coffee into a mug, with bold black text along the bottom reading: “WHAT IF EVERYTHING EXCEEDED YOUR EXPECTATIONS?” Also, there was a Jacuzzi. I didn’t want to leave.)
Called by the siren song of pastries, though, we headed back into Louisville and grabbed the last pumpkin spice doughnut at Nord’s and a pretty refined cup of coffee at Sunergos next door. Their music rivaled their java, too: I was holding my SoundHound-cued iPhone up to the speakers each time a new song came on.
We didn’t have much time in the city, so we made it count by wandering Whiskey Row, stopping into the 21c Museum Hotel to enjoy a fabulously intense exhibit—almost every piece made a bold political statement. We made our last meal count, too, at Doc Crow’s, sharing a barrel-aged brown ale from Lexington brewery Country Boy and inhaling our last bits of soul-satisfying Kentucky pulled pork and brisket.
Crippling vacation withdrawal.
Planning a trip yourself? Some of our favorite resources were the aforementioned Kentucky doughnut trail article; this rundown of Lexington horse farm tour sites; this great 36 Hours write-up of Louisville that, given more time in the city, we would’ve used more extensively; the Craft Bourbon Trail site and its Louisville-based Urban Bourbon Trail counterpart; wonderful friends who’d lived there or visited; the always-dependable Yelp; and, not to be missed, those kind locals who were never caught without a suggestion for something incredible to eat.
Cameras: Mamiya 645AF, Canonet QL17 GIII, iPhone!
Film: Kodak Portra 400