50 Hikes 50 States Project–Kentucky

Emotions can sneak up on you when you least expect it. This 50 Hikes 50 States Project continues to surprise me at every turn, and who knew I’d end up in tears when hiking in Kentucky? After having a ho-hum time in New Mexico, the hubs and I headed to the midwestern south (is that such a thing?) to hike Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Kentucky caught me by surprise.

Our geography to hike these three states had us landing in Cincinnati.  From there, we drove to Louisville to spend a few days. I had no idea how much I’d like Louisville and found the city to be charming, the perfect size, and full of fun things to do with great historical significance. I had been so focused on finding the right hike to share with you (since New Mexico had been such a dud), I completely overlooked that Louisville is home to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

A Horse, of Course

I grew up in Del Mar, California, where the surf meets the turf, and thoroughbreds have been running since Jimmy Durante and Bing Crosby graced the track. I’ve breezed horses, met D. Wayne Lucas, hugged Willie Shoemaker, and wagered before I was five. My mom, dad, sister and I sat in box 729 for forty years. My autograph book is filled with signatures from Hollywood’s best and worst shows including Gilligan’s Island, Love Boat, The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, and Happy Days. My DNA screams thoroughbred horse racing.

But I am no longer a fan.

The older I’ve become, the more animal loving I’ve turned. I eat a vegan/vegetarian diet, I don’t attend Sea World anymore (more on that in another post), and I even voted against sports betting in a recent election in Denver because I don’t want anymore money going to the sport. Animals deserve to live their best lives, and I’m not convinced racing them is in their best interest.

By the way, did you know on Derby Day, more than $75,000,000 sits in cash in people’s pockets waiting to be bet?

So when I saw the opportunity to go to Churchill Downs and get a tour, my heart was conflicted.

Yet my DNA couldn’t resist.

So off I went to see the grounds, watch a race, and enjoy the Derby Museum. My dad, who died five years ago, floated in spirit with me all day. Although I hated that my admission would go toward the telling of the sport, my heart jumped with glee to spend time with my dad tagging along. Remembering some of our best days together at the track, I couldn’t trade this time, walking the track and reminiscing about racing, for the world. Thus, I enjoyed what will probably become my last day supporting thoroughbred racing through teared eyes.

No regrets. (Regrets was the name of the first filly to win the Derby, by the way.)

Hiking without Horses

As for the hike, the hubs and I headed to Jefferson Memorial Forest, the largest urban forest in the U.S. Named in honor of WWII veterans, the forest spans two counties and covers over 6500 acres. It’s only 20 minutes from downtown Louisville, offering a quick escape for hikers, fishers, and outdoorers alike. On this day, the autumn colors had already peaked, but rusted leaves remained on the trees. A light dusting of an early snow decorated the scene, providing a gorgeous day of contrasts against a blue sky. We couldn’t ask for better fall conditions for hiking.

A quick stop in the super cozy visitor’s center offered up maps and history. They also had some of the cutest hiking t-shirts I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t pass up a “May the forest by with you” top. The lovely staff made some hiking suggestions, where we decided to do the Red Trail, a 3-5 mile option designated as strenuous.

One of the criteria for my #50hikes50states hikes is that the hike must be quintessentially unique. Or in other words, when hiking the trail, you know you’re in the state where the hike is. So when I think of Kentucky, I think of rolling hills, perhaps some bluegrass, colorful hardwoods, and a horse or two. Although we didn’t see bluegrass here (we were too far east), Churchill Downs certainly made up for the horse part. And the trail ribboned through a gorgeous hardwood forest of maples, elms, and oaks.

The foot fodder of mixed leaf sizes and colors topped with a light dusting of bright white snow made for a superb visual invite to continue along the trail. Well-placed posts marked the trail and strategically painted red blazes continued the guidance. You could tell the trail maintenance teams of rangers and volunteers frequently use the trail and know what needs to be done to keep it open and active.

Strenuous or Moderate?

The local team has categorized the Red Trail as strenuous. Most of the hike runs flat with slight mountain-top undulations. The middle of the hike has one big down and one big up, but the mountain is short and the steepness is moderate. I’d classify this trail as moderate; strenuous to me involves a continuous up-and-down pattern with nary a flat path to be had. Although boots would be nice for this hike, they probably aren’t necessary, and you could get by without poles if you didn’t want to lug them along. Boots and poles will make you more comfortable on the one up-down combination.

Although we didn’t see deer, which I’m sure are aplenty in this lush and abundant forest, we certainly heard evidence of them via the gun shots on adjacent private property. Being November, we were knee-deep in hunting season.

The Jefferson Memorial Forest Visitor Center is at 11311 Mitchell Hill Rd, Fairdale, KY. After stopping in and getting a trail report, you can head to the Red Trail which is in the Horine Reservation portion of the forest, named after a prominent cardiac surgeon, at 12408 Holsclaw Hill Road. As you approach the trail head, you’ll pass two buildings and a private residence. Arrive at the gravel parking lot.

In the lot, you’ll see some trail information at the bulletin board. To the right are two red shelters housing compost toilets and a water pump. From there, you’ll find the Red Trail Trail Head to the left of the men’s toilet. We walked the trail counter clockwise, ending our hike along Cemetery Road as it returned to the parking lot. The trail is a 5-mile loop with a half-way cut-off you can take to make the loop three miles, if you so desire.

A Vegetarian Hot Brown Becomes a Patty Melt

After spending a couple of hours out hiking in 45 degrees, our appetites keyed up. When in Louisville, you must eat a Hot Brown. But it’s loaded with turkey and bacon, so I was on the hunt for a vegetarian version. Yelp couldn’t help. Neither did Google. Defeated, we headed to another famous Louisville must-do, the D’Nalley Diner. They have a Hot Brown, but it’s not vegetarian. They do have a vegetarian patty melt: although not a Hot Brown, it did hit the spot for warm, ooey, and gooey. The fries banged out the top spot for a comfy meal that warmed us up nicely.

Emotions After All

After an emotional day in Kentucky enjoying the Derby with my spiritual dad and a hike with the real hubs, we headed to Cincinnati to do our next state in our 50 Hikes 50 States Project, Ohio. Follow along!

What You Need to Know About This Hike (Click for interactive map)



  1. 50 Hikes 50 States Project - Eat Walk Learn - […] Kentucky […]
  2. 50 Hikes 50 States–Ohio – Eat Walk Learn - […] had a wonderful time hiking in Kentucky, and I reminisced, often with tears in my eyes, about the fun…

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handsome hiking couple

Chris and Steve, the empty-nesting nomads, travel the world, one month at a time, housesitting and Airbnbing along the way. We uncover urban walks, great hikes, and vegan/vegetarian eats that other guide books miss. And we throw in a bit about Forex trading along the way.

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