10 great hiking trails within an hour drive of Louisville

As a resident of Louisville for more than 26 years, I got bored with city attractions like Churchill Downs a long time ago. But what does keep my interest in the region is all of the hiking available within an hour drive from Louisville. So as a self-appointed expert in local, nature-based escapism, I’m going to share with you a few of my go-to trails. I picked the following trails because of the variety of scenery they offer (I’m not a fan of flat trails through wooded areas) and because they are far enough away from Louisville to feel like a mini-vacation. My medium-sized hound dog was able to tackle all of these trails with ease, so unless you own a lap dog, I would declare all of these trails as dog-friendly. And the majority of these trails are rated as moderate difficulty, meaning, they should be OK for anyone in “moderate” health who is wearing proper footwear. The following trails are listed from shortest drive to longest drive using downtown Louisville as a starting point.

Charlestown Trail No. 2, 3 and 6  |  Charlestown State Park, Indiana
Drive – 34 minutes
Park hours: Open seven days a week; 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Price: $7 for Indiana residents; $9 for everyone else

Once an undeveloped portion of the 15,000-acre Indiana Army Ammunition plant, Charlestown State Park is now a prime destination for hiking in Southern Indiana, with trails that feature rugged hills, deep ravines, rivers with Devonian fossil outcrops and creeks with occasional waterfalls. I suggest hiking these three trails in particular: Trail Nos. 2, 3 and 6.

Trail No. 2 is a 1.3-mile loop that takes you through an open woodland before dropping into hilly terrain that runs parallel to a creek, which, water levels permitting, has a few, small waterfalls.

Trail No. 3 is a 2.2-mile loop that takes you down a cliffside and runs alongside Fourteen Mile Creek as it empties into the Ohio River. The highlight of Trail No. 3, is that it comes up to the abandoned, 1920s amusement park, Rose Island. (See Bob Hill’s story on Rose Island here.) To get there, cross the wooden bridge over Fourteen Mile Creek and follow the small, loop trail encircling the park.

Trail No. 6 is a 2.3-mile loop that runs parallel to the Ohio River. Because of this trail’s proximity to water, you have a better chance of seeing wildlife in the area, particularly birds. The park hosts “72 species of birds, including bluebirds, black vultures and an occasional bald eagle,” according to Charlestown Park’s website.

Cull Hollow Trail and Elm Lick Trail  |  Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
Drive – 35 minutes
Park hours: Open seven days a week; 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Price: Free Monday-Friday; $5 per car or $10 per van Saturday, Sunday and Holidays

Purchased by German immigrant Isaac W. Bernheim in 1929, the 14,000-acre nature preserve was dedicated as “a gift to the people of his new homeland.” Even though the public is allowed on only 2,000 hilly acres of the property, there is still plenty to see, including these two beautiful trails:

Elm Lick Trail is a five-mile loop with an elevation gain of 728 feet. And with elevation gain, you can catch sweeping views. Dense forest, a large field and a river on this trail offer plenty of variety to keep your interest.

Cull Hollow Trail is a 1.2-mile trail that takes you through a rocky hillside and hardwood forest to a waterfall. Surrounding the trail are rocky outcrops and large stones, but the trail is fairly easy, with a gradual incline and an elevation gain of only 265 feet. This trail is known for its frequent deer and turkey sightings.

Tioga Falls Trail and Bridges To The Past  |  West Point, Kentucky
Drive – 38 minutes
Park hours: Open 24/7 (barring any military exercises)
Price: Free

Way down Dixie Highway, between the Ohio River and Fort Knox, you will find West Point, Kentucky. And hidden in West Point are two trails that illustrate the beauty and history of the area. Because these trails are so close to Fort Knox, and sometimes the site of military exercises.

Tioga Falls is a 1.9-mile, out-and-back trail that features a majestic series of waterfalls. The trail runs parallel to an active railroad track (stay off the track!) and passes the remnants of a 19th-century house before you reach the falls. The falls are about 130 feet high.

Bridges to the Past is a 2.4-mile, out-and-back, paved trail. The trail follows the old L&N Turnpike, which was chartered in 1837 and in use until 1919. Along the trail are three stone bridges that are over 150 years old (hence the name of the trail). Sieboldt Cave is also visible from the trail, but you are not allowed to approach the caves.

Otter Creek Trail  |  Otter Creek Park
Drive – 48 minutes
Park hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday from dawn to dusk; Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays
Price: $3 for daily permit, $30 for annual permit

Just south of West Point, Kentucky is another bit of natural beauty wedged between Fort Knox and the Ohio River, Otter Creek Outdoor Recreation Area. Otter Creek is a recreational area for a number of outdoor activities: fishing, hunting, mountain biking, horseback riding, archery and, most importantly for us, hiking. To get a true sense of the area, I suggest hiking this trail in particular.

Otter Creek Trail is a four-mile loop with an elevation gain of 603 feet. This trail covers the majority of the area, so expect lots of variety in your hike as you will encounter plenty of heavily-wooded areas, fields, streams, rivers and a few small caves.

Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail  |  Hoosier National Forest, Indiana
Drive – 56 minutes
Open: 24/7
Price: Free

Hoosier National Forest is 203,000 acres defined mostly by hilly terrain and thick woodlands. And with over 260 miles of trails, you could easily pick a random one and find plenty to enjoy. But since I am offering hikes within an hour of Louisville, I think you’d be best off narrowing your travels to this one trail in particular.

Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail is a 1.2-mile loop, and as you probably already guessed from the name, the highlight of this trail is the Hemlock Cliffs. The cliffs are the result of sandstone rock formations which have created a sort of box canyon in the middle of these Indiana woods. A few creeks also run through the area, so depending on water levels, you may also find a few waterfalls on the trail.

Clifty Falls State Park Loop Trail and Clifty Falls Trails 8 and 2  |  Clifty Falls, Indiana
Drive – 59 minutes
Price: $7 for Indiana residents; $9 for everyone else
Park hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m.

Clifty Falls State Park is a stunning canyon with sheer cliffs that are covered in waterfalls. If you are looking for a bit of landscape to feed your escapism, this is the place to be, since it feels nothing like the rolling hills of Kentucky or the wooded plains of Indiana. But I do have one nitpick. Across the street from the entrance of the park are three giant smokestacks, courtesy of the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp. Once you are deep into the park, you mostly lose sight of them, but still, it is a harsh juxtaposition while driving in. Nevertheless, these two trails are well worth exploring.

Clifty Falls State Park Loop Trail is a five-mile loop on the rim of the entire Clifty Canyon. The trail is perfect to get a sense of the entire park, and filled with picturesque views that look down into the waterfall filled canyon. A word of advice, though: Set aside an extra hour of hiking into your timetable since the elevation gain on this trail is about 1,000 feet.

Clifty Falls Trails Nos. 8 and 2 combine to make a 4.8-mile loop, and, like the Clifty Falls State Park Loop, this trail also has a large elevation change of about 862 feet. That’s because this trail will actually take you down into the canyon. While you are there, be sure to explore the Clifty Creek’s stony bed, which, according to the state park’s website, is “littered with fossil remnants telling of a long-vanished marine ecosystem that teemed with life that included ancient corals, ancestral squids, brachiopods and more.” Just be sure to leave the fossils where you found them because fossil collecting within the park is prohibited. •