When it comes to outdoor recreation in Kentucky, the options are staggering. No matter what your activity of choice might be, you’ll probably find it here. And in the heart of the state’s best outdoor destinations are what they call “Trail Towns.” Trail Towns not only serve as base camps for all kinds of nature-driven fun and activities, they also have a concentration of services like dining, lodging, and outfitters.
When the Trail Town program started in 2013, it was no surprise that Dawson Springs was the first to earn the designation. Located in the southwest part of the state, folks have been visiting Dawson Springs since the 1800s when it was a popular spa and resort destination. It’s also known for sharing a border with Pennyrile Forest, one of the largest state forests in Kentucky. This 15,000-acre old-growth forest is a vast playground to all things outdoors: it’s got miles and miles of equestrian, mountain bike, and hiking trails just waiting to be explored, boating, bird and wildlife watching, and hunting and fishing.
Pennyrile State Resort Park
Situated in the heart of the forest sits the Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park. Named for the abundant Pennyroyal plant that grows in the area, it’s a perfect place to start a Dawson Springs adventure.
The white-sand beach at Pennyrile Lake is a local favorite for sunbathing or getting out onto the water. Grab your canoe, paddleboard, or kayak and silently glide through the clean, clear water. Motorboats are prohibited on the lake, so it’s easy to find quiet spots to enjoy the solitude of nature. Be sure to pack your fishing gear as bluegill, channel catfish, crappie, and largemouth bass all call Pennyrile Lake home.
For landlubbers, the 13-mile Pennyrile Nature Trail connects downtown to the park for hikers and mountain bikers and there are seven different trails looping around the lake and through the forest. The routes range from easy to more challenging and take you past blooming wildflowers, over rustic bridges, and along scenic bluffs.
They didn’t forget about golfers, either! The park is home to a regulation, 18-hole course and an 18-hole minigolf course as well.
Lodging couldn’t be easier. There is a 36-site campground with utility hook-ups, a dump station, showers, restrooms, and laundry. If that sounds too rough, choose from one of the 13 cottages around the shore of Pennyrile Lake. Some even have private boat and fishing docks, fireplaces, or screened-in porches. Another option is the Pennyrile Lodge, poised high on a cliff overlooking the lake.
If you were hoping to get out on a motorized boat, head to nearby Lake Beshear. Also located in the Pennyrile Forest, this 784-acre lake has 23 miles of shoreline and allows larger power boats and water skiing. It also happens to be one of the best bass fishing lakes in Kentucky. Anglers come from far and wide hoping to reel in white crappie, bluegill, green sunfish, longear sunfish, channel catfish, and blue catfish.
Kentucky is known for its epic paddling, and if the lakes weren’t enough, it’s time to hit the river. The classic adventure nearby is the 7-mile stretch of the Tradewater River, just one of the eight major waterways in Kentucky. Effortlessly float down this class I stretch, passing by awe-inspiring natural sites like the Devil’s Dining Table, Chalk Cliffs, and Lovers Leap. Be sure to have your (waterproof!) camera ready for Dripping Rock, a massive outcropping overhanging the river.
Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area
About five miles east of Dawson Springs lies a quaint historic community that still maintains remnants of the Revolutionary War. You’ll also find the incredibly scenic Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area. The hiking trails here lead visitors to some spectacular natural wonders like the Saltpeter Cave, a rockshelter with a 70-foot-tall waterfall, and the Jones-Keeney Natural Bridge, one of the rare natural bridges in Western Kentucky.
Jones-Keeney is also home to a small climbing area called Hunter Bluff. Also known as Dawson Bluff, there are about 50 routes ranging from 30 to 150 feet, and boasts some of the best crack climbing around. There are both sport and trad routes here, ranging from 5.3 to 5.13.
Where to Eat
With so much to do, you’re sure to work up an appetite while exploring Dawson Springs. If you’re spending most of your time at the park, head to the Clifty Creek Restaurant at the lodge. Sit back, take in sweeping views of the lake and start with some fried pickles. For the entree, they are known to make an amazing fried catfish sandwich, but they’re famous (and deservedly so) for their Kentucky Hot Brown. Originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, this open-faced sandwich is loaded with baked country ham and roasted turkey, smothered in cheese sauce, then topped with tomato, bacon and blended cheese. From there, the whole thing is broiled for a few minutes until the cheese turns brown. Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds.
For true down-home cookin’, Ms. Becky’s Place is legendary. They’ve got the best burgers around, the catfish dinner can’t be beat, and no visit to Kentucky is complete with trying REAL fried chicken. But, what really matters is the dessert. People will drive an hour out of their way for a piece of Ms. Becky’s homemade pie. Maybe skip dinner for a couple pieces of pie?
In a state like Kentucky where there’s so much to do, it can be hard to decide where to start. But with plenty of outdoor recreation, history, food, and fun, the state’s first Trail Town is an easy choice to top the list.