Finding peace and tranquility in idyllic Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Our first Welcome Centre just off the I-65 south from Louisville, where we pick up a map and some brochures on things to do and places to see - it is the friendly staff there who urge us to visit Bernheim Forest

After bidding farewell to our friends in the beautiful Victorian neighbourhood of Old Louisville, we took the I-65 southbound, soon leaving Louisville behind us. We were motoring nicely along the interstate, when I saw a sign up ahead for a Rest Area with a Welcome Centre. I was curious to see what this was, so we kept right at the next turn-off.

We were so glad we did! It introduced us to the wonderful institution of the Welcome Centre – these, we discovered, were usually located just off the interstate highways as you entered a new state, and they were a veritable treasure trove. They were always staffed by enthusiastic and helpful individuals, who were willing to suggest places we might like to visit or scenic byways we might like to explore.

We head off on Forest Hill Drive towards the Canopy Tree Walk and the Lookout Tower

It was here that we found out about Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, which was virtually on our route to our next destination: the city of Bowling Green. We were intending to sleep there that night, so that we wouldn’t have far to backtrack to visit Mammoth Cave National Park the next morning.

Covering an area of 14,500 acres, the tranquil nature park of Bernheim Forest (official website) was established by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (1948 to 1945) in 1929, a German immigrant who had achieved success as a distiller of bourbon whiskey in Kentucky. He had purchased the vast tracts of land here in 1928 for as little as US$ 1.00 an acre, because the land had been stripped for iron ore mining, and was presumably assumed to be worthless. Over the next twenty years, a landscape architecture firm designed and developed the park, which opened in 1950: “Bernheim Forest was given to the people of Kentucky in trust and is the largest privately owned natural area in the state.” (Wikipedia) Luckily for us, it still exists and is in fact flourishing! What a lovely and peaceful oasis, and within easy driving distance of the city of Louisville!

We start with the brief Canopy Tree Walk, before tackling the longer Iron Ore Hill Loop

There is a strong emphasis on using eco-friendly designs and sustainable practices in the park, and on bringing together nature, science and art in unusual ways:

“The administrative/education center hosts displays of local and regional artwork in various media. Bernheim also has an “Artist-in-Residence” program. This fellowship program typically offers housing and a stipend to artists who help promote the artistic aspects of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Artists are expected to interact with the public in workshops or gallery open houses. Past artists have worked in photography, paint, sculpture, and writing. Sculptures in metal, stone, wood, and other media are sprinkled around the forest property.” (Wikipedia)

The park is divided into two sections: the area closer to the entrance gate is the arboretum, which is where you will also find the visitors’ centre, cafe and gift shop, several lakes, a couple of pavilions, and clusters of particular trees (magnolias, oaks, dogwoods, beeches, conifers…), as well as the plant nursery, education centre, and research centre. A network of circular drives and walking paths loops around these various locations.

This short wooden walkway ends high among the canopy of the trees - this must look glorious in spring and autumn!

From the Visitor Centre, a long paved road – the appropriately named Forest Hill Drive – provides access to the substantially larger expanse of the natural area, where numerous hiking trails, of varying lengths and difficulties, entice you to stop your car in a designated parking area next to the road, and to explore the forest.

If you are fit and energetic, you may want to tackle the strenuous 21.4 km Millennium Trail, although you will need to register for this at the Visitor Centre before you set out, presumably so that they know where to find you if you get lost or do not return to your car before closing time! There is also a cycling trail if you prefer to navigate through this park on two wheels.

We had some iced tea and turkey club sandwiches at the restaurant inside the visitor centre, to fortify us for two very short, and one slightly longer hike. We followed the Forest Hill Drive southeastwards, passing hollows with mysterious names like Sugar Tree Hollow, Log Cabin Hollow and Wildcat Hollow, until we reached the turn-off to the Canopy Tree Walk.

Don't you just love these colours?!

This wasn’t much of a walk, really, it was mainly a long, sturdily built wooden boardwalk ending in a kind of balcony that stood high above the forest floor, just about level with the highest tree tops. It must be spectacular here during autumn, when the foliage changes colour.

Keen to see more of the natural forest up-close and on the ground, we decided to follow the 1.5 mile trail known as the Iron Ore Hill Loop; it took us just over an hour, and was a leisurely walk with gentle ups and downs. At one stage, we hadn’t seen any other hikers for quite a while, and we were starting to fear that we might have ended up on the wrong trail. Just as we were wondering whether to turn back to where we had seen the last route marker (in the form of small and colourful plastic triangles mounted against the trees at roughly eye-level), a friendly pair of hikers approached from the front. They reassured us that we were in fact fairly close to the end-point. Comforting news indeed.

But we definitely want to climb to the top of the Fire Tower!

Back in the car, we followed the paved road until we reached another large parking area, with a sign identifying this as the start of the Fire Tower Loop. (Incidentally, there are some outdoor restrooms here, if the need arises – very rustic, but quite functional.) As its name implied, this trail – another vaguely circular route – led up to an observation or lookout tower, which we of course ascended, to get a better view of the surrounding landscape.

At the top of the tower, we were greeted by a cheerful park volunteer, who explained that they take turns doing duty up here. Presumably, they also make sure that visitors are safe when they climb to the top of the tower, as it is quite a way do-o-o-own.Β  He told us a bit about the history of the forest and about the different trees that grow here; pointing into the far distance, he declared that one could even see the highrise buildings of Louisville to the north on a clear day! It seems that there are numerous volunteers who freely give of their time, interacting with visitors, participating in educational activities, and generously sharing their knowledge of this land, its plants and animals. I think this is a marvelous idea!

It is peaceful and quiet at the shore of the lake

We returned to the car and made our way back to the Visitor Centre, turning off onto a small side road, which meandered through forest and past countless little turn-offs, until we reached the shore of a tranquil and placid lake. From the map, I think it must have been Lake Nevin, which is the largest body of water in this park; a walking trail skirts all around its shore. As we approached a wooden platform protruding into the lake, a group of Canadian Geese foraging on the green lawns nearby honked in annoyance at our intrusion, and waddled off into the shallow water.

It was so peaceful in the park, that we regretted not having more time to explore the various trails. It is definitely a place that we would love to visit again.

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6 thoughts on “Finding peace and tranquility in idyllic Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

  1. Isn’t that the beauty of travelling, to find new surprises around the next corner? All it takes is some curiosity and willingness to take a sidetrack once in a while. I love you little discovery of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Very nice post.

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