Daniel Boone National Forest

The Daniel Boone National Forest offers hardcore hikers and casual day trippers a chance to explore unspoiled land.
Lisa Renze-Rhodes

Before America had independence.

Before Kentucky achieved statehood.

Daniel Boone explored the land that would one day bear his name.

Calling the territory sprawled out before him an “astonishing delight,” according to Library of Congress records, Boone is credited with being one of the first to explore the region, with his first impressions of the area captured on June 7, 1769, according to diaries and journals he and his expedition companions kept.

“Not a breeze shook the most tremulous leaf. I had gained the summit of the commanding ridge, and, looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains, the beauteous tracts below.”

Today, the Daniel Boone National Forest spans more than 700,000 acres, stretching from nearly the Ohio River in the north to the Tennessee border at the south.

“It’s three-and-a-half hours from one end of it to the other,” said Tim Eling, public affairs staff officer with the Daniel Boone National Forest.

For perspective, that’s farther than the drive from Indianapolis to Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Contained within that massive space, Eling said, is some of the best rock climbing east of the Mississippi, kayaking, camping and 600 miles of trails including primitive backtrails, and that’s before visitors even get to the two large reservoir lakes that provide great access to boating, fishing, waterskiing and the like.

“It’s internationally known for climbing,” Eling said. “People literally come from all over the world to climb here, because of the hundreds and hundreds of miles of cliff lines.”

Located in the Cumberland Plateau, the area offers 200 to 300-foot cliffs that drop down into river bottoms, Eling said, providing an experience that is unmatched for that type of climbing.

Though the 1.7 million visitors annually often confuse the national forest with a national park, Eling said there’s a distinct difference.

“We’re similar, certainly, in that we provide recreation to the American public,” he said. “But Congress set up our mission to be very broad. Things that we do that sometimes surprise people, because we’re a multi-use land management agency, means that sometimes we might have a timber sale. And we allow recreational hunting.”

The limited-lottery hunting that occurs — meaning would-be participants must enter and win a special, seasonal permit — helps control the largest elk herd found in the eastern United States, Eling said.

But the vast majority of visitors come for the natural wonders unique to the region.

“All those cliff lines and the sandstone have created lots of natural arches. Kentucky has the most natural arches east of Utah and Colorado. Some of the arches are long and slender, you can walk over the top of some, walk under some, there are a lot of trails,” Eling said.

Arguably the most famous arch in the forest is the Natural Arch Scenic Area.

The sandstone arch, located deep within the forest near the border of Kentucky and Tennessee spans nearly 100 feet across. 

The region also boasts historic spots that date to use before and during the Civil War. Camp Wildcat, though not a significant battle, was the site where troops from Kentucky were first engaged in combat, despite the state’s officially neutral designation.

Records managed by the Camp Wildcat Preservation Foundation reveal that Union and Confederate troop commanders set their sights on Kentucky, fearful that the other side would claim the area as its own. The skirmish at Camp Wildcat, in October 1961, resulted in the deaths of 15 men.

Photographer and outdoor enthusiast Landon Troyer said he was drawn to the region for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to experience a bit of history.

“Daniel Boone National Forest was a location I had not had the chance to visit yet,” Troyer said. “And (Boone is) a childhood hero of mine. The name elicits admiration and a sense of adventure to walk where he once did.”

As a photographer, Troyer said he’s drawn to places where he can just soak up everything that’s going on around him.

“My favorite way to travel as a visitor is to find the local haunts, rub shoulders with locals and enjoy the community and spirit that comes from the location,” Troyer said. “This is the best way to travel both abroad and within the continental U.S.”

But even though he’d never been there before, Troyer said there was just something about the area that felt comfortable.

“Driving the gravel roads and following streams through the valley, I felt a sense of belonging,” Troyer said. “Though it’s not my own community, the land feels familiar in a way.” 

After spending so many years in the forest, Eling has an area that is special.

“My favorite place is the Red River Gorge. I was the Red River Gorge manager for many years — it’s truly unique. The geological formations of the arches, the dramatic cliffs, the wild and scenic river, there’s a wilderness area there… It’s got a lot of variety and a lot of things to do there. It’s a special place.”

If you go

Visit the website for Daniel Boone National Forest

Fees range from $5 for a one-day pass in most of the ranger districts, to $10 for access to specific areas.

Camping and boat access fees vary based on the location. For more information or to reserve camping and recreation sites call National Recreation Reservation System (NRRS) at 877- 444-6777 or at recreation.gov