It will soon be time to figure out what to do with the kids during their summer breaks. Fortunately there are numerous opportunities for family-friendly outdoor adventures all within a short drive for most Kentuckians.
KET’s The Local Traveler visited three options for scaling the cliffs of Red River Gorge, flying through the trees on ziplines, or learning about wildlife and the environment in an urban nature center.
Communing with the Cliffs
It doesn’t take hours of instruction or years of practice to enjoy the thrill of rock climbing and rappelling in Eastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Torrent Falls Climbing Adventures in Campton offers first-time climbers a unique way to scale the sandstone cliffs of the Gorge.
“You really don’t need much of anything, just a spirit for adventure,” says manager Nicole Meyer.
Torrent Falls is home to the nation’s first Via Ferrata or “iron road.” It’s a 3,000-foot course along a horseshoe-shaped canyon in the gorge. After 45 minutes of instruction, climbers strap on a harness that clips into a steel cable that runs along the cliff. As they traverse the course, climbers use iron hand- and foot-holds anchored into the rock to ascend and descend the canyon.
Meyer says the Via Ferrata concept originated in Europe and climbing system was used to transport troops through rugged mountain terrains during World War I and II. They’ve since become a popular recreational activity for people who lack technical mountain climbing experience.
After you’ve whetted your climbing appetite on the Via Ferrata, Torrent Falls also offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced training in rock climbing and rappelling. Meyer says visitors may choose a combination package that allows them to do the Via Ferrata course followed by a guided rappelling trip.
Zipping Through the Forest
If dangling off a sandstone cliff isn’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping, perhaps you’d prefer to fly over them. Then check out the Red River Gorge Zipline Tours at Cliffview Resort in Campton.
A zipline is a steel cable suspended between two poles, where the starting point is at a higher elevation than the ending point. Visitors wear a harness that attaches to the zipline with a pulley that allows them to, in essence, roll down the cable propelled only by gravity.
Red River Gorge Zipline offers a tour of five ziplines that are suspended up to 350 feet off the ground. Amy Sellin of Cliffview Resorts says the first three lines are relatively short and take visitors through the trees of the Daniel Boone National Forest. The final two lines are 1,000 and 2,000 feet long, and allow visitors to soar above the treetops at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.
The resort, which is about an hour from Lexington, includes several lodges and cabins for overnight visitors and a restaurant that serves Friday night fish fries and Saturday night steak dinners. Sellin says Cliffview is a popular destination for those planning weddings or family reunions.
“This is just a nice way to celebrate and get away from the noise of day to day and really get to know each other once again,” Sellin says.
Going Natural in Knoxville
If you want to explore nature but don’t want to leave urban comforts too far behind, the Ijams Nature Center is the place for you.
Located just five minutes from downtown Knoxville, this 300-acre greenspace along a bend in the Tennessee River has nature trails (including some that are stroller and wheelchair accessible), mountain biking, paddle sports, bird watching, and educational programs for outdoors people of all ages.
Harry and Alice Ijam, who were known around Knoxville for their love of birds and gardening, purchased the property in 1910. It became a public nature preserve in the 1960s.
“We are an educational facility,” says Peg Beute, a naturalist at Ijams, “but it is a park open to everybody all the time to come out and enjoy.”
A nature center includes exhibits about the history and wildlife of the area, and a gallery to showcase the work of local artists and photographers. There are also 10 miles of nature trails that traverse the property.
“The most popular trail is the River Trail because it passes through woods and along bottomland before it gets to a cliff right along the Tennessee River,” says senior naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales. “There’s a boardwalk built there so you’re literally walking just a few feet above the water. It’s a gorgeous trail [that] enters several habitat types.”
Ijams Nature Center is open seven days a week and admission is free. Fees are charged to rent canoes, kayaks, or standup boards on the center’s lake, or to experience the new Navitat tree canopy adventure.