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5 unusual outdoor adventures in Kentucky

In Red River Gorge, Kentucky, 10 custom-built treehouses await those who seek an overnight adventure in the Bluegrass State. Photo by Tina Brouwer

Standing on a small platform high off the ground, I gather my courage. My guide counts down from 3. I hesitate for a moment before pushing off the wooden ledge into darkness. But instead of falling, my body rockets forward through the air. I’m zip-lining through a mine under Louisville, Kentucky, and I’m having a blast.

It’s one of the many outdoor (or underground) adventures around the Bluegrass State. Over the course of 3 days, I found myself inching along cliff faces, kayaking through a flooded mine, and exploring the world’s longest cave system. One night I slept in a treehouse perched in a gorge.

Even the moderately adventurous can find thrills across the Commonwealth. Although the activities might sound extreme, they’re easily accessible, with trained guides covering all the safety measures. Here’s where to find your own Kentucky adventures:

1. Mega Zips, Mega Cavern, Louisville

Two people zip-lining in a cavern

Strap in to explore a limestone cavern beneath Louisville with Mega Zips. Photo courtesy Louisville Tourism

If flying through the dark hanging from a cable isn’t on your bucket list, you should reconsider.

Zip-lining underground is unbeatable, one of my guides told me. “Your depth perception isn’t as good. It’s a little disorienting,” she says. “You get an extra thrill from not knowing where the ground is.”

The Mega Zips, as it’s called, strings through a 100-acre former limestone mine in the middle of Kentucky’s largest city. Passages stretch beneath the 10-lane Watterson Expressway and even under the Louisville Zoo.

What’s now known as the Mega Cavern produced limestone for more than 40 years until the 1970s, before being largely forgotten. Decades later, new owners envisioned it as a recreational site and opened the world’s only completely underground zip line.

Following a brief introduction to zipping, each member of our group donned a helmet with a miner’s head lamp and a body harness equipped with 2 heavy-duty lanyards. After a short walk through the mine, we reached the first of 6 zips.

For nearly 2½ hours, we worked our way across the mine, crossing open pits and walkways far below. Our guide led us across 2 swinging suspension bridges, adding drama by playing the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme through a Bluetooth speaker.

The final section, a dual racing zip line leaving from the tallest platform, paired me against Brad, a father visiting with his family from Iowa. Our guide counted down our start, but unnerved by the height, I hesitated for a fraction of a second before leaping into the race.

I couldn’t make up for the late start and watched the red light on Brad’s helmet zipping ahead of me the entire way. But I still was grinning ear to ear. I finished the course wanting more.

Zip-liners must be at least 7 years old, weighing between 55 and 285 pounds. Those younger than 15 must be accompanied by an adult. Prices vary; check the website.

You may also like: 6 ways to celebrate the holidays in Louisville, Kentucky

2. Via Ferrata, Campton

People climbing the Campton Kentucky via ferrata

A via ferreta, or “iron way” in Campton, Kentucky, allows visitors to traverse a sandstone wall by attaching themselves to a safety cable drilled into the wall. Photo by Nicole Goldberg

As I inched  my way across a sheer sandstone wall, I paused to take in the view from high above Eastern Kentucky’s treetops. Although I have never considered myself a daredevil, I had made it this far on my own.

But here’s a secret: I was standing on metal rebar steps drilled into the stone and attached to a safety cable running along the pathway. I was on a via ferrata, which is Italian for “iron way.” Or put another way, I was mountain climbing with training wheels.

First developed in the Italian Alps, World War I soldiers used via ferratas to move quickly along mountains. They’re now found across Europe and have begun to pop up in the U.S.

When the course near Red River Gorge opened in 2001, it was the first via ferrata in the nation. The French-designed course has 6 sections. Taken together, the routes cover about three-quarters of a mile, reaching as high as 120 feet above the ground.

Man securing his carabiner to the via ferrata

As long as a climber keeps a carabiner attached to the safety cable, he should be good to go … which isn’t to say this is easy. Photo by Nicole Goldberg

The climb has broad appeal, says Nicole Meyer, owner of Southeast Mountain Guides, which owns and developed the pathway.

“You work your way around and get to experience different heights and exposures,” she says. “It’s physically challenging and mentally challenging, but the entry level is relatively easy.”

All climbers use a harness with 2 carabiners, designed with a built-in shock absorber that will catch any falls. After a thorough orientation, climbers are set loose to follow the path.

Nervous at first, I soon established a rhythm, carefully clipping onto a safety cable. As I progressed, I slid my carabiners along, unclipping them one at a time whenever I reached a spot where the safety cable was bolted to the wall. My instructor had warned me to always keep 1 cable attached: This was the most important part of the climb.

I found it exhilarating and challenging, like a chess game on the rock as I made my way around the horseshoe-shaped gorge. The sections get progressively harder. At one point, needing to step down from a ledge while dangling my feet in the air to reach for an iron step, I almost lost my nerve.

I called it a day, pleased with my progress, after finishing the third section, which was graded as “intermediate.”

Meyer assured me I had done well. “Other courses are higher than ours, and some are longer, but ours is the most physically challenging.”

Operates March 1 through December 1; some off-season trips may occur. Via ferrata users must be at least 10 years old. Day passes, $56.

You may also like: Explore arts and culture in Paducah, Kentucky

3. Crystal Kayak and SUP Glow Tour, Rogers

Glowing kayaks illuminate the surrounding water and cave walls

In Rogers, Kentucky, a 90-minute kayak tour through a flooded mine offers a respite from the summer’s heat. Photo courtesy SUP Kentucky 

Floating through a flooded mine might sound spooky, but when your see-through kayak or standup paddleboard glows with colored lights, the experience feels magical.

This 90-minute guided adventure takes paddlers on a peaceful trip through a maze of giant caverns, eventually leading past a waterfall. It’s a mesmerizing experience: You might see large rainbow trout dart beneath your kayak or Kentucky brown bats clinging to the wall high above.

The mine opened in the late 1860s. Miners struck an aquifer more than a century later, and the rush of water threatened to flood the entire site. Since pumps couldn’t clear the chambers, the mine closed in the mid-1980s.

New owners began to offer tours in 2016, using acrylic kayaks and standup paddleboards that became an instant Instagram hit. Life jackets and helmets with lamps are provided for each guest. With no wind or current, the paddling is easy.

The cavern’s constant temperature ranges between 48 and 55 degrees, offering a welcome break from Kentucky’s hot and humid summers. Water temperatures during my spring tour were around 40 degrees.

Despite the spooky surroundings, the mine never felt cramped. For the most part, the chambers are spacious. Even when the water is 25 to 30 feet deep, the ceiling still towers at least 6 feet overhead.

Visitors choose the color of their lights. I opted for blue, but there’s also pink, purple, and green. It felt like a trip through Wonderland, if only Alice had traveled by kayak.

Tours start at $75.

You may also like: 10 fun things to do in Bowling Green, Kentucky

4. Mammoth Cave National Park

Stairway descending to the mouth of a cave in Mammoth Cave National Park

This way in to the world’s longest cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. Photo courtesy NPS Photo

No outdoor adventure trip in Kentucky is complete without visiting the world’s longest cave system.

Mammoth Cave National Park makes it simple to explore its mysteries, with more than a dozen different cave tours available. The most popular, the 2-hour Historic Tour, takes visitors through miles of underground passages.

Tour groups follow wide pathways, except for “Fat Man’s Misery,” which requires even skinny visitors to turn sideways and inch through a pathway cut by water through limestone. Other highlights included the unnerving trip across the “bottomless” (105-foot) pit. Now crossed by a bridge, it blocked cave explorers for decades.

For more adventure, the Wild Cave Tour returned this spring after a 3-year pandemic hiatus. Guests outfitted with jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, and caving helmets are guided through remote portions of the 420-mile cave system. The 6-hour climbing, crawling, and slithering adventure can be too much for some visitors.

Hikers carrying lights as they walk through Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park offers more than a dozen different tours. Photo courtesy NPS Photo

“There are tiny passages, pits, and domes and canyons. You go through some extremely tight holes,” says park spokeswoman Molly Schroer, who once led cave tours herself. How tight? Guests whose chests or hips exceed 42 inches can’t go, because they won’t fit.

But Schroer says the experience is always popular. “There’s not only crawling, but a lot of climbing. Imagine hiking in the Grand Canyon, but with a roof.”

Historic Tours start at $20; Wild Cave Tours from $66. Discounts for seniors and pass holders.

You may also like: 7 great free things to do in Western Kentucky

5. Treehouses, Red River Gorge

Sky Dancer treehouse

The Sky Dancer treehouse includes an even more secluded single bedroom. Photo by Allison Maggard

Kentucky adventures don’t have to end at sunset. Come bedtime, you can spend the night in a custom cabin suspended from a cliff or perched in a tree.

That’s how I found myself curling up in a pirate ship–shaped cabin built on a sandstone cliff, one of 10 custom treehouses offered by Red River Gorgeous, a vacation rental company that has partnered with a treehouse designer.

Some are completely off the grid. Others offer electricity, running water, and even air conditioning. The largest can sleep up to 8; the smallest, just 2.

Guests lounge in hammocks outside the Sky Dancer treehouse

Rigging outside the Sky Dancer treehouse can serve as a hammock. A kitchen, bathroom, and loft bed are inside. Photo by Allison Maggard

Each treehouse has a name and unique design, from the 9-sided and mirrored Looking Glass to the Cloud Dome, a geodesic structure suspended in a tree. Others have separate sections connected by suspension bridges, walkways, and ladders.

I spent the night in the Sky Dancer, with a deck covered by shades that look like sails and net rigging that serve as giant hammocks.

The house had a kitchen, bathroom, and loft bed, plus another bed located more than 100 steps up a steep outdoor staircase. That was tempting, but I decided to stay in the main house when I mulled a potential middle-of-the-night journey down the steps to a bathroom. The view out the window was spectacular: I was literally sleeping in the woods.

Rental rates start at $199.

Larry Bleiberg is an award-winning writer, travel editor, and creator of

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