Bernheim Forest is big, packed with adventure

Published 11:21 am Friday, March 3, 2017

Lots of cities have big and beautiful parks you can visit. Much rarer is a park that’s bigger than many cities. Kentucky has just such a place near the center of the state — Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt and Nelson counties.

The size of Bernheim is mind-blowing. At 14,378 acres, it’s more than three times the size of nearby Bardstown and more than 17 times the size of one of America’s iconic big parks, New York City’s Central Park. According to Bernheim, the land represents “one of the largest forest blocks in the Eastern United States managed by a nonprofit organization whose mission includes conservation and education.”

With so much space to explore and so many options to choose from, I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. But I quickly found the visitor center and began walking on the network of trails that expands outward from that point. The trails in the vicinity of the visitor center are educational and decorated with various art installations, including one incredible piece of art that consists of ropes and fabric triangles strung in sweeping arcs all the way across a pair of large ponds.

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Plants along these trails are marked with identifying signs and there are lots of special areas where interesting varieties of certain trees are grown. These areas include hollies, buckeyes, oaks, magnolias, conifers, crabapples (I’m coming back in spring specifically to visit the crabapple section), maples and more.

There are scenic bridges that cross over ponds filled with fish, turtles and birds in plentiful numbers, as well as educational signs that would be great to read with small children.

On the other side of the main loop road from the visitor center is Lake Nevin, a beautiful lake surrounded by walking paths, scenic locations to take photos, an amphitheater and good picnic spots. I spent a good while just sitting on the bank of the lake and soaking in the calm atmosphere before I headed deeper into Bernheim — to the forested area and the more serious hiking trails.

Bernheim maintains more than 35 miles of trails, meaning I would have to come back many, many times before I hiked them all. The king of Bernheim’s trails is Millennium Trail, a 13.75-mile hike that’s rated “difficult” and estimated to take seven hours to complete. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a dedicated enough hiker to tackle that behemoth, but fortunately there are plenty of other trail options, including medium-length trails like Iron Ore Hill Loop and short ones like Fire Tower Loop.

One unique feature of Bernheim’s forest is attached to the beginning of Iron Ore Hill Loop: the canopy tree walk. This is a boardwalk that extends from a high ridge and at its end is 75 feet above the forest floor. The view is, as you would expect, amazing.

Despite spending close to five hours covering as much ground as possible, I only scratched the surface of what Bernheim has to offer. It’s a wonderful place to have available not too far from home and I plan to return many times in the future.