Jefferson Memorial Forest, a National Audobon Society Wildlife Refuge, has long been a place of refuge for the residents of Louisville, Ky. At a combined 6,500 acres, it offers 35 miles of hiking trails that wander through the Knobs Region of Kentucky , just north of Mammoth Cave National Park, on the outskirts of the city. It is separated into several distinct areas; Scotts Gap, Tom Wallace Rec., Waverly Park, Fairmount Falls, Kulmer Beach, Paul Yost Rec., and Horine Reservation.
Last summer, I made the trip out to Fairmount Falls after receiving permission from the Natural Areas Division to hike the park. They monitor and restrict all traffic in and out of the park in order to help preserve it. Heck, after finding it I realized that I had driven past it more times than I could count, lying in the middle of a wooded area in a rural suburban neighborhood. Wanting to venture out a little farther outside the city, I decided to spend the day in Horine Reservation to get some cool mountain air.
The drive up to Horine Reservation is one I always look forward to as the road weaves in and out of the valleys of rural Kentucky, while climbing up through a dense and lush forest, reminding me of the times I’ve spent in the Great Smoky Mountains. Horine straddles the upland knobs of Jefferson Memorial Forest, with many of the trails following along the wooded ridges with great views of the area beyond. The shortest and most approachable of these trails is the 2 mile long Orange Trail.
Its trailhead is found near the gravel parking lot, just behind the vault toilet outhouses opposite the conference center. You’ll hike along the main path that also leads to the Red Trail, until finally veering left at the marker. Camping sites are tucked into the forest along the way, with steel drum fire pits and picnic tables.
I’ve spent many summer as a kid camping in spots like this in the wilderness of Michigan and Wisconsin as a Boy Scout. The gentle nature of this trail, hiking underneath towering Virginia pines, inhaling that citrusy sweet scent as each step crushes a heavy mulch of pine needles, is exactly what I came here for.
Hillsides with exposed patches of sunlight, made possible by fallen trees, are filled with blooming golden ragwort. Areas with filtered light are covered by colonies of rue anemone and slender toothwort at the upper reaches of the trail.
As you start to make the 176 descent into the valley, the forest becomes even more lush. Plants such as beech, christmas, and hay scented fern all compete to fill every nook and cranny of available space, especially around fallen trees, which provide an abundance of natural fertilizer.
The small pockets of nature tucked into these hills experience the seasons a little differently. As the spring wildflowers closer to sea level have already faded to make way for the summer spectacle, here in the hills they are still in full bloom. Reaching the creek, patches of blooming purple phlox and may apple intermingle with wild ginger, to create an eye catching tapestry.
While many of us hike through the wilderness and see pretty flowers or interesting leaf patterns, people whom have called these areas home for centuries viewed those same plants as sources of food, building materials, and medicine.
One of the more interesting plants I can think of is our native wild ginger, which grows in abundance throughout the eastern half of the United States. Much like its Asian relative, our native wild ginger, was harvested, dried, and ground into a powder to use as a spice. Early settlers would cook the roots of wild ginger in sugar water for several days to obtain an early version of candied ginger.
Leaving nothing to waste, they would double utilize that sugary liquid by boiling it down into a syrup to drizzle over flapjacks. During his exploration of the Louisiana territory in 1806, Meriweather Louis was even documented using the root of wild ginger as a poultice to treat an open wound, as it was a common practice among many Native American tribes at the time.
Once you pass the creek, the trail begins an almost vertical 176’ ascent back up to the ridge. Carrying a heavy pack did not help the climb whatsoever, especially with the trail being smooth and filled with small debris making it very slippery. Every step was measured as there or no large rocks to anchor yourself to. At times I found myself leaning low to the ground, to the point that I was on all fours, grasping any available tree whip to help pull me along.
Working your way back onto level ground, the orange trail comes to an end at the intersection of the red trail. Even at a slow leisurely pace, it only takes 45 minutes to stroll through this hike compared to its much larger sister trail. At this point hikers can chose to call it quits and head back to their car or jump on to the next leg of their adventure.
The Red Trail consists of a large 4.8 mile, figure eight path with a shortcut cutting the trail by half in the middle. Taking the shortcut will cut the trail down to 3.1 miles. Stay tuned for our hike along the Red Trail to see if its really worth doing the full length or to just take the shortcut. See y'all on the trails!