As a child my family and I would spend every weekend visiting our relatives. We grew up on the edge of rural Kentucky in the 70’s when you could trust your neighbors, and just about everybody else. Family values ruled the day, and as kids we were generally well behaved and thus allowed to run free in “the woods” behind my grandparent’s house. My brother, my cousins and I would run for hours among the trees and scrub playing “army”, but in reality we were garnering outdoor skills and an appreciation for nature that would last a lifetime.
Often while on our way home from the grandparent’s we would stop at Bernheim Forest. We would just drive around and look at the trees, and plants and nature. As kids, we hated it. “GET US OUT OF THE CAR”! That’s all I could think for the first ten minutes we were there. I didn’t get how my parents could just sit there listening to the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkle, and cruising around a lake. Eventually, the scenery would lull us into submission and we would ride quietly along, almost enjoying ourselves.
Several times a year we would actually picnic at Bernheim, and those days were fantastic. Being familiar with the forest and having a good sense of direction allowed us to roam the park’s hills long before a lot of the trails were even marked. When the grills were hot, and the food ready to go on, our folks would whistle and we would come running, literally. The loudest whistle I ever heard was my grandmother and it would carry through those hills far further than a cell phone signal will today.
In those days, there was a big open field that the park road looped around. There would be family picnics, football and softball games, frisbees flying and kites in the sky. The area was vast, with just enough shade on the perimeter where you needed it. Back then, you could also drive around all of the ponds. I remember the roads seemed small, but you could see all three, instead of just the twins ponds you see today. A lot has changed over the years, but the forest remains a popular stop for many tourists and lately has been more popular than ever.
A Brief History of Bernheim
In June of 2014, Bernheim hosted one of the most important events in human history. Dawn became my wife in a small private ceremony at Paul’s Point, a spot we picked for its beauty as well as personal history. As a child I remember my grandmother claiming this as her favorite place in the park. Later, as an adult, I would stop there often to ponder my own future. When Dawn came along and became the embodiment of my future, we would visit the spot almost weekly, and we still do to this day.
Prior to that magical day however, Bernheim Forest had been around for 85 years. Isaac Bernheim – a German immigrant, that made his money off the sale of Bourbon – gifted the acreage to his new homeland in 1929 with a vision for nature and art to be intertwined in a park setting. For the next 21 years, workers would restore the landscape that had been scarred from the iron ore industry. His vision included an arboretum combined with natural forest areas so that the public could learn about the ecological wonders around them. To meet this end they brought in the Frederick Law Olmsted Firm to design the original landscape design. 3 small lakes and a road through the arboretum were built following this plan, and the park was opened to the public in July of 1950.
Back to the Future
Today Bernheim hosts 250,000 visitors per year and provides educational programs while supporting research projects throughout. The open field has been nurtured back to its origins and is now a large meadow with paths running throughout for an easy hike, or a short walk thru the wildflowers. Bernheim now offers more than ever, with a large and welcoming visitor center, an education center, the research center, the living garden and of course the arboretum with over 8,000 documented trees and plants. Bernheim is home to the Hubbuch Holly Collection which boasts 300 different specimens, making it one of the largest collections in existence. Nestled within the park are pieces of art, some permanent installations and some more temporary due to their construction from natural materials. Bernheim also features Lake Nevin, a 32-acre year round fishing lake, as well as Mac’s lake, and Cedar and Holly ponds (which allow fishing a couple of times annually). The original 3 mile dirt road that took you to the fire tower is now part of eleven miles of paved roads that help you navigate the forest.
What to do and where to go
As soon as you enter Bernheim, you are surrounded by nature’s beauty. The collection of Maples lining the drive on the right hand side remind me of the live oaks you see in the deep south with their bent and gnarled trunks. To the left you will find the crab apple collection. There are paths on both sides of the entry road that will take you to serene settings, a memorial on the right and the Green Path on the left. A little further in to the park, Lake Nevin will be on your right with its humongous birch trees lining the banks. You can turn right at the first stop and the parking for Lake Nevin is right there. The loop around the lake will take you past the Garden Pavilion where you will find an array of different water features and plants that are native to the area. Further on the path you will come to the Quiet Garden where a hedge of rose plants surrounds a raised seating area and tranquil garden. As you come to the south end of the lake you will see the Sun and Shade loop. This loop will take you out into the forest before swinging you around to the same spot at the lake. It is a great way to get in a few more steps and the paths are not difficult to navigate.
As you make your way across the bridges over the south end of Lake Nevin you will find natural bogs and an opportunity to catch water birds in their natural habitat. Rounding the corner up the small hill, the path takes you directly to the Sunset Amphitheater. Bernheim hosts the annual Connect event here. Connect combines art, music, and nature with science. Following further along the path will take you to a natural savannah. Currently one of Danbos Giants can be found here, but that may not be around forever. But, if you get there in time, you can find Little Elina gathering stones.
The walk along the back of Lake Nevin has views of the rest of the park that you cannot miss. Early in the day the reflection on the water is as serene as any mountain lake. Get there early and watch the sunrise over the hills in the East. You will not be disappointed. As you make your way around the north side, there are a few more art pieces to appreciate as you make your way back to your car.
Take a left at the first stop sign you come to in the park and you will find the rest the Bernheim has to offer. As you progress around the Big Prairie Meadow the first small parking spot you come to, while inconspicuous, will have a lot to offer. You can walk out into the meadow along the mowed paths, or you can walk the 1.8 mile paved loop around it’s perimeter. You can find the Nursery Loop Trail head 50 yards away, or you can visit the largest collection of Holly Trees in North America.
Just through the copse of pine trees that create a canopy, you will find the Hubbuch Holly Collection. Catching these Holly trees in bloom is a treat. Little drops of gold and red, fluorescent greens and yellows nestle in the leaves on row upon row of Holly, after the leaves have fallen in the rest of the park. Looking at the tops of the nearby oaks you can spot mistletoe growing in the bare limbs as it blooms for the Christmas Season.
In the summertime, there is still plenty to do here. Just past the Holly Collection is the first pond and the first of Danbo’s Forest Giants, Little Nis. The pond also features a boardwalk so you can look out into the water, plenty of park benches along the paved walkway, and even some learning stations to get more familiar with your surroundings.
Two Ponds Loop is an easy to follow path that weaves in and around the hollies, ponds and works of art. The path offers views of the “Let There Be Light” statue that overlooks the Big Prairie that cannot be found elsewhere. The stark contrast between the bright red and hard lines of the various artworks and nature’s backdrop are breathtaking, but most often overlooked.
The Visitor Center and The Edible Garden
If you keep driving past that first spot, on your right, you will come upon the first of the ponds and find Little Nis staring at his reflection. This is the only Forest Giant that can be seen from the road, so if you don’t feel up to walking, this may be the only photo op you get. Slow down and take some pictures, but try not to hold up traffic if the park is busy.
Just past the pond you will find the Visitor Center, Kentucky’s first LEED Platinum building (certified Green Building). Open daily at 9am, the building was designed to feel like you are in a tree. The space feels open and spacious with abundant natural light and views of the landscape and beauty that the center is a small part of. A living roof adorns the structure and the runoff is channeled into a small pool with goldfish for the kids to see. You will find visitor information, a gift shop, restrooms and Isaac’s Cafe where Dawn and I stopped after our wedding to get some sodas. They also serve soups, salads and deli style sandwiches. Ingredients are grown fresh across the street at the Edible Garden.
The Edible Garden is part of Bernheim’s many ongoing research and sustainability projects. Fruits and vegetables are grown in raised beds, with each plant labeled so that you can learn, or teach, about the different varieties found here. The nursery provides educational information on sustainable gardening and ecology year-round through programs and tours. It is also an applicant to the Living Building Challenge, which means it is designed to meet the most stringent sustainability standards in existence. Another part of Bernheim’s commitment to conservation. FYI – the Heirloom Tomatoes here are beauties.
Forest Hill Drive
Leaving the Visitor Center you are back on the one way loop, so turn right and head to the stop sign. To your right you see the back side of Cedar Pond which is a very scenic area and a must for photos. But we are taking a left here and heading up Forest Hill Drive. Offering a lot of open spaces for picnic fun, the tables here are set back into the shade and near the shale creek bed. These areas are great for the little ones to venture into the creek with little to no danger of twisting an ankle.
As you progress up the road the pavement rises into the forest along the side of Iron Ore Hill. Twisting through the canopy the way leads you to Paul’s Point Circle. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Deer usually hang out on the small hills to the left. You can go straight if your only destination is the fire loop trail, but take a left here for a little more to choose from. Several hiking trails are found along Forest Hill Road, as well as the Canopy Walk and Paul’s Point.
The Canopy Tree Walk is a 75 foot tall viewing platform that walks out from the hillside and allows you to view the forest from a truly unique perspective. You are among the tops of the trees looking out into the scenic Bingham Valley.
Paul’s Point offers an unparalleled view of fall foliage in October. The spot fills up quickly and folks make a day of watching the sun roll across the valley changing the hues by the minute. We stop here weekly to remember how blessed we are to have this landscape as part of our wedding memories.
Fire Tower Loop is found at the parking lot on top of the hill. When naturalists are available, they offer tours up 900+ feet for one of the best views in the state of Kentucky. On a clear day they say you can see the Louisville skyline, but my eyes certainly aren’t that good.
Elm Lick Loop is one of the newer and most popular hiking trails in the forest. It can be found just past Paul’s Point. This is a 5 mile hike that takes you through grasslands, valleys, oak-hickory and beech-maple forests and an old homesite per the maps section of their website. We LOVE hiking this trail.
Back on lower ground
As you return down Forest Hill Road, you will arrive at the back side of Cedar Pond again. Take a left and you will find the Bernheim Education Center on your left and the Big Prairie on your right. The Education Center offers…you guessed it, a chance to learn and interact with nature. As a child I remember my favorite exhibit was a box that you put your hands into and guessed what you were feeling. It was always something simple, but your mind let you imagine you were holding a monster every time. My least favorite exhibit was the beehive behind the glass. It scared the bejeebers out of me every time. You can still experience both of these as well as many other informative displays about the various flora and fauna found throughout the park.
Step outside and tour the grounds behind the Education Center for more art and nature. The hidden Kingfisher Pond just down the path is surrounded by artwork as well as pink rhododendrons that will reflect off the water if you get there at just the right time. Hummingbird feeders are placed randomly about and a rope swing hanging from the tree on the hill is the perfect spot to watch them gather and feed. Looking out over the Twin Ponds and Big Prairie from this area is another photo op that can’t be missed.
Across the street you will find a path into the Big Prairie that will take you past another of the permanent art installations, Earth Measure. Designed to give you unique photo ops, the limestone sculpture also allows a deeper connection through architecture, sound, science and geometry. More paths lead away from here into the Big Prairie connecting the Two Ponds Loop, the Holly Collection and the meadow.
Big Prairie Overlook
A handicap accessible trail leads gently up to the statue marking the founder’s gravesite. “Let There Be Light” is a bronze statue with arms raised that looks out over the Big Prairie into the distant hills of Kentucky. This has always been an excellent spot to stop and reflect. A granite bench awaits the weary soul that would just like to “take a moment”. Breathe in the surroundings here and you may find a little bit of peace for the day.
Following the pathway, the landscaping provides year round color with roses and azaleas in bloom from spring into fall. Tall pines give plenty of shade with their high branches, while still allowing an amazing view of the stunning vista that stretches out before you. Stop here for a picnic lunch under the pines and you will not be disappointed. We love sipping adult beverages here in the spring as the dogwoods bloom and in the fall as the leaves start to change. Don’t steal our spot!
Guerilla Hollow and Ten Toms Circle
First of all, it is pronounced “Guhrillah holler”. Just past the overlook, Guerilla Hollow has several locations perfect for hosting events of large groups or families. Plenty of open spaces with shaded picnic tables and grills are scattered about, as well as trash receptacles and restrooms nearby. The grills are OLD SCHOOL, so if you can, we suggest bringing your own. The restrooms are really permanent outhouses similar to what you find at a lot of campgrounds. If you prefer better facilities, take a hike or ride back to the Visitor Center.
The first space you will encounter is MacGruder Meadow, a wide open picnic space named after some of the original inhabitants of the land. If you don’t find what you are looking here, just follow the loop back around and keep straight at the fork this time. Ten Toms Circle will take you past the Woodlands Pavilion, a rental space with a small cabin and a larger pavilion that is perfect for a group event. Stay your course on up the hill and you will come to the backside of Lake Nevin and access to the Sunset Amphitheater.
The Children’s Play Garden is found just down the hill from the parking lot at the amphitheater. As you make the turn you will find more picnic opportunity and several places to park. The play garden incorporates classic playground activities along with nature’s original playtime offerings like trees, large boulders and other things to climb on. The play area stretches between Ten Toms and Guerilla Hollow so parking can be found on either side.
The Millenium Trail, the park’s longest trail at almost fourteen miles, will be found on the back of Guerilla Hollow Road. The sign will be on your right, but you will have to travel a little further to find your parking. The trail circumnavigates the forest and requires that you check in at the Visitor Center so that the Rangers know you are out there. During excessive heat indexes, or other special weather events (i.e. flooding), both the Millenium Trail and the Elm Lick Loop will be closed.
Just past here you will find the Guerilla Hollow Loop and picnic area. The area got its name for Guerilla Warfare activity here during the Civil War. Some of the most mature wooded areas in the forest are found here as well as some homesteads that are not obvious. The Magruder family homestead is found along the end of Guerilla Hollow road. You can still find both the family graveyard, and a little further back and over the hill, the graveyard of the servants that once worked the land here. The gross reality of this period is seen clearly by comparing the still standing tombstones of the Magruder family, to the small plain stones which marked the resting place of the slaves. Walking among the grave sites in the middle of the forest takes your mind to a different time and place, bringing a fresh perspective to some of life’s harsh realities. The most important of which, in my humble opinion, is that we learn from the past or we repeat it.
Continuing on the loop will take you back to the main road. Take a right to return to the main forest area, or a left to head toward the last few places of interest and the exit.
Sun and Shade Loop
Heading back toward Lake Nevin on the loop, you will pass the Dogwood Collection as you near the Sun and Shade Trail. You will find more artwork here as well as the Magnolia and Conifer collections. The last, and most impressive, of the Forest Giants currently resides just down the path too. She has made a nest for her and the baby she is carrying. The giants are a very impressive site and I highly recommend getting out and seeing them while they are still in residence. You never know when they may pick up and head over the next hill.
Lakeside Studio will be one of the last spots on our tour. This area has been landscaped and the design is maintained constantly. Unlike other parts of the park that have been allowed to let nature do the design, human hands have sculpted this portion of the beauty. Take an easy stroll here in the spring and watch the dogwoods and magnolias bloom. Beyond you will find the parking for Lake Nevin on your left and the Beech collection on your right. On you go back to the first intersection you encountered in the park. Take a left to take your memories home with you, or take a right and make a few more by heading back onto the forest loop and Arboretum Way.
Bernheim Forest hosts several annual events as well as special events promoting conservation. BLOOMFEST welcomes back visitors in the Spring during the peak bloom season. CONNECT is usually in August and brings together art, science and nature in a unique atmosphere. There are moonlight hikes and many other opportunities to connect with nature from Spring to Fall. Autumn brings BUGFEST and just when the leaves reach their peak color during the fall change, COLORFEST. There will also be a Fall plant sale where you can find plants that are native to our region.
The Traveling Bradburys sincerely hope you get to take some time and get to know this gem in our little corner of Kentucky. It is nestled among the creeks and hollows (hollers) of Bourbon Country and an easy addition to the Bourbon Trail. Forest Edge Winery or the Jim Beam Distillery are minutes away and Louisville is 30 minutes North if you need to get back to the concrete jungle. The giants won’t be there forever, but the scenic beauty is there for us to enjoy, and hopefully Isaac W. Bernheim’s vision will remain an unspoiled treasure for many generations to come.