The Arboretum


State Botanical Garden of Kentucky


Tuesday, April 14, 2009



An extraordinary display of the floral diversity of Kentucky, this arboretum ( is an absolute treasure for the city of Lexington as well as for the state.  It’s an incredible gift that awaits all who would venture here.  Yet, tucked away as it is on the edge of the University of Kentucky campus, there are even some locals who aren’t aware of its presence.


The main path out here runs 2 miles as it winds around the perimeter of the park in the shape of --- Kentucky, right?  Nope.  Texas!!!  It’s true, check it out! 


Anyway, since this path is paved it’s perfect for skating as well as for walking and running (although biking is no longer permitted for safety reasons).  As you go around you’ll be introduced to different sections of the park which have been planted in such a way as to represent each of the 7 geographical regions of Kentucky (and I’ll list these in the order in which they come up in this journal): Knobs, Pennyrile, Shawnee Hills, Mississippi Embayment, Bluegrass, Cumberland Mountain, and Appalachian Plateau. 


There are other options too:  little connector paths can take you off the pavement and on to more intimate tours of the different regions if you like, and a wooded stretch adds about ½ mile on the west side.  Then, in the center of all this are the actual botanical gardens.  These include separate plots for:  roses, fragrant plants, perennials, annuals, herbs, vegetables, home fruit and nut plantings, and ground cover displays according to the website.  There’s also a special children’s garden that they’re working on. 


Now I’m going to totally oversimplify this in order to give an overview, but if you look at a map (available from a kiosk on the south side of the parking lot and at, the main path out here appears to contain 4 “peninsulas”.  The first (and the one I started out on today) points east and generally contains the Knobs and the Pennyrile regions.  The second, which points south, contains the Shawnee Hills and the Mississippian Embayment.  A third then juts west and contains the Bluegrass Region along with the wooded section I mentioned sticking out on its’ end, while a fourth has the Cumberland Mountain and Appalachian Plateau regions represented on the northwestern point.


As for me today, I was setting out in the midst of a somewhat gloomy week as far as weather, yet I always know that there’s beauty to be found all around me if I choose to see it – and especially out here.  In fact, this arboretum is ideal for those drab days just before spring when you’re feeling a bit stir-crazy from being cooped up all winter and you want to get out, but it’s a still a bit too soggy on the forest trails (I feel bad if I mess them up too much). 


Now I usually don’t, but on this excursion I fully utilize that “greatest-invention-ever-known-to-mankind-which-will-not-reliably-turn-on-and-off” - the Ipod!  The music combined with the scenery really gets me going, and I look forward to my trips out here.  A favorite time to come out is at dusk in the summertime.  In fact, they have Shakespearean plays staged out here for 3 weeks every summer at dusk.


Anyway, I started out today as I usually do.  I drove into the park, and once at the corner of the actual parking area, I immediately proceeded to the opposite corner (you can almost always find a spot back here).  Then, walking north, I met the path very close to where it crosses the park road and began to follow it to the right.  Here you’ll be walking alongside Alumni Drive in the Knobs region, an area of the state that actually looks like a necklace around Cincinnati if you look at it on a map of the state, as opposed to a map of the park. 


Pilot Knob is actually one of these “knobs”, so called because of how they rise above the landscape like little hills.  In fact, Pilot Knob is an incredible hiking area all its own, and if you really want to get a feel for the Knobs region in general then I highly recommend checking it out.  The picture on my “Land” page was actually taken from the top.  (There’s some great information about the Knobs region available at, by the way.)


Back to the path…  As you near the tip of the curve in this first eastern “peninsula”, you’ll meet with your first descriptive marker and connector trail.  You’re now entering the Pennyrile Region (a.k.a. the Mississippian Plateau  Represented for the remainder of the time you’re on this section of the path (which extends on past the University of Kentucky water tower), the Pennyrile is the location of Land between the Lakes.


Up next on the right comes the children’s garden that they’re working on, and on the left under the water tower you’ll see some massive, hollowed out tree cuttings.  The kids love it here!




…and as you curve left onto the southern peninsula near the park office, there’s a redbud tree which looked awesome today!  Yes, I know I could have picked a better time to document this place as far as pictures go, but let this tree serve as a reminder that you can always find something to pick you up out at the arboretum!



Coming up shortly on your right will be the gardens, complete with their stone fences.  This area is so incredibly scenic and memorable that a couple of my friends were married out here. 


The next region represented is Shawnee Hills, and in terms of how it’s displayed here it’ll cut across to the right and on to a further section of the path to make room at the very tip of the peninsula for the Mississippian Embayment – the region which comes next.  Thus, what you’ll essentially have on this southern peninsula is ½ Shawnee, a brief Mississippian, and then another ½ Shawnee.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…


The first half of Shawnee Hills (the area of the state which contains Mammoth Cave) has the best views in the park in my opinion - especially when looking back north to the gardens.  That’s because what you get is a feel, not only for how big this preserve is, but of how clever the overall design of this park is.  One way you can see this is in how the trail gently winds its way through the landscape with the U.K. campus in the background (to include the water tower and the football stadium).



Then, when you reach the tip of the peninsula - the Mississippian Embayment region ( – there’s a bridge you’ll cross over (most of the region is a floodplain so they’ve morphed this area to include more wetlands over the last couple years).  It may seem odd that this region is given such a small section of the park, by the way, but it only represents a small section of the state - the westernmost tip. 


Once you cross the bridge you’ll briefly be back in the Shawnee Hills Region before you begin a little ascent in the path and curve onto the western peninsula.  You’re now in the Bluegrass Region (  A sign here explains that it was pressure from the earths’ crust that produced this raised area around Cincinnati - the same pressure that caused the Kentucky River to flow as it does, through the palisades.



Also here on this peninsula lies that wooded section I mentioned.  What they’ve done here is to preserve this 16 acre area in order that it might look exactly the way it might have done centuries ago.  In fact, the largest tree in the place is back here – a Chinquapin Oak.  I didn’t venture back into the area today due to concern over the state of the trail after the rain, but I’ll definitely be back.  […and having returned, I do believe it is well worth the effort to see, even though the oak I mentioned was an ice storm casualty a few years back.]


Once you round the corner of this western peninsula you’ll spot a little field of cane on the left as you now enter the Appalachian Plateau (the Daniel Boone National Forest falls predominantly in this eastern area of the state).  You’ll get some more of those sweeping views of the park too as you begin heading inward toward the park office.  The picnic area is on the left here, but today it appeared more like an outdoor classroom.  In fact, quite a few people ventured out here to learn today – this was the second such group I’d seen.



Your last peninsula contains the Cumberland Mountain region (as well as a little more of the Appalachian Plateau and some of the Knobs).  Like the Mississippian Embayment, the Cumberland area is a very small portion of the state, but on the opposite side – the southeastern tip.  It’s represented here on the interior of this peninsula as you walk up and through the Black Mountain Trail (one of the connector trails that I’ve mentioned before).  Known as the “high country”, the Cumberland region contains Big Black Mountain and the Cumberland Gap State Park.


As you round the last curve in the main path, you’ll come to another cut-through trail called the Azalea Trail.  This one has some flora with character!  Plants with names like Hearts-a-Bursting-with-Love and Running Strawberry Bush dot the sides of it.


As you come back to where you started, you’ll re-enter the Knobs region, and this was where I ended my day today, although it’s sometimes so pleasant that I’ll walk around more than once.  If you come out here you certainly will not regret it - no matter what the weather's like outside!







To be honest, it’s pretty easy to find.  It’s just south of downtown Lexington, Kentucky and it’s also off the southeast side of the University of Kentucky football stadium.  To put an even finer point on it, it’s on the south side of Alumni Drive between Tates Creek Road and Nicholasville Road.  Just look for the water tower with the Kentucky Wildcat logo on it – this stands directly on the grounds of the park.  The main entrance is right off Alumni Drive, but there’s also a separate parking lot on the western side.  There’s further info in their website if you like.