The Christmas holiday provides most of us some much-needed days off and time with family and friends, but sometimes, it is nice to escape from all of the food and festivities and stretch your legs.
For those who need to relax and get away for a bit, Kentucky's wildlife management areas (WMAs) offer a place to go wander.
"We have 89 public wildlife management areas, covering 525,000 acres of Kentucky," said Keith Wethington, geographic information systems program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
With the leaves off the trees, this is a favorite time of year for hunters to explore areas for the following season. However, Wildlife Management Areas also offer overlooked opportunities for nature viewing, hiking and fishing. Visitors should be aware of Kentucky's free deer season for youth Dec. 28-29, and plan accordingly.
Some recommended areas to explore this winter include:
Ed Maybry-Laurel Gorge WMA
This 1,393-acre property in Elliott County is one of Kentucky's most unique and overlooked areas. This valley of Laurel Creek is a smaller version of Red River Gorge, full of gorgeous bluffs, rockhouses, moss-covered boulders the size of small houses and some impressive waterfalls. It is rugged country, but great for hiking and exploring. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife annually stocks 2,750 rainbow trout in April, May and October along with 250 brown trout in spring. The Laurel Creek Gorge grants trout anglers a mountain-like setting in an area of unparalleled beauty.
This area spreads over 8,978 acres in several units across three counties, but the main unit in Nicholas County is a great place to visit. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife staff eradicated much fescue and replaced it with native grasses such as big, little and broomsedge bluestems. The native plants make the landscape somewhat resemble what pioneers saw. "Clay WMA looks like Kentucky used to look 200 years ago," Wethington said. One of the maps available from the mobile app and on the "Wildlife Management Area and Public Lands Search" page shows the location of the various habitat types on the area. Clay WMA features sweeping vistas of the Licking River valley and access to the river, one of Kentucky's native muskellunge streams. There is a good chance visitors will flush a covey of bobwhite quail while walking through the abundant native grass stands.
Rolling Fork WMA
The Knobs region is one of Kentucky's forgotten places of beauty. These erosional remnants of escarpments are often cone-shaped and capped by erosion resistant rock. The knobs resemble a small, narrow mountain range, one of Kentucky's unique landscapes. The 2,890 acres of Rolling Fork WMA provide ample room to explore a slice of knob country on the border of Nelson and Larue counties. The Rolling Fork River bisects the area, carving gorgeous rock bluffs into the knobs. The area has three miles of river frontage for fishing, mainly for spotted bass. The former owners of the property used it for hunting and horseback riding and installed an extensive trail system that aids visitors wanting to explore.
Livingston County WMA and State Natural Area
This nearly 1,900-acre Livingston County area has three tracts of limestone bluffs, waterfalls and wetlands, an unusual landscape for western Kentucky. This area is an extension of the Shawnee Hills geomorphic complex in Illinois, noted for its rugged bluffs and beauty. The 562-acre Bissell Bluff tract features rugged topography and numerous sloughs (wetlands) that hold waterfowl and other birds. The southern end of this tract contains the confluence of Bissell Creek with the Cumberland River and often holds large numbers of waterfowl. The 169-acre Newman's Bluff tract is a former pine plantation that has a natural spring-fed lake for fishing with a waterfall on Sugarcamp Creek. The nearly 900-acre Reynolds Tract borders the 367-acre Mantle Rock Nature Preserve that contains the 188-foot long, 30-foot high Mantle Rock natural bridge. The southern end of this preserve is exceptionally scenic. Mantle Rock Nature Preserve also holds interest for history buffs as the Cherokee used the area as a camp along the Trail of Tears. There is a trail with interpretive signs explaining the Trail of Tears.
Ping-Sinking Valley WMA
This 805-acre Pulaski County property is one of the few places in Kentucky that experiences "valley tides" resulting from the karst topography of the upper Buck Creek drainage. After heavy rains, the underground streams sprout through sinkholes in this area, forming ephemeral streams and lakes that disappear back underground as quickly as they form. The former owners of the property constructed an extensive network of trails, making Ping-Sinking Valley WMA an excellent place for a day of bird watching or general nature viewing. The famous Short Creek is south of this property at the community of Stab via KY 80 and a short distance down Short Creek Road. Short Creek is an excellent example of a karst window where an underground stream dissolves the bedrock above it, leading to its collapse. Short Creek flows out of a cave and into a small, aquamarine creek before disappearing again into another cave downstream.
Visitors can find maps of these areas on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at fw.ky.gov. Click onto the "maps" tab, then see the "Interactive Hunting and Fishing Map" section for maps visible on your phone. The "Wildlife Management Areas/Public Hunting Areas" section includes printable maps showing pathways and unmarked trails to explore these areas.
Visitors can also download the "Explorer by ArcGIS" app to their phone before visiting any WMA.
"The mobile app is great for directions and knowing where you are located on the WMA," Wethington said. "In terms of property boundaries, signs on the ground are the law and they may conflict with the mobile app. If in doubt about whether a particular spot is public or if a boundary line is accurate, inquire first with the local WMA office."
Instructions on how to download the mobile app are available via the "maps" tab on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website. Use the website to check hunting regulations and seasons at each WMA.
Unique landscapes like these await a visit over the holidays. Check the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at fw.ky.gov and go exploring.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.