It was hard to know where to start when I recently visited Bernheim Forest in Bullitt County and it’s hard to know where to start after hours of exploring this Kentucky treasure.
Do you start with the children fascinated by the gentle giants of the forest, the “free, wild and adventurous” Playcosystem and the breathtaking wonders of nature?
Or do you start with the man happily fishing for largemouth bass and bluegill at Nevin Lake, but mostly enjoying watching the changing colors on the hill opposite?
Or, maybe it’s best to start with the wilder world of Forest Hill Drive where a canopy walk juts out 75 feet above the forest floor and trails take you along streams with stones smashed in by old wagon wheels and piles of mining waste?
My suggestion is to start where your feet and incline take you, then come back another day and start all over again. Because Bernheim’s 16,000 acres offer so much adventure that you and your family will have time to pursue.
For my part, I started with the Forest giants, a group of three sculptures – a mother and two children – created by the Danish artist Thomas dambo, their fantasy appeals to children and their size and beauty to adults – or maybe it’s the other way around. Installed in March 2019 as part of Bernheim Arts in nature program, they will be in Bernheim at least until next spring.
The Giants came to Bernheim to celebrate their 90th birthday. Isaac Bernheim emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1867, but struggled to find the opportunity he sought in the northeast and eventually found his way to Kentucky. Here he has found success in the field of distillery, particularly with his most famous brand, the IW Harper bourbon. Grateful to Kentucky and its people, Bernheim gave back in many ways, including donating sculptures for public places and, in 1929, purchasing and endowing the land that became the Bernheim Forest. From the earliest days he saw it as a place where nature and art could thrive and nourish those who visited it.
But it took work to get there. Thousands of acres had been degraded by logging and iron ore mining and had very few trees. In 1931, the landscape architecture firm Olmsted – founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designers of Central Park in New York as well as several walks and parks in Louisville – was hired to design the Bernheim Arboretum planned on its area. The work of restoring and reshaping the landscape continued for years before the forest was opened to the public in 1950. Today, in the areas where the giants now sit, Olmsted’s influence is evident, with graceful ponds and streams framed by beautiful wooded areas and winding paths connecting them. Where there was little growth, the arboretum is now home to more than 8,000 species of trees, shrubs and perennials.
Beyond the more well-groomed area of the arboretum lie thousands of acres with more rugged wooded trails, varying in length from about half a mile to the five mile Elm Lick Trail and the 13.75 mile Millennium Trail. These trails provide opportunities to explore different parts of the forest, see evidence of historic habitation and exploitation, a historic fire tower, and places where people once lived, including a family cemetery. Throughout the year guided hikes are offered along the trails to better understand the history and science to be discovered along the way.
Bernheim offers many programs for adults, children and groups, including eco-kids discovery days and several nighttime explorations that are mainly offered during the summer months.
There was a lot that I couldn’t see and do on a visit to Bernheim, but I managed to have lunch at Isaac’s Café, where a really good and filling Nutty Bird sandwich with smoked turkey, greens from the nearby edible garden and bacon only cost $ 7.99. I couldn’t try the giant cookie for $ 1 but they looked good.
Isaac Bernheim wanted everyone to be able to enjoy his forest, so the entrance fee is $ 10 per car, a godsend if there is one. Annual memberships start at as low as $ 35 for military and seniors, $ 50 for households, includes free entry and discounts to the cafe, gift shop, and select events. Bernheim’s slogan is “Connecting people to nature”, and today more than half a million people go there every year to do so. If you haven’t been, it’s worth a visit, and if you have, maybe it’s time to go back.
Bernheim Arboretum and Experimental Forest
Or: 2075 Clermont Road, Clermont KY
Hours: Open year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Forest Hill Drive closes at 6 p.m. and Guerrilla Hollow closes at 6:30 p.m.
In line: Bernheim.org