By Jacalyn Carfagno
November 1, 2021
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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 writing after hours of exploring this Kentucky treasure.
Do you begin with the kids entranced by the gentle Forest Giants, the “free, wild and adventurous” Playcosystem, and the jaw-dropping wonder of nature?
Or do you start with the man happily fishing for large-mouth bass and bluegill at Lake Nevin but mostly enjoying watching the changing colors on the hillside opposite?
Or, maybe it’s best to commence with the wilder world out Forest Hill Drive where a canopy tree walk juts out 75 feet above the forest floor and trails take you along streams with stones rutted by old wagon wheels and piles of mining wastes?
My suggestion is start wherever your feet and your inclination take you and then come back another day and start all over again. Because Bernheim’s 16,000 acres offer as many adventures as you and your family will have time to pursue.
For my part, I began with the Forest Giants, a group of three sculptures — a mother and two children — created by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, their whimsy appeals to children and their scale and beauty to adults — or maybe it’s the other way around. Installed in March 2019 as part of Bernheim’s Arts in Nature program, they will be at Bernheim at least until next spring.
The Giants came to Bernheim to celebrate its 90th anniversary. 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 achieved success in the distillery business, particularly with his most famous brand, I.W. Harper bourbon. Grateful to Kentucky and its people, Bernheim gave back in many ways including donating sculpture for public places and, in 1929, buying and endowing the land that became Bernheim Forest. From the earliest days, he saw it as a place where nature and art could thrive and nourish the people who visited.
But it took work to get there. Thousands of acres had been degraded through logging and mining iron ore and had very few trees. In 1931 the Olmsted landscape architecture firm — founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designer’s of New York’s Central Park as well as several parkways and parks in Louisville — was engaged to design the arboretum Bernheim planned on his acreage. The work of restoring and reshaping the landscape continued for years before the forest opened to the public in 1950. Today, in the areas where the Giants now sit the Olmsted influence is evident, with graceful ponds and waterways framed by beautiful forested areas and meandering pathways connecting them. Where once there was little growing, the arboretum is now host to over 8,000 species of trees, shrubs and perennials.
Beyond the more manicured area of the arboretum are thousands of acres with more rugged woodland paths, ranging in length from about a half mile to the five-mile Elm Lick Trail and the 13.75-mile Millennium Trail. These trails offer opportunities to explore different parts of the forest, see the evidence of historic habitation and exploitation, an historic fire tower and where people once lived, including a family cemetery. Throughout the year guided hikes are offered along trails to provide more insight into the history and science to be discovered along the path.
Bernheim offers many programs for adults, children and groups, including eco-kids discovery days and several nighttime explorations that are mostly offered during the summer months.
There was a lot I didn’t get to see and do on one visit to Bernheim but I did manage to get lunch at Isaac’s Café, where a very good and hearty Nutty Bird sandwich with smoked turkey, greens from the nearby edible garden and bacon cost only $7.99. I didn’t get to try the giant cookie for $1 but they sure looked good.
Isaac Bernheim wanted everyone to be able to enjoy his forest and so the entry fee is $10 per car, a bargain if there ever was one. Annual memberships start as low as $35 for military and seniors, $50 for households, include free entry and discounts at the café, in the gift shop and some events. Bernheim’s slogan is “Connecting People with Nature,” and these days over half a million people a year go there to do just that. If you haven’t gone, it’s worth the trip, and if you have, it might be time to go back.
Where: 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. Phone: 502-955-8512 Online: Bernheim.org