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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Millard

Lily Mountain Nature Preserve - Where the Views Depict the "Bluegrass Kissing the Mountains"

Updated: Jan 11

A Delightful Eastern Kentucky Nature Preserve

Between the small eastern Kentucky towns of Irvine, Ky and Berea, Ky sits Lily Mountain Nature Preserve. The entryway to the preserve welcomes visitors with lush fields of dried grasses and wildflowers, an old barn and shed, winding hiking trails and inspiring views from the tops of the knobs (small mountains).

Lily Mountain Nature Preserve Trail
Lily Mountain Nature Preserve - A Meadow Trail

It truly is a joy to hike Kentucky parks and nature preserves. The huge variety of trees, rushing rivers, creeks, hills and hollers are inspirational. Much of the land is semi-untamed and in many cases, has few human visitors.

We had a very warm December in Kentucky, so I convinced my husband to come with me the day after Christmas to get some fresh air and hike Lily Mountain.

Stepping Foot into the Preserve

The morning we arrived to hike, the wet meadows glistened from the light morning rain. The tall grasses tilted back and forth in the soft wind and the quietness of the field overtook the entire scene. I had to stop walking to stand still, listen, and take it all in.

I took photos of the meadows and barn as references to paint from when I got home later that day. I also sent photos to the plein air painting group that I am a part of in eastern Kentucky. I wanted them know about this special place in case they wanted to paint here in warmer weather. It really is a plein air painter's dream landscape with heavily-wooded knobs on one side and full meadows on the other.

Lily Mountain Nature Preserve Barn
Lily Mountain Nature Preserve Barn

The Hike

Though there was a light rain, I knew that we'd be under trees for most of the hike. I had the Weather Channel app open and watched the radar carefully. We knew we'd be okay if the misty rain that had started to fall held steady for the next few hours.

After exiting the "bottomland" or meadow trails, we found ourselves strolling through a thicket of evergreens on a wide, flat footpath. The soft earth below our feet dampened our footsteps and guided us to a clearing at the bottom of the mountain. We were at the start of the pine forest that covered the mountain.

In this photo, you can see how big the leaves were from the older growth oak in the forest. These leaves (a variety of maple?) were enormous compared to the other varieties.

Maple Leaf on ground
Old Growth Leaf

The hike was quit enjoyable. We even passed a few old growth trees and streams.

It isn't a quick, easy day hike, so please do not get the idea that this hike can be knocked out in an hour or that it is on relatively even ground. It gets steep. Just know that you will be challenged on the second half of the hike up the mountain. We had to concentrate to get to the flatter terrain to catch our breath and move on.

The Top

The day was misty and the fog was thick. We ascended the mountain and arrived at the top. The views below did not disappoint. In fact, they took your breath away (if the hike hadn't already!)

The valley below was covered in fog that muted our view of the curved patches of farmland, trees and rolling hills. I could see why the early Scottish/Irish/English settlers felt at home in this land. It looked a lot like the hills where many of them were from.

The View From Atop Lily Mountain
The View From Atop Lily Mountain

The panoramic views were true to the Estill County motto of, "Where the Bluegrass Kisses the Mountains". Despite the thick fog, we could see where the knobs region met the Cumberland Plateau. Rolling farmland ran straight into the Appalachian mountains.

View of the Knobs Region with fog and mist
View of the Knobs Region

We spent some time marveling at the colors and the depth of the wintery panorama. It started to rain a little heavier, so we had no choice but to head back down before mudslides made the descent a challenge.

While winding our way down, my husband told me a few short stories of his mom growing up and hiking this mountain. She would visit the caves at the end of one of the trails we didn't hike that day. We knew we'd have to visit again and check out the caves from his mother's stories.

The History of the Preserve

I wondered how long had the preserve been officially "open to the public". It sounded like my mother-in-law and her friends found a trail before it was an official preserve, so hiking Lily Mountain may have always been something people living here have done.

From 2010 - 2017 community volunteers and the Estill County Conservation District were able to obtain land (560 acres) bought through the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. It took them several years to secure this preserve to offer it as public access. Local volunteers and former landowners worked hard to make Lily Mountain Nature Preserve the protected region it is today.

I am so appreciative of the people that saved this beautiful, special place. I am grateful and inspired that this special preserve was created for nature-lovers to enjoy, as well as made into a protected area to preserve Kentucky's invaluable landscape, flora, fauna, and wildlife.


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