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August 09, 2021
We call the destinations that surprise and delight us “hidden gems,” because discovering them feels like uncovering a treasure. It should come as no surprise then that light crowds, scenic views, and awesome activities encourage many to call Jenny Wiley State Park one of Eastern Kentucky’s best hidden gems.
Coincidentally, it was once known for a much different sort of gem – coal. Today, dedicated conservation and reclamation efforts have helped transform Jenny Wiley State Park into one of Kentucky’s most beautiful outdoor enclaves for hiking, biking, bird watching, and more. For us at Wise Owl Outfitters, that makes the label “hidden gem” especially appropriate.
But first, who’s Jenny?
Jenny Wiley State Park was named after Jenny Wiley, of course! On a rainy October day in 1789, Jenny Wiley received a warning from her brother-in-law of a looming attack by a native war party. As a pioneer making a living in the wilds of Eastern Kentucky, raids were a common threat. With her husband away, four young children to look after, and a fifth baby on its way, Jenny couldn’t escape in time.
It mattered little that the attack was a mistake; blood revenge intended for the crimes of a different colonist. Still, it’s where the Jenny Wiley story took a dramatic turn. Before her attackers realized their error, Jenny’s children and younger brother were scalped and killed. Jenny was taken captive.
During almost a year in captivity, Jenny endured the birth – and murder – of her last child, learned the customs of her captors, and eventually escaped. On her way, she blazed a trail back to the Appalachian hollows we now call Jenny Wiley State Park. Over a century later, a group of volunteers made her trail official. At the time of its completion in the 1970s, it stretched over 180 miles. While a variety of factors have shortened the trail over the years – then and now, visitors consistently find themselves transported back to colonial times to imagine Jenny’s brave journey home.
Today, the Jenny Wiley Gravesite is located about a half hour’s drive from Jenny Wiley State Park. In addition to the Jenny Wiley Gravesite and Jenny Wiley State Park, she is also honored by an annual horse race held in her name at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky.
For pioneers like the Wileys, the land beyond the Appalachian mountains was wild and dangerous. Today, a short and scenic road trip from Lexington, Cincinnati, or West Virginia will quickly transport you to beautiful waterways, towering hemlocks, and ample opportunity to disconnect.
The park was founded as Dewey Lake State Park on January 1, 1954 – shortly after, it was renamed in honor of Jenny Wiley’s story and memory. But don’t worry, the lake hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still clear, clean, and one of the best fishing lakes in Eastern Kentucky.
Looking for directions to Jenny Wiley State Park? Just follow signs for Prestonsburg, KY. The park’s exact address is 75 Theatre Ct., Prestonsburg, KY 41653.
From the Jenny Wiley State Park Campground to the Jenny Wiley State Park cabins and resort, this place has something for everyone.
While the resort offers a polished and quaint mountain retreat with views of beautiful Dewey Lake as its centerpiece, campers looking for a more rugged experience also have plenty of options. Jenny Wiley State Park Campground offers two campgrounds for guests. 121 sites include utility hookups, with access to showers, restrooms, and dump stations that RVs and campers can access. The Jenny Wiley State Park Campground also offers adventurous campers a number of boat-in campsites that are accessible by water only. Jenny Wiley State Park Cabins and Cottages can be rented directly from the state park.
Whether you’re hanging your hammock to camp or catching a post-hike nap, there’s no shortage of opportunities to kick back.
The Jenny Wiley Heritage Byway comprises a 154-mile loop through Eastern Kentucky and provides easy access to multiple recreational opportunities like hiking, mountain biking, and some of the best bird watching in Kentucky.
The closest town to Jenny Wiley State Park is nearby Prestonsburg, Kentucky. As the first town established in eastern Kentucky, its history runs deep, with pioneer roots you can see across town. While it was once a hub for coal being sent down the Big Sandy River. Today, it’s becoming a hub for outdoor activity.
If you’re looking for things to do at Jenny Wiley State Park, you won’t be looking long. Great scenery and light crowds make Jenny Wiley State Park a popular destination for hikers, bikers, and nature lovers. Rugged mountain hiking and just enough remoteness to weed out the crowds give the park a unique charm. For many, stepping onto the trail feels like stepping into a different time period.
For Birders, the park lights up for the spring warbler migration. During this time, bird watching is one of the most popular things to do at Jenny Wiley State Park. Bird watchers from across the country enjoy the park as they observe a variety of neo-tropical species during their pit stop on their journey north. Avid birders will often find expert-led talks and field walks focused on our migrating feathered friends.
But that’s not all. In addition to checking numerous warblers and migrant species off their lists, Birders also enjoy frequent sightings of Bald Eagles, Eastern Bluebirds, and American Redstarts. The lucky ones may even see an Owl or two.
Did you know? Warblers travel up to 200 miles a day at the peak of their migration season. Owls tend to hang close to home.
Fishing is another popular thing to do at Jenny Wiley State Park, with Dewey Lake taking up a large portion of the park itself. Every year, the lake challenges anglers with largemouth bass, catfish, crappies, white bass, muskies, and more. But fishing isn’t the only water activity available.
Park-goers can also enjoy swimming, boating, and kayaking at Dewey Lake. In fact, one of the most popular camping attractions at Jenny Wiley State Park remains the several “boat-to” campsites you can access for extra adventure and seclusion.
Dewey Lake offers refuge on a hot summer day and is the perfect place to swim, but if you prefer a dip without the fish check out the May Lodge which has a huge swimming pool open after Memorial Day.
In recent years, mountain biking has become one of the fastest-growing things to do at Jenny Wiley State Park. In the park alone there are over 10 miles of trails available for hiking and biking, and multiple trails offer great scenic overlooks of the lake and surrounding countryside.
A short ride away, Sugarcamp Mountain offers even more opportunities to explore. A joint effort by Jenny Wiley State Park, the city of Prestonsburg, and passionate locals have transformed what was once coal mining land into a fresh new outdoor destination. Horse and hiker-friendly trails and great views of Dewey Lake make Sugarcamp Mountain great for all. But mountain bikers are among its biggest fans.
Word to the Wise: Meff Road – with the Sugarcamp Mountain Trailhead – has recently been changed to Sugarcamp Mountain Rd. This change isn’t reflected on all maps or GPS yet.
With over 12 miles of machine-cut trails and technical single-track, Sugarcamp Mountain is quickly becoming a top destination for mountain biking in eastern Kentucky. With everything from leisurely trail riding over creeks and wooden bridges to exciting berms, wall rides, and rock drops, Jenny Wiley state park makes a fun day on two wheels easy to find.
Looking for a good bike route at Sugarcamp Mountain? Try a local favorite (~1 hour, ~5 miles).
From the Arrowhead parking lot, take a right onto the Reclamation Loop and then enter Fern Gully. Fern Gully offers a full serving of tight, technical berms with a beautiful side of foliage (if you time your trip just right).
From Fern gully, enter Burning Tree. This trail connects the two sides of the mountain with a somewhat exposed cross-country trail that offers some great views of the lake. Feel like taking a break in your camping hammock? We wouldn’t blame you.
From Burning Tree, you’ll find Eddie Munster – a popular downhill trail that offers a challenge for intermediate riders with optional drops, berms, and technical rock gardens.
Finally, you’ll take the Upper Bluff Connector to reach The Dewey Plunge – a fast and exciting rip to the parking lot with wallrides, jumps, and smooth-cut singletrack. This ride is short enough to climb back up and try again for an extra shot of adrenaline.
Looking for Family-Friendly views?
Take the Escalator Trail. The Escalator is the longest trail coming in at 2.5 miles, and perfectly showcases the fantastic potential of reclaimed mine lands for recreational purposes. Its more gradual incline is more manageable for kids to climb than the steeper parts of the multi-use trail, making views of Dewey Lake even easier to come by.
Need a break from the trails? Jenny Wiley Theatre is the perfect place to enjoy a show. Located at Jenny Wiley State Park, Jenny Wiley Theatre is one of the longest-running outdoor amphitheaters in the country. During the summer season from May to August, the theater features popular shows and music festivals of all kinds.
But taking in a show at the Jenny Wiley Theatre isn’t all there is for off-trail activities. Whether you’re visiting the site of Eastern Kentucky’s largest civil war battle or stepping into downtown Prestonsburg, there’s plenty of history to take in. Meanwhile, the Mountain Arts Center hosts The Kentucky Opry and has hosted performances by artists like Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, and Patty Loveless.
Here at Wise Owl Outfitters, our mission is to make incredible outdoor experiences accessible for everyone. Check back often for wise tips and tricks to find more, do more, and relax more in the great outdoors.
Whether you’re on the trail or checking out a show at the Mountain Arts center, bring along the Toasty Traveler Insulated Camp Blanket. It’s great for picnics, outdoor shows, and everyday outings. It even snaps into a puffy poncho!
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