Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Written By: Jon Shumaker
The lights of Morehead, KY from Lockegee Rock.
One might ask why go to Morehead, it is small town with one main attraction, as a local college student said “There’s Cave Run Lake” when asked what is the hotspot. The town is largely a college town, with many of the businesses supporting a student population larger than the town’s. That said, it is a small town in an area that has much to offer, with many hiking trails and better boating (from human powered to motorized) that the much better-known Red River Gorge (Red). The advantage that the Red has established routes and has far better climbing opportunities. If you are looking at the best value (if you are not a rock climber), Morehead will provide similar opportunities for hiking and the cost of everything is generally lower, but much less on the good food front. For most folks it is a worthwhile weekend trip (or even a week trip), depending on your choice of preferred activities.
There are a few restaurants and one amazing evening snack choice near Cave Run Lake that are the local hotspots. Mine (and by the parking lot), is Pop’s Southern Style BBQ (on highway 801) known for custom blended ice cream and amazing barbeque. For the side, upgrade to the Loaded Fries (a local favorite). For the local restaurant/fast food choice, it is Frosty Freeze Restaurant. The hamburger and fries are the common local dish. The local favorite snack is the icy shack in the Crash’s Landing parking lot (on highway 801). They have shaved ice with extra flavorings and do not charge extra for mixed flavor combinations. This is a totally worthwhile evening snack!
The Icy Shack in the Crash's Landing parking lot.
For a fancy cup of coffee, you must go to town. The local spot by the university is The Fuzzy Duck. The black coffee is smooth, quality coffee and they make good fancy drinks. They have plenty of seating at old Singer sewing machine tables (some still have the power source for a leg workout) in their bookstore in back. The internet is functional, but good for rural internet. Expect limited cell service, but that is why y’all go there in the first place. I was told that a stand-alone Starbuck is under development if you want a second and not recommended option (the current Starbuck in on campus).
There are several unique food options in town. For gourmet sandwiches and a general café, go to All Seasons Café and Restaurant. For quality, reasonable priced Italian food Melini Cucina Italian that I would argue is far better than Olive Garden. For decent food and a good local beer, go to Sawstone Brewing Co. on Main Street. For an amazingly thick and delicious shake go to Holbrook Drug. The chocolate expresso is good for chocolate lovers, but for those who are not, the Strawberry Cheesecake shake has almost a strawberry fragrance after taste. These super thick shakes that can be turned upside down! They also have cute household decorations and jewelry, along with the normal pharmacy. For low cost and tasty Italian, go to Pasquale's by the campus.
The more unknown restaurant/campground/market is Clear Creek Market and Stables. The restaurant is well reviewed and the only option to eat at in that area. There is a campground, and there is access to horse trails if you bring your horses. Stables are available. The market has slim inventory, so the restaurant and campground must be where the money is made. If you like Budweiser products, they carry their beer and seltzers. Also, the only gas nearby in the area. This is near the Zilpo Campground and Tater Knob Fire Tower. Something of note is that they also have horse shows, for a local activity if you are interested in seeing something different.
Lockegee Rock permanent graffiti.
4th of July at Lockegee Rock
This is a small rural American town with an often-lower income population, so the food selection is limited, but the local food joints have a lot of charm and flavor for a reasonable price. The lake and hiking might be the reason to go to Morehead, but the food is an experience.
The main activities of the town is focused around Cave Run Lake and the auxiliary streams to the south. The activity of note in the town itself is The Venue, a music hosting venue that brings in some artists. The main activities are focused around museums, fishing/boating, hiking, and a 600 acre off road park.
Tater Knob: Snake off the trail.
Tater Knob: Flowers.
There are several museums around the university, focused on art and history. To get a better understanding of the local culture, go to the Kentucky Folk Art Center. For the local mixed material artists and painters, the Rowan County Art Center has a wonderful selection for viewing (also for sale). While there you might find one of the artists working and have a chat (might even be allowed to watch them at work). On the historical side is the Railroad Museum. As with all these museums, it is a small museum. Located in the historical train station, it provides an insight into the dawning of the age of train travel.
Paragon Dispersed Campsite in the morning.
Paragon Dispersed Campsite with the Milky Way.
Paragon Dispersed Campsite in the morning.
Probably the biggest draw to the area is for the fishing and boating scene. One important note for boat ramp use is that there is a fee for all the Cave Run ramps and many of the auxiliary stream boat ramps. Go to the store on highway 801 for the permit across from the main boat ramp (the rangers do enforce strictly). For recreational boating, the lake offers more flexibility in a larger area, but the auxiliary stream is quieter and has better views. For the kayakers and canoers (also fisherman), I would recommend the Bangor boat ramp on the Cave Run Lake below the dam. It is one of the few, if not the only with no fee ramps. Also, another option is the Paragon dispersed camping down the river (for kayaks and canoes). Many locals use Paragon for fishing and free camping. For the fisherman that want to get away from the activity, the fishing near the end of Bangor/Paragon leg is highly recommended for the area. You can even try to find Art’s Honeyhole that has been lovingly marked. This makes a wonderful day trip for kayakers, but bring a camara because the back leg is where the best photo spots are located.
The hiking options are expansive in the area. I will recommend using an app like AllTrails to find the trails, but I will provide a list of my favorite trails with the special attributes.
1. Tater Knob Fire tower (view, history): This has one of the best views of the area, but the tower was secured in 2008 due to a fire and there are obstructions. The rock level below the platform level has the best unobstructed view for this trail. The trail is technically closed, but you can park and walk around the gate. If your quiet, you can see some wildlife due to it being a low traffic trail.
2. Lockegee rock (view): This is my personal favorite view, but I might be biased due to going there for many years. There are three ways up the rock, two on the left and one on the right. I find the easiest is the far-left method. Free camping is allowed in Mario’s Cave (by the lake side viewing area, one deck down on the left) and by the entrance, but as always leave no trace. Mario’s Cave is a cool (in both ways) and comfortable cave. The top is my favorite place to watch the 4th of July fireworks since you can see as many as 13 plus at a time. The fire road from highway 801 is blocked, so you will have to go around the back way. If you take the left fork on the fire road there is a good climbing spot (without established routes) and just plain cool to see rock formations.
3. Eagle Lake Sheltowee Trace connection to the Fern trail: Has an interesting old satellite dish and server room on the left fork (from the University direction) just prior to heading down to Morehead University. The trail starts by Morehead University.
4. Lakeview trail (good view in the winter): If you go to the visitor center, it is a pleasant 10-mile hike and during the winter it has an excellent view of the lake.
5. Dam Spillway (for kids or sports): Nice with open restrooms, playground equipment, and open space with plenty of parking. Good for filling up water bottles.
6. Sheltowee Trace trail: A good backpacking trail, if a little confusing at times.
There is an unofficial and largely paved bike trail along the lower Cave Run Lake. The access is the Paragon camping area and parking is limited. The trail starts at the gated off road and ends at a back road. This is a beautiful, scenic ride, but you might have to navigate a few blockages and dirt road areas.
Campsites at Paragon Dispersed Campsites
For all ya'll who like to get muddy, there is a large off road park near the lake called Dirt Nasty Off Road Park. This place has 600+ acres of dirt playground to roam. They are open Saturdays and do not rent vehicles.
The main lodging choices is several state campgrounds, private campgrounds, and free campgrounds (with limited services) in the area. My preferred options are listed below. As being a person who might be called cheap (especially in my lodging and housing choices), my favorites should be expected.
1. Paragon Dispersed Camping: around 10 first come, first serve campsites nestled along the lower lake. The are no toilets other than to say, bring a shovel. There have been issues with people trashing sites and not cat holing, so keep it clean if you want to keep it open.
2. Lockegee Rock: Free to park and sleep in the vehicle and one campsite. I have slept under the stars near the fire pit on top and Mario’s Cave is available (more information under trails).
3. Zilpo Campground: Better view from that side of the lake.
4. Twin Knobs: Conveniently located to the trails and town, but there are better choices.
5. Clear Creek Market and Stables: More remote area around the lake, but my preferred area to explore. Restaurant, gas, and market on site.
There are numerous shopping option from small stores to large chains. Chain stores Walmart, Lowes, and automotive places are closer to the interstate with the local businesses near the university campus. There are several grocery options, with the closest to the lake being Save-A-Lot. If you are looking for outdoor gear, New Frontier Appalachian Clothing Co. is a good choice. For local household decorations the Holbrook Drug store is a good option (grab a shake while you are in there). Along the main street, there are several boutiques to choose from.
This is a worthwhile place to visit with many activities. Morehead might get overlooked as a weekend destination for the more popular Red River Gorge, but this is a place that deserves a visit. The local folks are chill and easy going, with plenty of local flavor if you are tired of the overpriced tourist locations with similar draws. You will not regret visiting this small town.