The seat of the eponymous county, Henderson is an historic city on a sweeping bend of the Ohio River, looking across to Indiana.
In the 1810s when Henderson was a frontier town, the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851) resided here, at a transitional period in his life that inspired him to work at his art full-time.
Audubon’s time in Henderson is remembered with a museum full of original artworks and personal possessions, with more than six miles of trails to explore in the surrounding state park.
Downtown Henderson has an unrivaled calendar of festivals all summer long, mostly on the site of a waterfront grist mill that Audubon founded and soon abandoned more than 200 years ago.
1. John James Audubon State Park
In the north of Henderson, the John James Audubon State Park is on 700 acres of hilly woodland, a big portion of which is old-growth.
During the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration (WPA), built the chateauesque museum building that serves as the park’s linchpin.
The Audubon Museum & Nature Center has one of the largest collections of materials relating to John James Audubon.
On show are rare editions of his masterwork, The Birds of America, original engravings and lithographs, paintings by Audubon and his sons, family correspondence and an inventory of personal possession including birds taxidermied by Audubon himself.
Out in the park, you can traverse the landscape on more than six miles of trails, rent a pedal boat for the lake, camp overnight and play a round at the nine-hole golf course.
2. Downtown Henderson
One of the special things about Henderson’s historic downtown area is its waterfront location, with a broad stretch of the Ohio River always visible in the west, and a beautiful glow as the sun goes down.
On Main Street, Water Street and intersecting streets there’s a surprising variety of locally owned shops and services.
You’ll happen upon quaint stores for musical instruments, flowers, clothing, homewares, antiques, art supplies, jewelry, shoes and more.
For dining, you’ve got some great spots for southern and barbecue in particular, but also pizza, tacos, breakfast bites and fresh roasted coffee.
As we’ll see, Downtown Henderson has something going on all summer long, as well as a reborn First Friday event, anchored by the Perch Pocket Park.
For a quieter activity you can seek out all 16 of the cast bronze sculptures based on Audubon’s paintings in Birds of America.
3. Audubon Mill Park
On a sunny day it’s hard to think of a prettier place to be than this downtown riverside park, with soaring old trees and clear lines of sight down the riverbend.
On the Indiana side there’s little more than farmland and woods, while in the foreground is the Henderson Bridge (1932), a railroad crossing that replaced an earlier bridge from the 1880s.
The park is on the site of a steam-powered grist mill built in 1816 by John James Audubon and his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell.
This venture was short lived, and Audubon soon embarked on the painting career for which he’s remembered today.
With an amphitheater, Audubon Mill Park is an obvious setting for the city’s summer festivals, while there’s also an interactive water feature, the Henderson Boat Ramp and a dock.
4. W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival
The largest of Henderson’s raft of summer events is a four-day music and food extravaganza at Audubon Mill Park in mid-June.
The W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival has been going for more than 30 years, and always captures the city’s imagination, with crowds spilling out of the park long before the headliners arrive on the weekend.
The roll call of past performers is extensive, and features the likes of Walter Trout, Joe Louis Walker, Coco Montoya, Victor Wainwright and Samantha Fish.
One beloved tradition is the Street Strut on Saturday, a people’s parade with prizes awarded for categories, from Best Decorated Umbrella to Most Spirited Strutter.
Finally, food and drink go hand-in-hand with the music, with 20+ vendors and tie-ins with local restaurants and the Henderson Brewing Co.
5. Bluegrass in the Park Folklife Festival
In August the scenic Audubon Mill Park is the location for one of the largest, free bluegrass festivals in the United States.
Bluegrass in the Park is a whole weekend of bluegrass, americana and old-time music, accompanied by great food, children’s activities, folklife displays, artisan merchants and much more.
Among the big names in the list of past performers are Alison Krauss, Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Ricky Skaggs and John Hartford.
In recent years some of the many side events have included a 5k run, a disc golf tournament and a one-of-a-kind street pole vault competition. The music normally starts as early as 7 am and lasts until after sunset.
6. Gallery 101
The Ohio Valley Art League (OVAL) was founded in 1991 to promote the visual arts in Henderson and the Tri-State area.
Over the last 30+ years this organization has presented countless exhibitions and programs, and helped enrich the city with public art. Don Gummer’s The Optimist (2001) is one such work, on display in front of the Preston Arts Center.
When we wrote this list, the organization had just opened a permanent exhibition space, Gallery 101 in the riverfront Depot building, beside Audubon Mill Park.
This is a dynamic and spacious venue for year-round art exhibitions, workshops, classes and demonstrations.
7. Preston Arts Center
On the Henderson Community College campus in the southwest of the city, you may be surprised by this world-class, multidisciplinary arts center in a gorgeous lakeside setting.
The nucleus of the Preston Arts Center is the 951-seat McCormick Hall, a stunning venue for everything from touring Broadway shows to local community theater productions.
This stage is used by a wide array of local arts organizations, including the Henderson Area Arts Alliance, which has an exciting calendar. The center also has art galleries, hosting worthwhile exhibitions throughout the year; open Monday – Saturday.
8. Ellis Park
On the north bank of the Ohio River, but still in Henderson, KY, is a thoroughbred racetrack that dates back more than a century now.
Established in 1922, Ellis Park was going through some big changes at the time of writing, with $14.2 million, including new grandstands, an enlarged turf track and a lighting system that will allow for night racing for the first time in the track’s history.
This is ideal for the summer months, when it’s safer for horses to race after sunset. Gaming has been available at Ellis Park for some time, but the upgrades will also endow this facility with more than 400 instant racing machines, which were legalized in Kentucky in 2021.
9. Atkinson Park
North of downtown Henderson is another of the city’s string of picture perfect riverside parks. Atkinson Park is posted high on the riverbank, facing west for sumptuous views at sunset.
For facilities there’s a disc golf course, a skate park, an open shelter, grills, baseball fields and a playground.
This is also the starting point for the River Walk trail, tracking the riverbank for over a mile and connecting with Red Banks Park in the south. A little further on there’s another beautiful waterfront spot next to the Henderson Bridge at Sunset Park.
10. Audubon Wetlands Trail
In 2011 a 650-acre parcel of wetlands and floodplain forest near the state park was purchased by the Audubon Wetlands Group, to be turned into a public preserve. Now, the showpiece here is a 1.5-mile, ADA-accessible looping trail, which is unparalleled in the region.
The Audubon Wetlands Trail includes a remarkable 750-foot section of boardwalk, giving you the perfect vantage point for wildlife watching on your way through this valuable environment.
As you go, look out for otters, beavers, butterflies, turtles, frogs and a rich array of warblers and waterfowl.
11. The Perch Pocket Park
Testament to downtown Henderson’s ongoing improvement is this little plaza along the 200 block of Second Street where a parking lot used to be.
Close to the various eateries downtown, The Perch Pocket Park opened in 2018 and is a convenient spot for lunch in summer, not least because of the lighted pergola that has been erected here.
There’s also a stage area for outdoor performances during First Fridays, as well as a striking mural commissioned by OVAL, with more additions in the pipeline.
12. Sandy Lee Watkins Songwriters Festival
In late July, downtown Henderson welcomes some of the greatest singer/songwriters in music for four nights of intimate acoustic performances.
You’ll be treated to great music, intriguing anecdotes and rare insights into the craft of songwriting.
At the time of writing, the upcoming installment featured the likes of Don Sampson, Johnny Bulford, Tony Arata, Chris Gebulda and Billy Crain, just some of 30+ performers.
The Sandy Lee Watkins Songwriters Festival also has a philanthropic side, raising funds for important causes and non-profit organizations in the community.
A free, family-friendly music event takes place along four blocks of South Main Street on a Saturday in early June. Porchfest is a cozy, evening-long affair, held in a residential part of Henderson, southwest of downtown.
Between Washington Street and Jefferson Street, some nine different residences and the Henderson County Public Library building will host live music, literally from their front porches and lawns.
A map is published before the event, and there’s always a handful of food trucks. All you have to do is pack a blanket or lawn chair and you’ll be set for an evening of entertainment.
14. Henderson County Farmers’ Market
Given the wealth of agriculture on Henderson’s doorstep it follows that there should be a farmers’ market of real quality in the city.
This is a county event, taking place in a designated pavilion at the fairgrounds. May through October, you can visit the Henderson County Farmers’ Market on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, for a changing selection of locally grown fresh produce.
Added to that you’ve got locally raised meats, wines, flowers, honey, baked goods, jams, eggs and unique handmade crafts.
15. Atkinson Pool
From Memorial Day weekend this pool in Atkinson Park is a summer staple for families in Henderson.
Atkinson Pool is a relatively simple attraction, but has much to keep kids entertained, with a large, L-shaped main pool, a wading pool for younger swimmers, a waterslide and a mushroom waterfall.
The pool is open seven days a week throughout the school summer break, and the entire complex can be rented out for parties in two-hour slots in the evenings.