This small town in southeastern Kentucky ticks all the boxes for an active vacation in beautiful nature.
Somerset is right on Lake Cumberland, with state and county parks nearby for an endless choice of recreation, from camping to boating to relaxing on a beach.
Then in the east is the vast Daniel Boone National Forest, containing glorious natural sights like Cumberland Falls, the “Niagara of the South”.
There’s culture too in Somerset, especially in mid-July when the esteemed Master Musicians Festival welcomes a diversity of talented music artists representing genres from bluegrass to jazz, blues, folk, world music and rock.
1. Lake Cumberland
Somerset is on the northeastern shore of the ninth-largest reservoir in the United States. Intended for flood control and to generate hydroelectric power, Lake Cumberland was impounded by Wolf Creek Dam (the 25th largest in the country) in the early 1950s.
At full pool the reservoir has a surface area of more than 100 square miles, with over 1,250 miles of shoreline.
Before long, Lake Cumberland became a huge tourist attraction for southeastern Kentucky, and in Somerset there are countless ways to experience this vast body of water and its awe-inspiring shoreline.
You’ll find two parks within a ten-mile radius of the town for camping, hiking, fishing, paddling and a wealth of other activities.
2. Daniel Boone National Forest
In the Appalachian foothills, an immense swathe of Eastern Kentucky is protected as the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Made up of rugged forest laced with majestic water features like the famous Cumberland Falls, the forest was founded in 1937 and today covers more than 700,000 acres.
Somerset is one of the larger towns bordering the forest, and the KY 192, linking the town with London, KY, will take you into the very heart of this wilderness.
This road passes the shore of Laurel River Lake, another huge reservoir, completed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s. Right on KY 192 is one of the great hikes in the whole forest.
This is the Vanhook Falls Trail, a five-mile out-and-back path to a glorious waterfall plummeting more than 40 feet, especially beautiful after spring rains.
3. Cumberland Falls
For a day trip to remember, the waterfall known as the “Niagara of the South” is no more than 35 miles from downtown Somerset.
Kentucky has no shortage of cascades and waterfalls, but Cumberland Falls is on another level, with dimensions that will take your breath away, at 69 feet high and 125 feet across.
Thundering into a sandstone ravine, the waterfall has a flow rate of 3,600 cubic feet every second, creating a tremendous roar and a dramatic plume of mist.
On nights on or near a full moon, the mist forms a moonbow, and Cumberland Falls is believed to be the sole location in the Western Hemisphere where you can observe this phenomenon regularly.
4. Pulaski County Park
The first of two nearby parks on the shores of Lake Cumberland is Pulaski County Park, within a 15-minute drive of downtown Somerset.
The park is on more than 800 acres of hilly, wooded lakeshore, featuring a beach, a scenic campground, cabin rentals, shelters and a large lakefront area with two launches for boating and paddling.
For hikers and mountain bikers there are more than 16 miles of trails, rambling through the forest and climbing to some far-reaching lookouts.
There are plenty more recreation amenities at the park, including two 18-hole disc golf courses, basketball/volleyball courts and two playgrounds for kids.
5. General Burnside Island State Park
Another local hub for outdoor recreation on Lake Cumberland is this sprawling state park, occupying a 430-acre island in the lake.
General Burnside Island State Park is fewer than ten miles south of Somerset, and is named for the Union general and three-time Governor of Rhode Island, Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881), who stationed his troops at this spot in the Civil War.
One of the park’s star attractions is the 18-hole golf course, rated among the very best in Kentucky.
There’s also a 75-acre campground with 102 sites, and a marina where you can launch your boat or choose from a range of rentals for a joyful day navigating Lake Cumberland.
In the summer months (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day), Somerset has one of the top water parks in Kentucky.
On 20 acres, SomerSplash has a massive wave pool, a long lazy river and a big choice of water slides including a body slide complex, a speed slide, a bowl slide and a tube slide.
Parents here with littler children will be pleased with the expansive, zero-depth kiddie pool, with a large play feature at its heart.
The park also has a gift shop and concessions, and for a bit more privacy you can rent your own cabana.
Mid-February to mid-April, there’s a winter wonderland at SomerSplash, with a skating rink, concessions for hot chocolate and coffee, and fire pits.
7. Master Musicians Festival (MMF)
In mid-July there’s a two-day, multi-genre celebration of fine musicianship in Somerset. Held at the Somerset Community College Festival Field on the south side of town, the Master Musicians Field has been going since 1994 and has been headlined by some world-renowned artists.
In that huge catalog of past performers you’ve got John Prine, Willie Nelson, Grace Potter, Richie Havens and Dwight Yoakam.
A feast of music, art and food, the MMF aims to be family friendly, multicultural and multigenerational.
There’s free admission for children under 12 (accompanied by a ticket-holding adult), and plenty of activities for youngsters to enjoy, from water balloon fights to craft workshops
8. Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument
In January 1862 the Battle of Mill Springs was fought less than ten miles west of Somerset, involving some 10,000 soldiers and ending in a Union victory.
The battle is remembered as the first Union victory of note in the western theater of the Civil War, bringing an end to an early Confederate campaign in Eastern Kentucky.
Anyone with an interest in Civil War history will be intrigued by this historic setting. You can embark on a driving tour of the rolling battlefield, with ten stops, while there’s also a hiking trail installed with 14 interpretive signs.
For extra background, the Visitor Center and Museum can be found where the Union forces camped, at the north end of the battlefield. The Combat on the Cumberland exhibit here is teeming with interesting artifacts.
9. Buck Creek Outfitters
Buck Creek flows through the countryside west of Somerset, joining the Cumberland River just upstream from Lake Cumberland.
In the last few years a long stretch of the creek has been carefully developed as a 24.5 mile water trail, with signage, mapping and safe launch points.
If you’d like to spend some time paddling through verdant scenery and discover a seldom-seen side to Pulaski County, Buck Creek Outfitters is the place to go.
This fast-growing kayak rental company has recently expanded its fleet from an initial 5 kayaks to more than 30. The owners will shuttle you upstream and will be fully contactable by cell phone throughout your trip.
10. Shark Aviation
To gauge the true scale of Lake Cumberland you can take to the air in a Cessna 185 seaplane.
Shark Aviation is the only company with a permit to conduct seaplane flights on the lake, and it’s an experience not to be missed.
You can catch a flight from Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Somerset, and the trip will last around 40 minutes.
The seaplane will make a series of landings and takeoffs on the water, and the views of the lake and its sinuous wooded shores are nothing short of spectacular.
11. Somersport Park
On Somerset’s northeastern edge is a 17-acre park home to the city’s sports complex, hosting youth leagues for baseball and soccer.
What makes Somersport Park so popular with parents is the fantastic playground, Fischer Fun Park, which is the largest in Somerset and has three towers featuring slides, stairways and climbing features.
Close to the playground is a pair of picnic shelters with power, water and grill which can be rented March through October. There is also a long paved track for walking and jogging.
12. International Paranormal Museum
If you have a taste for eccentric local attractions there’s a great one downtown in the basement of the Carnegie Community Arts Center.
The International Paranormal Museum has a broad scope, dealing with aliens, ghosts, voodoo, psychics, cryptids and more.
In three packed rooms, this gallery of the unexplained has lots of interactive exhibits, spooky firsthand accounts from local people, and newspaper clippings.
Among the curios are bigfoot casts, ouija boards and purportedly cursed objects. Appropriately for Kentucky there’s even a cursed bottle of bourbon.
13. Somerset Peddlers Mall
This regional chain of antique and flea markets has 17 locations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The Somerset Peddlers Mall, off US 27, has dozens of vendor booths in one sizable building, and serious antique hunters may not see the light of day for a couple of hours.
As well as plenty of new arts and crafts including seasonal decorations, candles and furniture, there’s a big range of antiques and collectibles.
As you go you’ll come across comic books, vinyl, pottery, vintage signs, paintings, posters, home appliances, clothes, tableware, historic tools and much more.
14. Somernites Cruise
Somerset has been dubbed “The Car Cruise Capital of Kentucky”, and you’ll understand why if you’re in town on the 4th Saturday of the month, April through October.
With a theme that changes from month to month, the Somernites Cruise is a laid-back, family-oriented event downtown. From 12 pm to 6 pm there’s a “Show and Shine”, and this is followed by “Cruising the Strip”.
More than a typical car cruise, there’s plenty more going on downtown, including block parties, vendors and a fun run in the morning.