With perhaps the most humble curb appeal (but shortest day trip from Louisville) of the state parks I’ve visited so far, Rough River Dam State Resort Park offers visitors summer activities in a very remote setting. If you google “things to do near Rough River State Park,” only one listing comes up on Tripadvisor: Pine Knob Theater. That’s okay. We came with a huge raft, planning to spend our time on the lake.
We arrived hungry and ready for our next meal on the Better in the Bluegrass Culinary Trail. On our way into the park, we passed a temporarily closed airfield, a playground that needs some attention, a miniature golf course and tennis courts to arrive at the lodge, where I was most drawn to the sparkling and pristine pool.
It was a Thursday, so the park was mostly vacant except at the lodge restaurant, where we found ourselves transported back to the eighties. We noticed the decor seemed firmly set in the past as we were seated by the windows for a view of the patio and the lake peeking at us through the trees. We opted to have the $15.99 meal with the optional $6 Old Fashioned pairing (originally created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville), making the meal and drink $21.99 per person. The service and staff were wonderful, deserving of more than 20%.
The Bibb Salad appetizer was a delicious and light start, inspiring me to begin a quest for more Bibb lettuce in my future. I don’t know that I’ve ever had it before, but this salad was comprised of just this full lettuce and a house made Benedictine dressing – and it was scrumptious. According to the Kentucky tourism website, it was originally grown in our state by a soldier in the war of 1812.
When we were joined by Head Chef Calvin Bishop, we asked why the Louisville created cocktail and Hot Brown was being served at Rough River Dam to represent the region. He informed us that it was because the “Bourbon, Horses and History” region this state park and meal represents includes Louisville. (The Culinary Trail has split the state into 9 regions and is representing them each with a different meal, comprised of Kentucky heritage dishes and ingredients.)
Originally created by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 at the Brown Hotel, a Hot Brown is a hot open-faced sandwich, featuring Texas toast topped with roasted turkey breast, a mornay sauce (a white sauce made with two types of cheeses), parmesan cheese, tomato slices, bacon, paprika and parsley. Chef Bishop nailed it. This hot brown was worth the drive, which was close to two hours. The succotash made a colorful side dish, featuring lima beans, corn, sweet red peppers and okra – all with different visual textures, making it fun to look at (and eat).
Despite the delicious entree, I asked for a box. I wanted to make sure I had room for dessert, and I’m sure glad I did. I ended up eating the entire serving of bourbon biscuit pudding and later wishing I had more. If you’ve never had this, don’t be fooled by the name. There isn’t much of a pudding texture to it. It’s more like a bowl of torn up sweet warmed breakfast pastries and raisins – and it’s the best.
Chef Bishop started his culinary career at Rough River as a dishwasher before making his way through the positions of Chef I and Chef II before leaving the park system for a while. He progressed to Chef III at Barren River Lake State Resort Park before the head chef position opened at Rough River and he returned to where it all started for him. He says that growing up on a farm gave him a better understanding of working with various ingredients.
“We raised our own vegetables, canned and froze them,” he said. “We also raised cattle and crops like tobacco or hay.”
The chef seems to be a guy after my own heart. One of his favorite things to eat and make is lasagna. Less like me, he also likes to hunt and eat a lot of wild game like rabbit and venison but says the one of the most exotic meats he’s had is rattlesnake, thanks to a friend bringing some back from Texas.
“I’ve got two young girls,” he told me. “I’m trying to raise them like I was, enjoying what we can from the land.”
He went on to tell me that one of the most popular items at Grayson’s Landing (the name of the lodge restaurant) is their smoked brisket, which they often run out of when they serve it on Saturday nights. He said fried catfish and fried chicken are also very popular. He said another attraction, though, is live entertainment on Friday nights on the patio.
“People can sit at tables or bring blankets to sit on the hillside,” Bishop explained. “And we set up patio service, so people eat right from the patio.”
After our meal, we made our way up to the lodge lobby and gift shop, where I found the most impressive sampling of local goods in my Kentucky park journeys so far. While many of the shops offer clothing sporting the park name or common albeit popular items like Candleberry candles or other typical museum or attraction gift shop items, we were impressed with this shop’s “small and local” selection of candles, soaps, crafts and food items particularly the jams made by Two Sisters (a pair of Kentucky sisters.) With flavors ranging from sweet to hot, I was attracted to and terrified by something called “Black Widow Jam” — but was not brave enough to try it. It’s a “wicked pepper jam” made from sugar, peppers (sweet red peppers, black pearl, black ancho), pectin and vinegar. (And, being a redhead with sensitive skin, I finally did something I should have a long time ago and picked up a sunhat for the lake.)
The park has a marina and a small beach with a nice alcove, where we enjoyed some lovely raft floating and swimming. You may want to also want to see the dam while you’re there, but I found the coolest sight to be a few minutes away at Falls of the Rough. It was once a mill with a water wheel that used the flow of the river to grind up flour and corn. As you pull up to the old bridge, you’ll have to park your car to walk across the iron and wooden bridge made in 1877. The bridge will give you a view downriver from the top of the falls created by a stone wall, but you can walk down and around the mill buildings for an even better view of the falls, the bridge, and under the mill building where hidden water drops into the river behind stone arches. We found the beautiful Youtube video below by Rick Nelson, but I also wanted to share my cell phone video to show off the cool hidden underground spot.
Falls of Rough, Ky, shot using a DJI Phantom 2 vision Plus drone by Rick Nelson.
I have to say. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so Kentucky. I spent the late afternoon here at the Falls with lake-wet hair under my sunhat, wandering in denim shorts and barefoot in the wooded countryside by the old mill while sipping an Ale 8 One – and it felt amazing.