In Kentucky Monthly’s second installment of “24 Hours in …” our writer visits Somerset and gives you the scoop on what to do, where to eat, what to see and where to stay. You’ll discover that you don’t have to travel far to have an awesome mini vacation in our great Commonwealth.
Somerset, once a quiet little farming town in southern Kentucky, has transformed itself into a welcome mat for the 4 million visitors who make nearby Lake Cumberland their destination. With the completion of the Wolf Creek Dam in 1950, more than just the waters of the Cumberland River began to swell. Somerset, as well as surrounding Pulaski County, grew, too.
Before setting out to explore Somerset, stop by the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 522 Ogden Street, where you can pick up all kinds of brochures and collect information. Its website, lakecumberlandtourism.com, is a marvelous tool in your planning, as it offers a build-your-own-itinerary feature. Just click on the attractions that interest you and create your one-of-a-kind tour. After you’ve compiled your list, simply email it to yourself, and—ta-da!—you have your very own travel plan.
No trip to Somerset is complete without a trip to Amon’s Sugar Shack, so you might as well start your day there. Don’t let its location, adjacent to a gas station on Old U.S. 27, throw you off. Amon’s has been whipping up doughnuts and other sweet selections since 1951, and locals as well as travelers, swear by the tasty treats found there. The bakery features cakes, cookies and breads, but one of its signature items is a Bismarck, a yeast doughnut filled with chocolate, jelly or custard and enrobed in icing.
Amon’s also has burgers, sandwiches and lunch specials, but for our visit, we are starting our day with doughnuts. During the summer months, Amon’s hosts hot glazed doughnut nights, which are similar to—but better than—those times when a certain giant chain doughnut store illuminates its neon “hot now” sign. Yes, people plan their day around this event, making sure they are in town or sometimes driving for miles just for the opportunity to get ’em while they’re hot.
Mill Springs Re-enactment
Battle of Mill Springs Re-enactment
Exploring the Past
Settled in 1798, Somerset is named for its founders’ former home of Somerset County, New Jersey. Although the area was agricultural, the town quickly established churches, stores and offices typical of the period. More than 200 years later, the original Main Street still marks the center of town, complete with a beautiful fountain.
A significant event in the area’s history was the Civil War Battle of Mills Springs on Jan. 19, 1862, which occurred in Nancy, roughly 11 miles west of Somerset. The clash involving almost 6,000 Confederate and nearly 4,500 Union soldiers resulted in a victory for the North as well as the death of Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer of the South. In remembrance of these events, the Mill Springs Battlefield is a National Historic Landmark and today welcomes guests to its visitors center, where they can tour the artifact-filled museum, obtain information on the 10-stop driving tour, and pay respects at the National Cemetery and nearby Zollicoffer Park.
Commerce and Culture
If shopping is how you want to begin your day, there are a variety of shops downtown as well as on U.S. 27, which runs north-south through the county. Making it easy to navigate, each traffic light along the highway is numbered, and most tourist attractions will mention “Light No. XX” in their directions. Whether you are looking for an antique or thrift shop, a high-end boutique or a big-box chain retailer, Somerset has you covered.
Feeling like a little culture? The city has a thriving arts community.
In 1913, Somerset was one of 26 lucky Kentucky cities to receive a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to build a Carnegie Library. Although the library has since moved to another location, the grand building on Main Street is now known as the Carnegie Community Arts Center, and it is the hub for all things artsy. On any given day, visitors will find scheduled musical performances on the first floor, and—with several artists-in-residence—there are always painting, voice and music lessons ongoing throughout the building. A small gift shop called the Yellow Umbrella features the works of local artists, with treasures in jewelry, photography, weaving, pottery and just about any kind of art that comes to mind.
If you are in the vicinity of Nancy around lunchtime, stop by Sharon’s Mill Springs Restaurant. This local diner serves sandwiches and burgers, but it is the daily special that brings in regulars. With comfort food favorites like pinto beans and cornbread on Tuesdays, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes on Wednesday, you’ll swear your mom is in the kitchen whipping these up. Check Sharon’s Facebook page to see the special of the day.
If you need a little pick-me-up, Haney’s Appledale Farm might have just what you’re looking for. These fifth-generation farmers grow more than 25 varieties of apples, as well as an impressive assortment of peaches, pears and other summer produce. Locals know to swing by for its famous fried pies, but Haney’s also has delicious applesauce, pickled vegetables and jellies. You can find seasonal favorites like mums, pumpkins, gourds and cider, too.
A good stop for a midday—or any time of day—caffeine boost is Somerset’s Baxter’s Coffee. This family-owned business, named after the owners’ chocolate standard poodle, has been serving fresh-roasted coffee since 2001. Baxter’s boasts three locations—the original shop near downtown, one on U.S. 27 (Light No. 22), a kiosk in the Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital—and, slated to open this summer, a new location at the company’s roasting warehouse on Ky. 80 that will have a drive-thru.
The locals are loyal to their hometown cup of joe. How loyal, you ask? Well, let’s just say that when a Seattle-based chain coffee shop came to town—yes, you know the one—it didn’t stay in business for long. Baxter’s is where Somerset goes for coffee drinks and smoothies.
Fishing on Lake Cumberland
The Great Outdoors
As the afternoon beckons, it’s time to head outside.
Somerset is near Lake Cumberland, so whether you spend your afternoon or spend a week’s vacation there, it is time well spent. The lake is massive, to put it mildly. Touching six counties and covering 65,530 acres, it has more than 1,200 miles of shoreline. Just in case you are questioning the size, Lake Cumberland is 101 miles long and, in some places, it is a mile wide.
So what are you going to do on the lake? Anything you want! Local marinas, like Lee’s Ford Resort Marina and Burnside Marina, have boats of all sizes for rent—from kayaks to pontoons to houseboats. So whether you are there to take out a Jet Ski, water ski or fish, Lake Cumberland has the perfect spot for you.
For more outdoor fun, the Pulaski County Park spans 800 acres and features two 18-hole disc golf courses, volleyball and basketball courts, hiking trails and playgrounds. The rugged forest is perfect for hiking, with glimpses of the lake through the trees. The park also has two free boat ramps where you can put in and a fish-cleaning station where you can fix up your catch of the day.
Post-Sunset in Somerset
Dining options in the city have expanded since the 2012 repeal of local prohibition. Decades after the United States’ repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Somerset’s citizens voted to go “wet,” allowing alcohol to be sold within the city limits. The availability of liquor at restaurants has had the effect of bringing many new eateries to town and has prompted old, familiar establishments to offer wine and beer on their menu.
If you are on the lake around dinnertime, an easy choice is Harbor Restaurant & Tavern at Lee’s Ford Resort Marina. Just pull up in your boat and walk up the hill to this beautiful spot boasting good food and fabulous views of the lake.
If you are near downtown, Tap on Main, named by Thrillist as one of “The 10 Best Kentucky Bars That Aren’t In Louisville,” offers 20 craft beers on tap, as well as a huge assortment of bottled craft beers, wines and bourbons. The establishment’s focus is on the beer, but at Main Street’s Deli next door, you can order dinner, and a server will bring it over to you at Tap on Main.
For some finer dining with lake views, Guthrie’s River House is a prime spot. Its location on the lake is perfect, and it has an inviting patio that’s always packed in the summer. Menu choices cover everything from steaks to seafood to flatbread pizza, and Guthrie’s now has a nice selection of wines.
As evening falls and you feel like unwinding with a movie, consider a night under the stars. Yes, one of Somerset’s most endearing attractions is the 27 Drive-In, an actual double-screen drive-in movie theater, where you can watch this week’s attraction from the comfort of your car. Beginning at dusk, both the front and back screens show double features. Gone are the days when squawk boxes were attached to your window for sound; just tune your radio to 89.9 FM for audio for the front screen and 91.7 FM for the back. But make sure everyone in the car agrees on which movie to see first.
Where to rest your weary head after such an exciting day? Of course, Somerset has all the major chain motels, and several bed-and-breakfasts are nearby, but for a real taste of Lake Cumberland, consider sleeping on a deluxe houseboat, where you’ll be lulled to sleep by the waves. Cabins, cottages and campgrounds are available at the marinas and Pulaski County Park, so you can be near the lake but not right on it. For more luxurious accommodations, rent a condo or villa from Woodson Bend Resort. This privately owned, gated community sits high above Lake Cumberland and offers breathtaking views of the water and gorgeous palisades. The resort features tennis and golf, as well as fine dining. This is country club living, if only for a week.
Well, your 24 hours are coming to a close, but luckily, you probably have more time than that. Inhale that clean country air, soak up the glorious sunshine, and take in all the arts, history and Lake Cumberland that you can.