Central Kentucky is characterized by a mixture of karst and fluvial features, typically manifested as mosaic of karst-rich/ channel-poor (KRCP) and channel-rich/karst-poor (CRKP) environments. At the regional scale the location and distribution of KRCP and CRKP areas are not always systematically related to structural, lithological, topographic, or other controls. This study examines the relationship of KRCP and CRKP zones along the Kentucky River gorge area, where rapid incision in the last 1??5 million years has lowered local base levels and modified slopes on the edge of the inner bluegrass plateau. At the scale of detailed field mapping on foot within a 4 km2 area, the development of karst and fluvial features is controlled by highly localized structural and topographic constraints, and can be related to slope changes associated with retreat of the Kentucky River gorge escarpment. A conceptual model of karst/fluvial transitions is presented, which suggests that minor, localized variations are sufficient to trigger a karst-fluvial or fluvial-karst switch when critical slope thresholds are crossed. ?? 2004 John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.