Back in June of 2005, I visited the Big South Fork Recreation Area on the Cumberland Plateau for the first time.† I spent two days hiking on that trip.† On the first day, I hiked the Honey Creek Loop.† The second hike took me to Twin Arches and Slave Falls.† Both of those hikes were on the Tennessee side of the park.† When I found out that Iíd be working in Kentucky again, I decided to make a return to visit to the area.† This time though, Iíd visit the Kentucky side of the recreation area.
My first challenge was in deciding where to hike.† Two areas immediately jumped out at me Ė the Blue Heron region, and Yahoo Falls.† The Blue Heron area offers a 7 mile loop that includes hiking along cliffs with views of the gorge, riverside scenery, and a visit to a historic coal mining community.† The Yahoo Falls area offers the highest waterfall in Kentucky, along with rock houses, river views, and arches.† Ultimately, I couldnít choose between them, so I decided to do both.
My plan required 8 hours of driving and around 6 hours of hiking.† An early start would be critical.† Fortunately, my wife gets up before 5AM on Mondayís for yoga class.† I got up with her, and was on the road by 5:30.† A long drive led through Knoxville and Oneida, Tennessee, and on to Stearns, Kentucky.† From there, I tried to follow directions from Mapquest and from the National Park Service.† This was tricky, since the directions conflicted with each other.† Ultimately I found my own way.† From highway 127 north, I turned left at a light onto route 1651.† I followed route 1651 for several miles before turning left at a sign for the Blue Heron campground.† That road led past a small natural bridge (actually probably an arch) and the campground to a fork.† At the fork, the road to the right leads down to the river and the historic Blue Heron coal mining community.† I continued straight ahead, and arrived at a parking area for the Blue Heron Loop Trail.
It was a little after 11AM when I started the hike.† The forecast had called for a cloudy morning and a sunny afternoon, and it was clearly still morning.† It was chilly and overcast at the trailhead, with just a hint of drizzle.† I decided to head down into the valley first before returning along the ridge.† That way, Iíd be able to enjoy the views after the sun came out.
The first mile of trail was uneventful except for numerous fallen trees blocking the trail.† The Southern Pine Beetle has hit the Big South Fork Recreation Area hard, and this area provided a good example of the damage.† The hike improved once I began my descent into the gorge.† I passed a number of bluffs, caves, and rock houses before reaching the edge of a small stream.† The trail followed the creek downstream to itís confluence with the river.† Near the confluence, I spotted a fantastic campsite on a bluff well away from the trail.
I followed the trail downstream to another campsite above a huge swimming hole.† This stretch of river races through occasional rapids and long deep pools surrounded by massive boulders.† Despite the low clouds, the sheer face of the wall on the opposite side of the gorge was visible in a number of places.† Before long, I descended through a meadow towards the river.† A few minutes later, I reached the Devilís Jump, which is the largest rapid on this stretch of the river.† A short but annoying bushwhack gave me a better look at the rapids.† I found a boulder at the edge of the river that provided a good view and a nice place for lunch.
Devilís Jump rapid is rated Class IV, and for good reason.† A house-sized boulder sits in the middle of the river, and a narrow channel races around it on either side.† The channel to the right is impassable, due to a nasty boulder sitting at the bottom of the chute.† The other side is turbulent, and requires some quick maneuvering through a tight passage.
After lunch, I resumed my hike downstream.† After a few minutes, I passed a canoeing take out and reached a trailhead in the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community.† Blue Heron is now a ghost town, in a sense.† Nobody lives there, as the area was abandoned in the 1960ís after the mines played out.† However, if you visit the area in the summer, it probably wonít seem like a ghost town.† Itís a popular tourist destination, and an excursion train brings hordes of visitors in from the town of Stearns.† On this dreary Monday though, it seemed like a true ghost town.† No one was around, and I took advantage of the opportunity to explore.
I wandered among some of the restored buildings, and visited the tipple.† A ďtippleĒ is the facility for loading railroad cars with coal.† I also walked across the bridge over the river.† The bridge provides nice views of the river, and a convenient connection to trails on the far side.† I returned, and passed the (now closed) entrance to one of the mines.† From there, I started up the trail towards the Crack in the Rock.† My visit to Blue Heron was brief, but pleasant.† It brought back memories of simpler times, when coal was taken out of the side of a mountain.† These days, of course, they cut the tops off of the mountains and dump them in the nearest river valley.† If that method had been in use 60 years ago, would we even have a Big South Fork?
A surprisingly easy ascent led to the Crack in the Rock.† The Crack in the Rock is exactly what it sounds like Ė a narrow passage through a cliff.† From there, I continued along the rim of the gorge.† I passed two overlooks, but skipped the first one.† The afternoon sun that was promised was late in arriving.† I did stop at the second, and enjoyed decent views of the river and the gorge, despite the conditions.† A short hike from there returned me to my car at 3pm.† That left me with enough time for a short hike to Yahoo Falls.
I returned to Stearns, and headed north towards Yahoo Falls.† I didnít have any sort of real directions, and missed the unmarked turn.† I figured out my error eventually, and backtracked to route 700 and headed west.† After a few miles, I reached the trailhead for the Yahoo Arch Trail.† There was only room to park one car, but fortunately there wasnít anyone there.† My map indicates a short side trail leading from the Yahoo Arch Trail a short distance from the road.† Yahoo Arch isnít shown on the map, but I assumed that it was the destination of the side trail.
I was wrong.† After a short walk, I reached the junction with the side trail.† A sign indicated that Yahoo Arch was a mile ahead, and Yahoo Falls was 2 more miles.† The side trail leads Ĺ mile to another arch, the name of which I now forget.† I had plenty of time, so I decided to check it out.
A short hike on a primitive path led down to the arch.† The arch is small, but it is still interesting.† From the condition of the trail, Iím guessing itís also lightly visited.
I returned to the junction, and decided to head back to the car.† I wanted to visit Yahoo Arch and Yahoo Falls, but time was short, and I knew the hike would be shorter from the Yahoo Falls picnic area.† I returned to the car, and drove a short distance to a dirt road on the road.† I followed this road to its end at the picnic area.† It was a little after 4pm eastern time, so I figured I had enough time to make the 3 mile round trip to Yahoo Arch.
There are several trails that lead to Yahoo Falls.† One follows the creek, another stays along the edge of a cliff, and a final path stays high up on the ridge.† I choose the middle path, and quickly reached an overlook that provides a view of the river (actually the upper end of a large lake).† From there I followed the base of the cliffs to the falls.† A few minutes later, I reached the falls.† Yahoo Falls is narrow stream of water that projects out over a high cliff.† Because of the low water volume, Yahoo Falls is best visited after a good rain.† Behind the falls is a deep cavern, or rock house.† Yahoo Falls is a fascinating spot, and I spent several minutes exploring the area and taking photographs.
From there, I continued downstream briefly, before hiking a connecting trail along a tributary stream.† This part of the hike was a bit of an adventure.† The path heads upstream, literally.† It crosses the stream frequently, and occasionally goes right up the creek.† The rocks were so slippery, I felt like I was walking across the worldís largest bathtub wearing shoes made from banana peels.† Fortunately, the stream is small and I was wearing waterproof boots.
I rejoined the main trail, and hiked rapidly to Yahoo Arch.† I finally made it to the arch after 5:00.† Between the late hour and the overcast conditions, it was almost dark.† Photos were virtually impossible, but there was still enough light to explore.† Yahoo Arch is one of the more interesting ones that Iíve seen.† Itís a complicated arch, with multiple walls and rooms.† Another large rock house nearby adds to the areas appeal.†
I wasnít able to linger long.† I hurried back, making record time.† Despite my rush, I stopped at 3 official overlooks around the top of Yahoo Falls.† The first was rather disappointing.† The second has a nice view, if you (very carefully!) walk around the protective fence near the brink of the cliff.† The 3rd overlook provided the best view, but none of them were as interesting as viewing the falls from below.† From there, a few minutes of fast walking brought me back to the car.† Then, I only had 2 more hours of driving ahead of me.
Both of my hikes on the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork Recreation Area were worthwhile.† On my next visit, Iíd like to see Yahoo Arch earlier in the day, when thereís a bit more light.† A good hike in the future would be a loop combining the Yahoo Falls, Negro Creek, and Sheltowee Trace trails.† That loop would include Yahoo Falls, Yahoo Arch, and a long section of the river.† Iíll keep that route in mind the next time I find myself in the area.
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