Johnny Molloy Outdoor Writer
Johnny Molloy

 

Kentucky Hiking Adventures

Backpacking Past Kentucky's Highest Falls            Northern Sheltowee Trace
Big South Fork National River                     ●Mammoth Cave National Park
   and Recreation Area

Backpacking Cumberland Gap National Park

 

 

Backpacking Cumberland Gap National Park

Cumberland Gap National Park is located at the point where Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky meet. This historical national park is an undiscovered hiking, camping and backpacking destination.

View from Ridge Trail at Cumberland Gap National Park

My buddy Bryan Delay and I started a three night backpacking trip at Pinnacle Overlook, a rock rampart overlooking Cumberland Gap. We chose the leafless time of year to best enjoy the geological wonders that can be found along the 20-mile Ridge Trail, running a top Cumberland Mountain. Interestingly, this national park exhibits characteristics of both the Cumberland Plateau -- rock houses, stone spires and massive boulders --  as well as the Southern Appalachians  – high, parallel ridges divided by deep valleys where rocky streams flow.

Boulders on the Ridge Trail

The bright sun lit the trail as we headed east from Pinnacle Overlook. Great views could be had from this vista point, yet it wasn't long before trailside outcrops opened onto the Powell River valley below, dotted with farms fields and houses that were absent during Boone’s day. Our five mile hike undulated through boulder gardens and tall barren trees. I made Gibson Gap campsite, one of five designated backcountry campsites in the park, with an hour to spare before dark. I immediately gathered plenty of firewood for the long, cold night. Bryan rolled in later, lauding the rugged splendor of this park, especially the myriad rock formations rising from this ridge dividing Kentucky from Virginia.

 

Gibson Gap Campsite           

          Temperatures dipped into the mid-30s overnight, yet I rose before dawn, stoking the fire. As usual, Brian slept in. After a seemingly interminable period, I departed easterly on the Ridge Trail, going up and down up and down, into chilly shade and warm sun. Views continued to the southeast. Rhododendron, mountain laurel and hemlocks added a touch of green to the otherwise barren woodlands. The vertical walls of Shillalah Creek gorge reflected the sun in the distance. Finally, I reached the spur trail to Indian Rock, one of several natural stone shelters in the park that were once used by aboriginals dating back thousands of years.

                                     

Hensley Settlement

I then headed to the Hensley Settlement, a collection of pioneer homes dating back to the early 1900s, when Sherman Hensley settled on this mountaintop, ostensibly to get away from encroaching civilization of phones and cars but he and his group were getting away in order to make moonshine. To be fair, they also grew crops and did metal forging, which they also took down off the mountain to sell.

 

Home at Hensley Settlement

The collection of over 40 buildings, from springhouses to barns to homes, even a schoolhouse, was a sight to behold. Nearby, deer grazed placidly in the meadows. The bright sun whipped up a wind that blasted through the Hensley Settlement as I explored the lonely buildings. The settlement was abandoned for good in 1951, when Sherman Hensley, age 70, left. He was the last man on the mountaintop colony that peaked at 100 residents. Jobs and civilization proved to be too much of a lure.

Horse powered plow

It was just a short distance beyond the settlement to our 2nd night’s destination, Hensley Camp. The level grassy site is shaded by pines and oaks. A nearby spring provided drinking water. We passed the evening before a wind-whipped fire, occasionally pushing smoke in our as we cooked brats and beans. The two of us reflected on life at the Hensley Settlement and the isolation it brought. Yet, the Hensley Settlement offered a simple way of living, free of the rush-rush lifestyle we live today, complicated by the electronic chains that bind us.

Ridge Trail not far from Sand Cave

Views near and distant continued the next day, as I hiked among the summit’s boulder gardens. Two highlights lay ahead. Sand Cave is simply one of the largest rock shelters in the Southeast. The sand-floored rockhouse is complemented with a waterfall and is one of those special places that make you glad it is a protected part of a national park. It was a short distance from Sand Cave to the White Rocks Campsite that completed our easy 5 mile day. The campsite, located on a wooded slope, leaves much to be desired, however its proximity to the White Rocks, made staying there worthwhile.

 

                 Sand Cave waterfall

 

Walking up the sand at Sand Cave

That afternoon we headed up to the open stone slab overlooking the lowlands below. From White Rocks fell the ridge and valley country of Virginia and Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains and the Southern Appalachian chain provided framed the vista to the south. A punishing wind atop the stone viewpoint limited how long we stayed before retiring to the campsite.

Looking up at White Rocks

View down from the White Rocks

A front was moving in, so we pitched our tarps and waited for the precipitation. But it didn't come until the next morning, just as I was starting a pre-dawn coffee fire. Luckily, the shower quickly dissipated, leaving us time to descend the Ewing Trail where Bryan’s car awaited. Thus ended our 3 night trek at Cumberland Gap National Park.

 

 

 

Mammoth Cave National Park

The Above Ground Trails Will Surprise

Spring, specifically mid-April, is the best time to backpack Mammoth Cave National Park, with its 70 miles of above ground trails and 10 backcountry campsites.  The wildflowers here rival that of the Smokies or any other mountain destination.  Waterfalls, rock houses and historic homesites are other sights to see.  The backcountry is also uncrowded.  The only downside is trail conditions, which can be muddy, due to horse traffic.         

         Pennywort                Raymer Hollow Falls         Sessile Trillium

   Longtime backpacking pal Steve “Devo” Grayson and I left Maple Springs trailhead and trekked up Raymer Hollow Trail.  I was GPSing the trails for my comprehensive guidebook to Mammoth Cave National Park.  The leaves were just popping out and the wildflowers were incredible.  We hiked onto Blair Spring Hollow Trail to Ferguson Hollow Campsite, for a long day.  The evening dropped to 48 degrees.   

    

          Fire Pink                Author fills water bottle            Kentucky Cacti        

We joined the scenic First Creek Trail, which displays much biodiversity, from hemlocks to cactus.  After descending to the Nolin River, we saw thousands more wildflowers before heading toward McCoy Hollow to camp.  The day had warmed to 80 degrees and we had had a 15 mile day.  The evening cooled down quite nicely, however.  I slept like the dead.  Next day we climbed Collie Ridge then passed through the Dry Prong Buffalo valley, another wildflower rich area.

       Bluebells carpet Wet Prong Buffalo flat             Bluebell close up

 After walking Good Springs Loop, Devo and I joined the Sal Hollow Trail and observed sinks, overhangs, springs and homesites. I walked out Turnhole Bend Trail, while Devo waited.  I walked down to the Green River, where the bottomland was electric green and seemingly growing before my eyes.  We then we headed north on Turnhole Bend Trail to camp at Homestead Campsite.

        

 Devo on the Good Springs Loop Trail                                   Shooting Star

   Another long warm day was followed by a cool evening.  We couldn’t complain about the weather.  We were whipped and relaxed our last night in the Mammoth Cave backcountry.  It was amazing how few people were out here, and didn’t know the beauty of these Kentucky woodlands. 

    

Old homesite along Sal Hollow Trail                   Green River bottomland

 It was but a short walk to Maple Springs trailhead next morning.  Devo went back to Virginia, while I continued working on the Mammoth Cave guidebook.

Want to explore Mammoth Cave National Park? Get this book!

A FalconGuide® to Mammoth Cave National Park     

A Falcon Guide to

Mammoth Cave National Park

ISBN: 0762739975

Belowground, Mammoth Cave National Park in southwestern Kentucky is part of the largest known cave system in the world.  Aboveground, the park offers two winding rivers, numerous creeks, and a lush forest full of trails to be explored. Discover all the activities available in the 50,000-acre wonderland with A Falcon Guide to Mammoth Cave National Park

Inside you will find:

- a foldout map of the park, complete with trails and activities

- cave tours, boat tours, scenic drives, and picnic areas

- where to walk, hike, bike, paddle, fish and ride a horse

- facts about the area's weather, history, flora and fauna

- lists of park accommodations, campsites, and area B&Bs

 


 

Backpacking Past Kentucky's Highest Falls

The warm and early spring day brought thousands upon thousands of wildflowers as Johnny and fellow backpacking enthusiast Bryan Delay set out from Yamacraw Bridge in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which abuts the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Immediately the two of us broke out our digital cameras and began taking photos of the wildflowers, including bloodroot, spring beauties and thousands of trout lilies.

Trout Lily

Yahoo Falls (see person in pink at bottom)

We sweated up a storm as the trees weren't leaved out, allowing the sun to pound us.  We arrived at Negro Creek late in the afternoon and toured the area, looking for more wildflowers and relaxing.  That night we cooked burgers and the temps only fell to around 50.  I got up first as usual and made the fire and boiled water for the coffee over the fire.  We set out for Yahoo Fall Scenic Area, and made it by lunch.  We got multiple views of Kentucky's highest fall at 113 feet, via trails that form a maze in the area.  Bryan liked the view from the massive cavern behind the falls.  The view from up high was good too.  We also visited Yahoo Arch and Markers Arch, more geologic features, before leaving Yahoo Creek and heading down Negro Creek.

Johnny and Bryan Lean Against the Log Where the "Spring Water" Was
 

Bryan dropped off the side of the steep valley and found a creekside campsite.  We set up camp and hung out when along comes a horseback rider who knew the area well and regaled us with stories.  He closed by asking if we wanted some spring water.  Being a water aficionado, I followed him to the "spring."  We walked only a foot or two behind a log upon which Bryan and I had been resting.

Then, he leans over and pulls out a jar of moonshine ... the spring water!!!!  We all laughed and he offered us some of the 'shine, then went on his way.  Little did Bryan and I know that we had set up camp right at a moonshine hidin' spot!

Johnny with the Moonshine on Negro Creek

It was another pleasantly cool evening by the fire.  Next morning we took a side trip past Lick Creek Falls, yet another impressive cascade with a massive rockhouse beside it.  The Lick Creek valley was the prettiest of them all and our favorite, especially when you include Princess Falls, also in the Lick Creek Valley.  All too soon we were heading back to the car, another adventure in the can.

Want to backpack Kentucky? Get this book!

Day and Overnight Hikes Kentucky's Sheltowee Trace


ISBN: 0-89732-568-0

This book details the 282 miles of Kentucky’s master path, the Sheltowee Trace.  This path was the 100th designated federal national recreation trail, dedicated in June of 1979.  Hikers who tread this trail will be “following the turtle,” a white painted turtle blazed on trees, extending from the trail’s southern terminus in Tennessee’s Pickett State Park, north through the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and on through the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest nearly to the state of Ohio.

Along the way, hikers will see the best of the Cumberland Plateau, from exquisite aches to bluffs that offer extensive vistas to waterfalls that descend into sandstone cathedrals.  The path treads through deep forests in gorges cut by creeks and rivers and atop the Plateau, where oak and pine forests range long distances.  Rock houses, caves and other rock features stand out in these rich woodlands.  Some areas through which the Trace travels are set aside purely for their natural beauty, such as Cumberland Falls State Park, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the Clifty Wilderness, and Red River Gorge Geological Area.  With the protection of these areas has come protection of the plants and animals that live here, including threatened and endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Virginia big-eared bat, freshwater mussels, and white-haired goldenrod.  The black bear has made a comeback in these parts, expanding its range into eastern Kentucky from neighboring states, as well as being reintroduced into the Big South Fork.

 


Hiking the northern Sheltowee Trace

The northern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest was the setting for Johnny’s latest adventure.  Here, Johnny took off from Cave Run Lake on the Sheltowee Trace, walking north on a hot day in a leafless forest.

Johnny hiking Sheltowee Trace near Cave Run Lake in Kentucky

Thirteen sweaty miles later, Johnny found a camp in a narrow gap.  He set up his Eureka tent, knowing the rains would come.  And they did.  He broke camp in the rain, which is never fun, then put on the poncho and kept on, making 13 more miles, much of it on a storm damaged trail.  The winter of 2003 had brought ice storms to the area and parts of the Trace were blocked by literally thousands of trees.  Johnny persevered, even through the last 15 miles of the trail, which the forest service had closed due to the extensive damage.  After those last 15 miles, Johnny camped in Henry Short Hollow, then walked out the last day, completing the entire Sheltowee Trace!!!!!


Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

A recent adventure took place on the Sheltowee Trace in Kentucky.  Johnny has recently finished writing a hiking guide for the 280-mile Trace, which stretches from Pickett State Park on the TN-KY state line north through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Morehead, Kentucky, not too far from Ohio.

John Cox at Marks Branch Falls

Johnny and John Cox left Pickett State Park on a warm day and proceeded into the Biog South Fork National River and Recreation Area before stopping to camp the first night.  Fall colors were beginning to appear.  They cooked hamburgers that night, then proceeded down Rock Creek, seeing more of what makes this area so great -- rock houses, massive boulders, arches, waterfalls and everywhere-you look beauty that enhanced the trip.

They pushed on 17 miles that day and made a quick camp beside a hemlock shaded stream before pushing on.  This day was a little more moderate, as their dogs were tired.  Luckily, they once again found a creek beside which to camp, jumping in Lake Cumberland to wash off the sweat and cut down on the itching.  See, they stupidly wore short pants on an open stretch of trail.  The lakeside camp also offered the option of going to Yahoo Falls, Kentucky's highest waterfall.  The above picture was taken as Mark Branch Falls, which they also visited that day.

After this, they pushed past Lake Cumberland and into Indian Creek, where they found another isolated camp and listened to the Kentucky-Alabama footballs.  Once again, the cool waters, this time provided by Indian Creek, cut down on the severe itching of the chiggers that were especially troublesome at night, in the warmth of the sleeping bags. 

The final day took them to Cumberland Falls State Park via the Cumberland River, where there were views aplenty of the mighty Cumberland River, where rafters and kayakers ply their trade along here.  The 64-mile trip was just the first leg of the completing the entire 280-mile Sheltowee Trace!!!!


 

 
Copyright Johnny Molloy 2009
 
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