Sheltowee Trace


Cumberland Falls State Park to Star Creek Shelter


Thursday, April 9, 2009



I did this hike last year in the spring, and it’s become a favorite.  It starts out at the Cumberland Falls State Park and meanders along the eastern bank of the Cumberland River as it flows downstream (northeast at this point).  As it does, it goes up, down, around and sometimes under large boulders, darts and dodges around wildflowers and rhododendron thickets, and zigzags by and over several waterfalls and a couple of streamside beaches.  It’s a stunner!


Cumberland Falls State Park ( is, by itself, pretty amazing.  The falls here are known as the “Niagra of the South”, and you can certainly see why.  Almost as impressive, though, is the backdrop for the falls itself due to the fact that the river has, over the eons, carved a valley through the rock which towers over both sides of it.  As you take all this in, you may well feel pretty small in the midst of it – as I did.


Adding to all this last year were all the wildflowers blooming all over the place (and there’s a trail out here specifically named the Wildflower Trail - #12), and while I did notice a few of these this year, they weren’t nearly as plentiful.  I guess this is because the weather has been a bit colder this year.  Still, the water seemed to be higher.  In fact, by the time I got to the staircase which leads you down to the water ½ mile in, I was DYING to bring my kayak out!  The Cumberland below the falls looked like class 1+ to 2 whitewater to me in a lot of places. 


I did get a chance to kayak some of the Big South Fork of this river last year though, and I imagine that the scenery from the water would look about the same in this section as it did in that one (I’ve got a few pictures from that trip up on the WHERE YOU CAN GO ON WATER page, if interested).  For me, at this point, that experience would have to suffice.  Interestingly, though (and I didn’t realize it until now), is that there is another section of the Sheltowee which runs right along that very area.


As soon as you park you’re likely to find out just how popular this spot is, with all the people checking things out.  In fact, there seemed to be more people out this year than last, but I didn’t see too many more once I got past all the overlooks.  The people you do run into, however, are almost always super nice.  I’d run into about 5 little groups – most within the first mile either on the way out or on the way back.


Ahem… yeah…  I feel compelled to mention at this point that I overdid it a bit on this hike.  This is a 10 mile out and backer – 5 miles out to the Star Falls shelter and 5 back – although you can make it as long or short as you want by turning back at any time.  What I failed to do was to work my way up to this one.  I’ll usually go on a 4 mile hike to start the season, then a 6, then an 8, and so on…


Well, I hadn’t done this, so today I was quite sore when I got back – joints more than muscles.  In fact, I immediately went out and bought a glucosamine/chondroitin/MSM combination afterward.  I’m much too young to have joint problems, and I wasn’t about to let them get an early hold on me!  Long story short:  If you plan to go the whole way, don’t do what I did – prepare your body for this trek by working up to it.


Another thing I feel I should mention is that I’ve had uncomfortable experiences with some arachnids in this area of the state over the last couple years, so I’m very wary when I come out at any time during the late spring, summer, or early fall.  These meddlesome pests seem to be a combination of a chigger and a tick because they display certain characteristics of both.


I’ll just call them chigger/ticks.  I thought about calling them tick-gers, but that sounds too much like the rabbit from Winnie the Pooh!  I then thought of calling them “chicks”, but that could conceivably get me in trouble with the ladies, and I so love the ladies!  Chigger/ticks will have to suffice.  Regardless, if you do decide to come out during the times mentioned above, you’ll want to fairly DOUSE yourself in D.E.E.T. and hope that they still don’t get through!


K... Getting back to my story, the path you’ll want to take to do this hike is the Moonbow Trail which is part of the Sheltowee Trace, a 100+ mile trails which runs all the way through the state.  This particular section starts behind the gift shop and bathrooms for the park, and it takes you in a northeast direction.  As it does so, it will wind through a forested area for about the first ½ mile before zigzagging down the ravine - the grand finale for this will be a steep staircase which takes you down to the waters’ edge.



One of the first signposts you’ll see in this section will be quite remarkable as it immediately gives you a feel for just how serious and lengthy the Sheltowee Trace is: 



Sheltowee Trace Trail No. 100


Star Creek Shelter                  5

Bark Camp Shelter                 7

 State Hwy 1277                    10

  Laurel Lake Dam                  13


NOTICE:  Bark Camp Trail Bridge Washed Out 7 Miles Ahead



Once you’ve descended the steps the next section will be right next to the water, and you’ll get some great pictures of the river as it flows on into the distance.  You’ll also cross some beaches in this stretch which are quite nice, although the best of these (in my opinion, anyway) are yet to come.



At mile 1 you’ll come to an intersection for the Rock House Trail (#7).  This, if you go in this direction, will take you up some stone steps to a little waterfall.  I detoured up to see this (infinitely worth the few seconds to climb the steps!) and then headed back down. 


I’ve not fully followed this trail yet, but I’d like to sometime.  It’s actually a separate loop which will eventually catch back up to the Moonbow Trail in the direction you’re headed roughly ½ mile further.  Anyway, the area between these 2 intersections will continue to take you along the rivers’ edge, a lot of which is over a fairly level area which offers some clearer photo’s of the area.


Once past the second of the Rock House intersections, the terrain will get a bit more rugged as it undulates up, down and around what are sometimes HUGE boulders.  It will also take you near the rock face of the ravine at times where you’ll pass under some overhangs.  These help cool you off on hot days, and many times you’ll be able to dip your head or your cap under the dripping water to add to the effect.



Also when I come to rocky areas, it always amazes me how the trees adapt to grow around, over, under and sometimes even through them.  Check this one out – it looks like it started to grow down, but then it changed its’ mind!



At about mile 2 the trail intersects with yet another path, the Cumberland River Trail, which will take you back to the road you might have come in on (if you came the way I did) – KY90.  According to one of the books I have, written specifically about the Sheltowee Trace (, there’s a lookout tower off this at the top of the ravine.  


Not to far from this intersection, you’ll cross directly over an incredibly sweet little beach which I refer to as a Robinson Crusoe-like spot.  This beach is far enough down the trail that many people don’t quite make it this far, so it has a great feel to it.  I often imagine (have I ever mentioned that I never want to grow up?) that this beach is a kind of tropical paradise where I might be marooned!  Goofy?  Absolutely!



More beautiful vistas will await you after you climb up the rocky steps from this beach, and as you continue toward Dog Slaughter Creek you’ll cross over a wooden bridge for a separate little stream running down to the river.  I didn’t see any beavers today, but I knew they were there as they left some pretty… incriminating…evidence!



There’s another spot of interest right before you get to the turn off for Dog Slaughter Falls at mile 3 where you have to squeeze between 2 rocks as you descend to a great little picnic spot on the waters’ edge under a rock overhang.  This was where I met my first true trekkers.  It was a family of 3 with a daughter who looked to be about 8 or 9, I’d guess. 


On the path earlier I had come across a very nice looking walking stick, and it apparently belonged to this little girl.  At the time I found it I had been torn as to whether I should bring it with me and take it back to the parks’ “lost and found”, or to just leave it there so that it would be easy for the owner to find.  I chose the latter, but I now wish I’d brought it with me (I think they found it – I didn’t notice it on the way back). 


I was very impressed with this little girl though!  We were about 3 miles out, and she’d have to walk another 3 to get back.  6 miles!  Very impressive for a girl this age!  I talked with the parents a little about how confusing the section of trail is just ahead, and we even compared guidebooks, but it’s still a bit difficult to get straight.  Last year there were entire sections of the trail that were closed as well which added to this, and I completely missed the falls at that time, so as I departed this pleasant trio I really wondered what the situation would be like up ahead. 


Well, I didn’t have long to wait, because as I ascended back up over some flotsam debris on the side of this beach I almost immediately encountered the first sign (which I hadn’t noticed a year ago).  This one indicated that the section of trail which used to go right was closed – so I went the other way thinking that this was the section of the Sheltowee that I had intended to do today!  Bummed that my trip would end early, I went on…


The next trail junction came up quickly and it, too, was a bit confusing - just as it was last year.  It branches off in 2 directions which I’ll refer to as “upstairs” and “downstairs”.  Going straight will take you upstairs and to Dog Slaughter Falls.  Veering left will take you downstairs and on to a nice bridge which crosses over the same stream.  This, as it turned out, was the section of the Sheltowee which I briefly thought I’d have to miss.


Anyway, I headed to the falls first.  The guy I’d met had indicated that he’d come this way, but that he’d returned prematurely out of concern for his daughter - and I must say that as I hiked this section I could see why.  That’s because the trail, at times, runs perilously close to some pretty steep drops.  This, in addition to the moisture in this section, can make things a bit slippery.  I could understand his concern.


I trod very carefully along this trail (specially designated as trail #414 – Dog Slaughter Trail), which runs along the southern bank of its’ namesake creek, and I came fairly quickly to the falls - an absolutely gorgeous spot!  Below is my first glimpse of it through the foliage...


Dog Slaughter Falls has been accurately described as a “curtain” of water which falls over the rocks, and through the years it has carved a masterpiece back here.



I ended up staying for quite a while.  Sights like this really touch something within me and they fill me with a feeling of thankfulness which is so intense that I cannot adequately put it into words.  Suffice it to say, that when I left I did so with a deeply peaceful feeling.


Returning back along the trail, I came to the aforementioned junction, and continued “downstairs” to the Sheltowee Trace.  You’ll go over the bridge for Dog Slaughter (which offers…   guess what?     more amazing views!) , and then you’ll be on a fairly remote section of the Sheltowee which runs from here to Laurel Lake.  I planned to get to the first of 2 backwoods shelters (the one at Star Falls) and then head back.


There are 2 more wooden bridges which cross streams under the trail prior to reaching the shelter, and I’ll likely over-simplify this by guesstimating that they enter the picture at about ¾ mile intervals after Dog Slaughter.  The area leading up to the first is generally more level, as it continues to follow the river northwest now (for it curved sharply in this direction at Dog Slaughter). 


Here I met with the simple beauty of little pinecones in the trees...


and I also came across a tree (or vine) which had grown in a circle…



What I also noticed in this section, however, was that there had been a fire since last year.  The charred area was relatively well contained though (just in this one little section), so that it almost appeared to have either been a controlled burn or one of very brief duration.  The underbrush was charred, but this didn’t reach very high into the trees.  In fact, I’d never experienced this kind of thing on my hikes before, but I remember from ecology class that fires can be very beneficial to a forest, and so I do hope that the benefits will outweigh the negatives here.


After the first of the 2 bridges the trail will take you through a forested area, then down to the waters’ edge, then up against the rock face of the ravine for a time.  Here you can cool off too, as water will probably be trickling down upon you in certain sections.  (Keep this rock face in mind though, because once you get to the area around Star Falls, it’ll have receded quite a way back and you may completely miss the falls if you don’t remember this.)


I met with some more trekkers in this stretch.  They had taken a moment to rest atop one of the huge boulders which had fallen on a fairly level plane, and it offered some nice views below.  Their dog was the first to greet me.  I’m wary of dogs generally, but when they come up to you with their head down and their tail wagging, it’s usually OK.  Theirs was a nice dog.


Turns out, these 2 had come out to do exactly what I was doing – make it to Star Falls and back – but they had apparently given up for today, and I felt badly for them (it turned out to be about ½ mile away).  They mentioned that they’d been to the spot about 25 years ago when it was really wide open and you could see all the way to the cliff face (though this is no longer the case).  I told them that if I made it, I’d put up pictures of what it looks like now on the website.


Anyhow, after passing under the “building blocks” (first picture), you’ll emerge into a large, fairly wide-open area where you’ll be able to hear what certainly sounds like it could be a waterfall.  This will be Star Falls, and there’s a pretty large beach area here with a shelter between it and the rock face in the background.  I actually DID find this shelter last year, but I almost missed it on this day because it looked a little more covered up by foliage this time.  Isn’t it awesome looking though (second picture)?!?



Now the sound you heard, you may mistake for a stream – and there is one only a little further down the trail.  I stopped on the rocks in the middle of this stream in order to ponder what I was looking at.  “Let’s see…  That HAD to have been the Star Falls Shelter!  The next one (Bark Camp Shelter) is 3 more miles down… so where the bleep is Star Falls then?!?  It’s GOT to be…  Oh, for cryin’ out loud!!!”


Turns out, I was standing right it the middle of what was, in fact, Star Creek, and in the process of turning around to look back down the path I’d just taken, Star Falls FINALLY caught my eye.


It’s way back in the background against the rock face, and it’s so camouflaged by foliage that I very nearly mistook the sound of the falls for the stream and headed right back to the park as I did last year thinking that, despite the presence of the shelter, the stream was just another unnamed one and that Star Creek could be much further down.  Well, that settles that!


I walked around the area quite a bit once I’d come to this realization trying and trying to get a better picture of this waterfall, but it proved to be quite difficult.  The one above is the best I could muster, and it’s the one I took from the middle of the stream immediately upon seeing this for the first time.  If I could get a kayak in the water, I might be able to get a better one from the opposite bank.  Anyway…


I was ready to head back for today and wait for another time to do the next section.  The trip back was fairly uneventful, although I did get some better pictures of the area from this opposite direction.  The park was still filled with people once I made it back, and I even ran into some of those I’d met on the trail.  It was like getting out of a movie and then comparing notes on your impressions.


I’ll say that I’ve not yet hiked the bulk of the Sheltowee Trace, but that I can’t imagine any section being nicer than this one.  There may be some AS nice, but I doubt there are any nicER!




I came in off I75 and took exit 25.  I usually look for the route number instead of the exit number, but this route is so confusing that I’ve changed for this one – get this – it’s US 25 West South!  Why don’t they just throw in a “sideways” and a “down” for good measure?!?  Sheesh!  Veer right at the “V” you’ll come to in about 7 miles, and this will put you onto KY90.  Follow this until you reach the park.  There will be quite a few signs for it, but look for the one for the gift shop and take a right.  That’ll be the entrance you’ll want, although you can take the next one too (the one right before the bridge on the right).