Sheltowee Trace


KY700 to Cumberland Falls


Wednesday, March 18, 2009



The section of the Sheltowee Trace on the other side of Cumbeland Falls had been absolutely magnificent last year when I trekked it, and the Blue Bend Loop hike on this (east) side of the river had been great too.  Up till now, however, I’d been left to wonder what it would be like to hike this particular section of the Sheltowee.  If it was anything like those it was going to be a great day…


If you start from the east side of the Gatliff Bridge (the brick bridge for KY90 over the Cumberland River at Cumberland Falls – directions below) the trail will head east, sharing a portion of the Blue Bend Loop Trail as it does for the first couple miles.  Then, at Blue Bend (an actual bend in the Cumberland) the trail will curve along with the river and begin heading in a southwest direction.  It isn’t until after the point at which the Blue Bend Loop Trail turns right and heads up a hill that it will be all Sheltowee. 


The problem, I was to find out, was that the path ventures off National Park property from here on out and becomes a bit dicey.  The trail is still well marked, but it’s less well trodden and there are more deadfalls across the path.  I lost the trail a few times.  This entire stretch is all basically a river bank walk though, so if you remember this then following the trail won’t be a problem.  All in all, though, I think I’d still stick with the Blue Bend Loop.  This section of the trace is likely to disappoint you a bit.  It will soon become an adventurous ATV trail, then a tame ATV trail, later a dirt road and, lastly, a really steep and winding dirt road.  It also becomes more trashed the further you go, and I found myself picking around and through quite a bit of deposited refuse.


I’m getting ahead of myself though...  As you look for a place to leave your car out here you’ll find that parking is a bit spotty.  After crossing the bridge I pulled in right alongside a guard rail at the first opportunity (there’s just enough space for about 3 cars where I parked) and began walking back down the road toward the trailhead I’d passed.  There’s not much room on the side of the road for this walk though!  Be careful!



The trailhead itself is immediately on the east side of the bridge – you’ll see the signs fairly easily.  One even has a black bear on it!  Now, in regard to the bullet points...  I understand all except the last one.  Other than that they make total sense to me.  But the last one:  Don't run from a bear - slowly back away and make lots of noise?!?  They've gotta be kidding, right?  I'll back away, no problem, but making lots of noise?  Believe me, I hope not to run into any bears on my hikes, and I'm just clumsy enough to make enough noise on my own, but if I do encounter a bear I think I'll back away while trying out my ultrasonic device.  If that doesn't work I'll play dead (I've heard pepper spray has worked, but I'm certainly not taking any chances actually enraging a bear!  I only do that as a last resort!).

Anyway...  you’ll be able to see the parking lot for Cumberland Falls itself across the river from you at this point, and as you begin the hike it’s awesome!  Someone had even kindly left a walking stick to lie up against one of the signs!


What you’ll start out doing is passing through a lush (even at this time of year) forest at about the mid-level of this side of the river valley, crossing some little streams as you go.  As you do so you will, at times, abut a wall of rock which contains some nice overhangs complete with trickling water.  I actually made a recording of one of these on the way back.  What a great sound for a noise machine!  I’m going to try to find a way to record it and loop it together for this purpose.



You’ll see trail markers fairly consistently on this first part, and since this path is shared between 2 trails, there are 2 markings – a turtle for the Sheltowee (the name means turtle, after all.  It’s the name the Indians gave Daniel Boone), and a yellow on blue “10” for the Blue Bend Loop.  The first sign you’ll see really puts the Sheltowee in perspective – KY700 is 5 miles distant, KY27 is 17, and Pickett State Park is 53!!!


The first major descent toward the river bank will be on a set of stone steps which lead down to a little trickling stream, and as you look back into this, you’ll see that as it goes over the rock it could well be a nice waterfall after a heavy rain.  What I also noticed after this was a stone marker on the path.  It was near conical in shape and it was firmly “rooted” in the soil.  It had an “SP” on it.  “Sheltowee Path”, perhaps?  Not sure…


There are some really nice, pristine looking little beaches in here!  These always remind me of Robinson Crusoe, although his beach must have been on a much grander scale!  As stated, these first beach spots are just about trash free, but the further you go the more sullied they become and the disappointment at this sight will nearly ruin what would otherwise be a very, very pleasant sight.  I should say, however, that when taken from an overall perspective the good always outweighs the bad in situations like this.  That’s because you can always easily envision what the spot would or could be like were it to be given some “TLC”.


I once again noted in this section the different mosses, ferns and fungi.  Things are so GREEN out here!  Some of the downed trees are completely covered in moss and most of the rocks have likewise taken on a green hue.  There are some other colors as well…  Some of these fungi look like flowers!  They’re beautiful!



The first major deadfall also entered the picture at about this point…



At the next marker there is what looks like a trail intersection.  Don’t be confused by this and head up, but what it looks like is an old mining or settlement road.  There were, after all, many little homesteads along the river here at one time.  Go ahead and continue to the left.  I don’t know exactly where this old road leads, although I have heard there are some remnants of an old homestead up there somewhere.


Let me mention it here because I’ve been remiss in not doing so before.  There is one amazing book out there by a guy named Johnny Molloy.  Mr. Malloy has written or assisted in writing quite a number of books on the outdoors, but there’s one which is absolutely essential for anyone wanting to hike the Sheltowee Trace – the aptly titled “Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace”!  Here’s a link to it:  What the book does is break down different sections of this 282 mile path and then it describes them for anyone who wants to either traverse a little section of it or take on the whole thing.  It really is a great little book!


After passing along another section of rock wall which includes a little squeeze between 2 boulders (which reminded me and made me miss the Carter Caves Crawl-A-Thon!) you’ll soon be walking along the riverbank.  The rock face continues above and to your right, however, for the rest of this section and in the river there is what looks like a little island at this point.  I was somewhat surprised not to see some geese hanging out...


Very soon you’ll reach the 2.2 mile mark where the Blue Bend trail will branch off and head up and to your right.  You’ll go straight to continue along the trace if this is the path you choose.  Taking Blue Bend will lead you back to the road you parked your car on (KY90) after about 2 more miles.   


Continuing on the Sheltowee, things pretty much stayed the same although it was clear that this part of the path was less traveled.  The river bank turned muddy at times and I was able to spot at least one other fairly fresh set of footprints (maybe the person who left the walking stick back at the trailhead?).



As regards the river it was quite interesting.  The water was really moving out there but a lot of times you almost couldn’t hear it, so it really struck me how such an obviously powerful current could be so quiet!  I, myself, should aspire to be such a model of silent strength!


Presently you’ll cross the first of 2 fairly large stream basins.  This first one was fairly cleared out and level on the opposite side, and it contained a raised platform of some sort which I assumed to be a sleeping platform to be used in case of flash flood.  It reminded me of a Flintstones episode in which Fred and Barney were swept down a river in the middle of the night as they slept on a camping trip!  I’d see a few more of these at different intervals for the next mile or so.


Soon I came to what looked like a combination of road and old, rocky streambed.  I knew that I’d eventually be headed up in such a direction on Thunderstruck Road, and so I at first assumed that the trail might continue in this direction despite the fact that I didn’t see any more trail signs.  It’s often the case that the markers are fairly few and far between on the road sections of the Sheltowee…


Well I went maybe about ½ to ¾ of a mile on this steeply ascending road before I realized that I probably would have seen a sign by this point...  Taking a chance I headed back down and continued on the riverbank thinking that if I didn’t see a sign, then the route I’d just taken must have been the right one and I could be satisfied that I’d explored it as I did (there wasn’t much up there – the road just seemed to keep going and going…).  If I did see a sign?  Well then, I’d just keep going…



I kept going!  You’ll be on a dirt road now, and soon this will deposit you onto an extremely large rock ledge at the rivers’ edge.  This was where I found myself picking through and around the trash.  The trail actually keeps going just to your right on the land above this rock, but it’s blocked by deadfalls in spots.  Thus, I’d get to a point on the rock where trash would block my way just enough to make it seem easier to avoid it by heading back up to the path.  Then there’d be a deadfall across the path and it would be easier to negotiate the trash on the rock.  In such a fashion I eventually made my way through.



Next up came quite a bit of interest.  The river curved to the left on McKee Bend, and at this point there were some rapids out there which must have been the Pitch Rapids.  There was also another fairly large stream basin (which I now assume must have been Pitch Branch) and a sandy beach which contained a tepee.  Yes, a tepee!  Complete with a stove pipe poking through the hole in the top!  In fact, I assumed that someone might really live here, so I stayed very quiet and minded my own business.



After this point the path begins to ascend until you catch up with a dirt road – Thunderstruck!  The real Thunderstruck this time!  The path was exactly the same as the one I’d mistakenly taken before – steep and winding along occasionally orange tinted dirt (Tennessee isn’t too far away now!).  As I continued and got to the top I spotted a house...  Now, the Sheltowee Trace is in the public domain, but in extreme rural Kentucky I’m not taking any chances walking across someone’s property without the expressed consent of the owner– public path or not!  I took a quick photo for the sake of closure and headed directly back the way I’d come.  That was it!  KY700 couldn’t have been more than ¼ mile away.  I was satisfied.  Besides, road walks aren’t my favorite parts of this trail anyway.


Some may be bored by out and back trips for the simple reason that you’re merely retracing steps that you’ve already taken.  For me, though, they’re perfect.  On the trip out I’m busy taking pictures and getting acclimated to the trail features, but the return trips are much more leisurely and I can take note of some of the things which I might have otherwise missed.  It’s on these that I take most of my close-up shots of vegetation – the moss and fungus shots above are examples.  Once back at my car I decided to treat myself to dinner at Qdoba!  Has anyone tried the gumbo there?  It’s amazing!  Great post workout meal! 




The hike begins immediately on the east side of the bridge over the Cumberland River at Cumberland Falls (the Gatliff Bridge).  I took exit 25 off I75 to head south on US25W (little confusing – just follow the Cumberland Falls signs).  I then traveled about 7 miles before veering right onto KY90, and after going another 7-8 miles on this road I was at the bridge.  I parked on the far side along the guard rail.