What is the Sheltowee Trace Challenge?

A True Challenge to the Body and Mind

By Stephen D. Bowling

Through the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky runs a hidden gem.  A footpath that leads from Rowan County, Kentucky through miles of wonder to Burnt Mill Bridge near Huntsville, Tennessee.  Currently, this little path runs 343 miles since the 2021 addition of several miles via a reroute.

One of the thousands of similar views you will see along the way in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

The trail and its wide variety of turtle blazes offer the hiker the opportunity to explore ridge tops and deep valleys as you walk your way to the end and quite possibly a new world of discovery.

One of a wide variety of blazes that direct hikers along the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

It is a rough and challenging path that offers solitude, trail friendships, nature’s beauty, and a certain physical challenge.  Many hikers describe the experience as a spiritual journey that takes you from what you were to what you want to be with a short 343 miles of outdoor therapy.

It is Kentucky’s long trail, and it is special.  It is called the Sheltowee Trace National Recreational Trail.

In 1978, the management of the Daniel Boone National Forest discussed ways of promoting the forest and encouraging the use of thousands of acres of public land.  The discussion centered on the development of a central trail that would span the Daniel Boone and serve as a central corridor to connect the forest’s many shorter trails.

Vern Orndorff

Vern Orndorff, a veteran National Forest Service employee, accepted the reigns of the project with an Appalachian Trail-style vision.  Surveying routes on foot and long hours of studying maps helped Orndorff establish a proposed route.  Months of hard work helped create the first network for the trail that consisted of state, federal, and private landowners permitting access to land forming a continuous trail to Tennessee.  The final trail passed through three state parks, by two Corps of Engineer-operated lakes, and explores numerous wildlife management areas before venturing nearly 45 miles into Tennessee.  The Sheltowee Trace trail officially opened for hiking in 1979.

Through the years, the trail expanded and was rerouted, and then rerouted again.  Horse and mountain bike sections were developed.  Trail improvements were made and the popularity of the trail continued to grow.  The current configuration of the trail is 343 miles with a 2023 expansion with six new miles added to the southern end as the trail makes its way to an eventual connection at Wartburg, Tennessee, and the Cumberland Trail.

The Sheltowee Challenge Is Born


In 2009, a group of hiking and outdoors enthusiasts, concerned about the trail’s conditions, asked for a meeting with the Daniel Boone National Forest Service to discuss ways of managing the trail and means of improving the path.  After the discussion of needs and ideas, the Sheltowee Trace Association (STA) was born.  The goals of the Association and the Forest Service promoted the improvement of the trails and access to the Trace.  The organizations also wanted to encourage a mindful and ethical increase in trail use.

During a rainy outing to Natural Arch at Cave Run and following a serious “campfire board meeting” with Dave Drummer, Mike Campbell, and STA President Steve Barbour, Drummer suggested that the Association create a challenge.  The suggestion was to allow hikers to complete the entire trail in one year by hiking 20-mile sections one weekend each month.  The group agreed that the idea would work and the Sheltowee Trace Association developed the Challenge.  Twelve members of the first class completed the experimental trek in November 2012.  Many lessons were learned, and hiker support was improved.

Between 1978 and 2011, before the Challenge was created, only thirty known complete hikes of the trail were recorded (other unknown completions may have been accomplished).  Since 2012, the number of “End to Enders” has grown in great part thanks to the Challenge and all of its supporters.  By the end of 2022, more than 246 hikers had completed the trail through the Sheltowee Trace Challenge.

In 2019, seventy hikers (and many of their canine companions) added their names to the growing list of trail completers.  Sixty-one of those in 2019, were part of the Sheltowee Trace Challenge.  I was happy to be one of those 377 people who are known to have now completed the trail by the end of 2019.  I did it again in 2020, 2021, and 2022. I have completed the Trace now six times (2015 and 2016 on my own), but there is nothing like the Challenge. As of December 31, 2022, a total of 537 people have completed an End-To-End walk of the Sheltowee, and many have accomplished this feat multiple times.

Every time I hike our little trail, I met new people.  I see new sights.  One recommendation I can give to everyone thinking about completing the Hiker Challenge or thinking about a hike on the Trace is to slow down.  I have decided to slow down a little bit and occasionally take a side trail and just sit for a moment at an overlook.  I walk and talk with people from across the state and several neighboring states and around the world.  

I always enjoy my time on the Challenge.  I hope that you will too.  We will hike with and visit with many of you in the coming eleven months.  Those of us who have done this trail before will we help another class become End to Enders.  I look forward to meeting everyone in and supporting the 2023 Class. 

Bookie during a trail work session near Todd’s Road at Arvel.

Find out more about the trail and the Sheltowee Trace Association here: Sheltowee Trace Association.

Click here for a full list of End to Enders and other trail records.


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Sheltowee National Recreation Trail. Bookmark the permalink.

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