What To See On Hike Nine

Catron Road to Blue Heron

Researched by Stephen D. Bowling

Chestnut Flats

Shortly after leaving Highway 700, the Sheltowee Trace descends to the banks of Indian Creek and continues downstream to Barren Fork. On the opposite side of the creek, Chestnut Flats is a 1,170-foot rise that was once covered with large American chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees. The chestnut tree was a fast-growing member of the beech family and was the predominant tree in the forests of Appalachia. The broad canopies of these trees provided shade, and the chestnuts were a staple crop for humans and livestock into the beginning of the 20th Century.

American chestnut trees grew in large stands, with many trees towering more than 100 feet into the air. Today, only about 100 old-growth chestnut trees growing in America.

In 1904, foresters at the New York Zoological Gardens noticed that two chestnuts tree were dropping leaves and dying. After some research, botanists determined that the tree had accidentally been infected with cryphonectria parasitica, a parasitic fungus native to southeast Asia. Within 20 years, the blight, as it was known, had killed as many as 4 billion trees. The loss of these extensive forests devastated the Appalachian economy and altered mountain lifestyles.

American Chestnut leaves, burrs, and chestnuts – Source

Work is continuing by the American Chestnut Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture to create hybrids and blight-resistant trees. Some success has been achieved, but much work remains. Challenge hikers who complete the Sheltowee Trace Challenge will hike within ten feet of at least three American chestnut trees.

The Forest Service uses live burns to restore areas of the Daniel Boone National Forest so that native plants and trees, like the American chestnut, can survive. The fires help eliminate invasive species. The Barren Fork area is burned on average once every 3-5 years to keep the undergrowth under control and help maintain open forest floors.

Barren Creek Horse Camp

About 7.25 miles into our hike, the Barren Fork Horse Camp, located in the Stearns District of the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a popular campground for horseback riders who enjoy the forest setting. The trail does not pass through the campground but skirts the facility. Several interconnecting trails provide miles of riding pleasure. The campground offers 41 campsites that accommodate horse trailers and RVs up to 35 feet. Picnic tables, vault toilets, and potable water are available, and a small fishing pond is on site.

The Barren Fork Horse Camp was once the site of a coal mining town operated by the Barren Fork Mining and Coal Company. The mines operated from 1881 to 1935, producing what was considered some of the best quality low-sulfur coal in McCreary County. The Barren Fork Post Office served this small community from 1899-1965, and many old foundations of community buildings can be seen. More than 100 families lived and worked in the mining community. The property was then sold to the United States in 1936.

Hiking near the Barren Fork Horse Camp.


Stearns, Kentucky was founded in 1902 by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company as their center of operations in southern Kentucky. At its peak, Stearns controlled more than 200 square miles. The city of Stearns was the site of the world’s first all-electric sawmill, but its operations extended far beyond the city. Stearns was the largest coal-producing company in the state for many years, with more than 2,200 people living and working in its 18 coal camps in the surrounding area.

The Stearns Coal and Lumber Company Store.

Stearn was a model community for its day and was considered state of the art for Kentucky. At its peak, the “clean little town” boasted more than 100 buildings painted the company’s colors of white with green trim. The city was home to hundreds of residences, a freight depot, the company office building, pool halls, a theater, the large Stearns Hotel, and the mammoth company store. The company also provided municipal water, electricity, steam heat, tennis courts, a golf course, and a baseball field for its employees and their families.

The Depot at Stearns, Kentucky on the Kentucky & Tennesse Railroad The depot served the offices of the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company from 1910 until it closed.

The community was named for Justus Smith Stearns (1845 – 1933) of Ludington, Michigan, a wealthy American lumberman who owned an interest in numerous companies. Stearns became known as the “American Pine King” because of his successful timber operations in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest. By 1903, Stearns owned and controlled more than 180,000 acres of timber and coal interests in Kentucky and Tennessee. The city of Stearns, Kentucky, is 4.0 square miles and was home to 1,365 residents in 2020.

A view of the Stearns Coal Tipple in the early 1900s.

US 27

The Sheltowee Trace emerges from the woods and parallels US 27 for some time near the Highway 27 Trailhead. Highway 27 is the primary roadway that Connects Somerset to Whitley City and Oneida, Tennessee. The Trace will cross Highway 27 at the Flat Rock Church.

US 27 runs for 201.12 miles in Kentucky beginning at Strunk in Whitely County near the community of Pine Knot. Runs through Somerset, Stanford, Nicholasville, Lexington, Paris, Cynthiana, Falmouth, and Newport, where it crosses the Taylor Southgate Bridge over the Ohio River to Ohio. US 27 is 1,373 miles long and reaches from Miami, Florida, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. The road was first designated in 1926.

In the southern sections, hikers will discover a wide variety of blazes to mark the path of the Sheltowee Trace. The white triangle will still be used in some areas, but blue, brown, and other colors and symbols will keep you on the Sheltowee Trace.

Flat Rock Church

The Sheltoweee Trace parallels and eventually crosses US 27 at the Flat Rock Church near Marshes Siding on the L&N Railroad. The Flat Rock Missionary Baptist Church is located beside Highway 27, approximately 4.87 miles from Whitley City. The church provides an opportunity to stop and rest before crossing the roadway and starting the descent on the North Fork of Big Creek to the Cumberland River.

The Missionary Baptist movement emerged in the 19th Century and resulted from a split in the Baptist church over the need for outreach or mission work. The Missionary Baptist favored community involvement and sponsoring mission trips to serve underprivileged areas in the United States and around the world. The opposing faction became known as the Primitive Baptists following the division. Many churches in Eastern Kentucky are Missionary Baptist because of community outreach efforts in the mountains. The Flat Rock Missionary Baptist Church is welcoming to hikers and is a cooperative partner with the Sheltowee Trace Association. The church provided a spigot beside the building for hikers passing through the area who need water.

Cumberland River

First discovered in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, the Cumberland River flows for 688 miles from Baxter in Harlan County, Kentucky, to Smithland, just north of Paducah. The river flows in a westerly course and was a vital route in the earliest days of westward expansion. The river has several major tributaries, including the Obey, Stones, Red, and Caney Forks, which drain more than 18,000 square miles of terrain. The cities of Nashville and Clarksville, Tennessee, were founded along its banks.

The Shawnees who hunted in the area for centuries called the large stream “Wasioto.” French traders later called it the “Riviere des Chaoyanons” or the River of the Shawnee. Dr. Walker renamed the mountains and river in honor of the financier of his journey, Henry, the Duke of Cumberland and Strathern. A hydroelectric plant was proposed for an area upstream from Cumberland Falls, which would have limited the water flow in the Cumberland River.

A view of the Cumberland River near Yamacraw.

The Cumberland River is very popular today among fishermen and kayakers. Frequent white water trips are conducted by various companies, and guide services on the river are available.

Yahoo Falls

Yahoo Falls was once considered Kentucky’s tallest waterfall at 113 feet. After recent discoveries, it ranks seventh, with Crabtree Falls claiming the top spot with a plunge of 145 feet. Yahoo Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls along the Sheltowee Trace despite its fall from the top. Located near the Yahoo Arch, the falls are surrounded by the Yahoo Fall Recreation, which was created in 1960.

Legend holds that Daniel Boone shot and killed a large harry ape-man near these falls in the mid-1770s. He called the beast a “Yahoo” from characters in his favorite book, Gulliver’s Travels.

Alum Ford

The National Parks Service sign at Alum Ford.

Alum Ford Primitive Campground is located seven miles west of Whitley City, Kentucky, near the Alum Ford Boat Launch, and can be accessed via Highway 700. The Sheltowee Trace passes through the primitive campground sites as it leads south. The areas included picnic tables, fire rings, six primitive campsites, and a pit toilet. Most of the hikers will spend the night here on Saturday before completing an easy 12 miles to the Blue Heron Mine trestle on Sunday.  

Hiking in the Big South Fork.

The Other People

Generations of native, European, and other peoples lived and thrived on the banks of the Cumberland River before the National Park Service acquired the properties in the 1930s. Evidence of their lives can be found all along our little walk. Old homesteads, wells, barns, foundations, and cemeteries help park visitors remember these first inhabitants. Along our walk this month, hikers will encounter numerous reminders.

A lonely chimney stands on the banks of the Cumberland River as a reminder that we are not the first to trod these trails and, more importantly, that we will not be the last.
Evidence of human habitation can be seen in many forms along the trail.

Cotton Patch Shelter

One of the three remaining shelters on the Sheltowee Trace, the Cotton Patch Shelter, can accommodate up to ten sleepers. The wooden structure is located on a small knob overlooking the Cumberland River and Cotton Patch Creek.

The Cotton Patch Shelter as photographed by a hiking blogger – see more pictures here.

Name Changes

An old blue turtle, Sheltowee blaze is slowly being eaten by a tree.

The United States Park Service is currently evaluating the names of many places in its parks and property to ensure that all offensive names and places are corrected to reflect a more modern understanding and to be more inclusive. One of those areas being reconsidered in the ongoing effort is Negro Creek.

The source of the name that currently appears on United States Geological Survey Maps is not known. The Sheltowee Trace passes over a bridge at Negro Creek and continues southward toward Burn Mill Bridge. In 2020, the Forest Service removed all signage in the area and has not announced a name change for the creek and area.

Princess Falls

Princess Falls is an eighty-foot wide waterfall that plunges 13 feet over the rocks of Lick Creek as it makes its way to the Cumberland River. The falls were created when waters washed over the solid rocks of the Alvy Creek shale layer and undercut the Paragon sandstone layer below. 

Water from more than 3,578 acres of Daniel Boone Forest drains into Princess Falls. The Falls are a short .10 miles hike up the creek from the Sheltowee Trace. The area is very popular with day hikers and is a favorite rest stop for Sheltowee Trace hikers.

Julia Lynn Falls

A short, seventy-five-foot side trail leads to Julia Lynn Falls. The falls measure 21 feet tall and average three feet wide during normal flow. The falls are in the Big South Fork Recreation area and were created when the waters of this small branch washed away the rock of the Grundy Sandstone Formation to create these plunge falls.

A view of Julia Lynn Falls was taken by MarcusDC in 2014 and posted to Flicr.

The falls are just a few feet from the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail and are a great place to stop for a break and refill your water. The trail is marked by a small white triangle nailed to the side of a tree. The water flow is reduced and stops during prolonged periods without rain. Low flow should not be an issue during the Team Boone hike if the weathermen are correct.

Yamacraw Trailhead

After following the Cumberland River for 9.90 miles, the trail enters the Yamacraw Trailhead. This parking area beside Highway 92 provided access to the trail along the river through some isolated areas. The parking area includes some informational signs and space for about ten vehicles. Additional parking and river access can be found under the bridge.

A Forest Service sign on Highway 92 marks the entrance to the Yamacraw Day Use Area.

Highway 92 Bridge

A view looking south across the Highway 92 bridge at Yamacraw.

The Highway 92 Bridge over the Cumberland River from the Yamacraw Day Use Area to the Yamacraw-Bell Farm Road. The Sheltowee Trace runs alongside the roadway for .73 miles to the K & T Bridge. The Highway 92 Bridge was once a welcomed landmark that signaled the opportunity to rest at the store at the bridge’s southern end.

A view of the southern end of the Highway 92 Bridge and the Little South Fork Grocery in 2019. An arsonist burned the old grocery store building in 2020.

The Little South Fork Grocery was a refuge from the wilderness where hikers could get a drink and a snack along the trail. The store closed several years ago but was still standing to allow hikers to sit and rest. An arsonist set fire and burned the building in 2020.

K & T Bridge

The Yamacraw Bridge on the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad near Oz, Kentucky

The K & T Bridge (also known as the Yamacraw Bridge) once carried hundreds of thousands of train and coal cars 565 feet across the Cumberland River for the Stearns Coal & Lumber. The bridge, consisting of five closed spandrels, was constructed in 1906 by the Collier Bridge Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, to bring coal out of Mines 10 and 11. 

A Kentucky and Tennessee Railway train crosses the K&T Bridge over the Big South Fork near Yamacraw, hauling coal from the Paint Cliff Mine at Oz to Stearns in 1959.

For almost 80 years, the bridge was in use and connected the communities of Oz, Paint Cliff, Yamacraw, and Worley. A downturn in the coal industry and the reduction of demand closed the mines. The concrete span was abandoned in the 1980s. It stands today as one of the engineering marvels that Sheltwoee Trace hikers pass on their 354-mile trek. 

The Yamacraw Coal Tipple.

Rock Lick Creek

One of the broadest water crossings on the Sheltowee Trace is the wade through Rock Lick Creek. At normal levels, the creek is usually ankle to knee deep. During high water and rain events, the water levels can reach more than 20 feet high in this area. The trail crosses the creek and makes its way up Grassy Branch past several abandoned and sealed coal mines.

A view of coal mining operations on the Kentucky and Tennesse Railroad along Rock Creek in October 1961.


An ongoing issue with a local landowner helped the Sheltowee Trace move more of its trail off the blacktop and into the woods. After hiking .77 miles up Grassy Creek, the Trace makes a sharp left turn. The newest major reroute of the Shetowee Trace moved the trail from a long walk up Grassy Branch by abandoned coal mines to a hillside climb out onto Wilson Ridge.

Metal bars help keep curious hikers out of one of the abandoned mines along Grassy Creek.

After a short walk on Wilson Ridge Road, the trail will drop over the ridge and onto a section of the Kentucky Trail on Slavey Hollow. The reroute removes about 5.11 miles of trail.

Barthell and Comargo

The coal boom in southern Kentucky led to the establishment of many small coal towns. Operated by the coal companies, these areas were nearly self-contained communities designed to keep workers in the mines while providing some conveniences. The company housing was built in a uniform nature to ensure the equality of the miners. Many of these coal camps became the first areas of McCreary County to be wholly integrated as a wide variety of nationalities and races worked together in the mines.

A postcard view of the Barthell Bridge, tipple, and part of Camp #1
Coal script from the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company.

Barthell and Comargo were two of these coal camps located near the Sheltowee Trace. The coal town of Barthell was located on Roaring Paunch Creek, and Comargo stood on the banks of the Big South Fork River near the mouth of Roaring Paunch Creek. These communities were dominated by the company boss, the company police (security guards), and the company store.

Company stores issued script currency that could only be redeemed at the company store for products that were usually of inferior quality and overpriced. Many would sell the script for a fraction of the face value. The system was designed to create perpetual debt, effectively prohibiting miners from moving away from the camp with their families. The construction of modern highways helped break the hold of the coal companies. As the coal booms slowed and many miners moved away in the mid-Twentieth Century, the coal camps were abandoned and faded into memory.

Blue Heron Mining Camp

The National Park Service operates the Blue Heron Historic Area along the Big South Fork River near Stearns Coal and Lumber Company Mine #18.   The area features numerous historic interactive displays with information about the mines, the community, and the town that once operated here. Opened in 1937, the Blue Heron Mines employed thousands at its numerous operations until they “mined out” in December 1962. The tipple was completed in 1937 at the cost of $250,000 and was considered the most advanced coal facility in the world. Coal was hauled across the bridge and poured into train cars below. From Blue Heron, trains transport carloads of coal along the Kentucky and Tennesse Railroad to markets beyond the Big South Fork valley. Good luck to those who love heights.

The causeway for the old mining cars is your trail exit point for Hike 9. Walk across the tipple bridge to your vehicles to head home.

Have a great hike- there are only beautiful days ahead.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Big South Fork, Daniel Boone National Forest, Hiker Challenge, Hiking, Sheltowee National Recreation Trail and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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