S-Tree Road to Levi Todd Road
Researched by Stephen D. Bowling
Hikes One and Two for the 2023 Sheltowee Trace Challenge are in the books. As intended, we hope that you are learning more about backpacking and hiking. By now, you should have a better understanding of the shuttle system, the variations in mileage, what to pack, and what to leave at home. Many hikers begin to understand, about the third trip, the exact nature of why the Sheltowee Trace Challenge is so unique and what it is all about- people.
The miles are the miles, and the climbs are the climbs. There is not much we can do to improve those. The difference between a happy hike and a miserable slog is the people we met along the trail. I am sure you have already met new friends and hiked with people who you would never have met were it not for this challenge.
After completing this trail several times, I can tell you that it is not the scenery you will remember (it will be beautiful). It is not the heat, sweat, cold, and rain that will stick in your memory (although it will often slow your daily pace and challenge your mind). It will not be the miles you will put behind you (although you will walk more than 400 miles by the time you finish this 343-mile trek). The real blessing and purpose of the Sheltowee Trace Challenge will be the people who made the trail enjoyable and the people you now call friends.
Here is a look at the significant sites we pass along Hike Three as we move from Jackson County to Owsley County on our way to Morehead and beyond.
Hikers in the 2023 Challenge have already completed more than 14 miles in Jackson County as we make our way north. Jackson County, Kentucky, was established by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1858 from portions of Madison, Estill, Clay, Owsley, Laurel, and Rockcastle Counties.
Named for President Andrew Jackson, Jackson County is home to 12,955 people, according to the 2020 census. The county seat of McKee is “wet” and does permit the sale of alcohol; the rest of the county does not permit alcohol sales outside of the city limits. Nearly one-fourth of the county is within the boundaries of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Flat Lick Fall, S-Tree Campground, Turkey Foot Campground, and 35 miles of the Sheltowee Trace can be found here.
Sand Gap, a small community north of McKee, was home to an internationally-known country music star and comedian, David “Stringbean” Akemon. Akemon, known for his distinctive clawhammer style of banjo playing, was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and one of the stars of the television show “Hee-Haw.” He and his wife, Estell, were attacked and murdered in 1974 at Ridgetop, Tennessee, during a robbery at their home.
Beginning at the S-Tree Road Trailhead, we will continue north on a section of rugged, multi-use trail. Along this section, the National Forest Service permits all-terrain vehicles, horses, bikes, and hikers to enjoy access to this area. Expect large mudholes and plan many “walkabouts” as we proceed downhill into Hooten Hollow and eventually to Birch Lick Creek.
Trail maintenance and erosion abatement have not been completed on all sections in this area. Some sections of the trail have installed concrete erosion tiles, but other areas remain to be completed. Be aware of other trail users and pay attention to the Trace Notes and the Far Out App. Several Sheltowee markers and blazes are missing in this section.
Road Walk on Highway 421
The Sheltowee Trace intersects Highway 421 after hikers cross Birch Lick Creek near the Daniel Boone National Forest sign. This trailhead is very popular with ATV and motorcycle riders and may be crowded during peak riding season. A brief road walk to the north will take hikers to the next point where the Sheltowee reenters the wood on Elish Branch. Turn right and walk along Highway 421 toward McKee.
McKee, the county seat of Jackson County, is located 3.02 miles to the west, and the Big Turtle Trailhead is 1.92 miles in the same direction. The Sheltowee will share the asphalt surface of Highway 421 for 1.04 miles. Be sure to walk facing traffic and be very aware of as this is one of the busiest road-walk sections on the entire Sheltowee Trace.
After walking 1.04 miles on Highway 421, the Sheltowee Trace will make a left turn onto Elisha Branch at Elisha Branch. This area is often referred to by hikers as “The Daycare” due to the children’s care facility located at this intersection. If you have some change or cash, the Pepsi machine is usually turned on and cold. Sit down and take a break. You might need some refreshment for the climb out of Elisha Branch that lies ahead.
After turning left off Highway 421, the Sheltowee Trace will briefly follow a single-lane blacktop roadway for a short distance. The Trace will make a right and cross Elisha Branch. Fording shoes maybe needed here, but the stream is usually low enough to cross with semi-dry feet. The Trace ahead is a steep and rocky ascent from the creek to the top of the ridge above Elisha Branch. The trail then follows the ridge line and crosses Highway 89 and Lime Kiln Ridge Road before it drops over the ridge into the Middle Fork of Elsam Fork via another shared-use trail.
The trail is often muddy and filled with large mud puddles that must be forded or bypassed. Be prepared for some slow going over the first few miles. The trail is rugged and should be taken at a slow pace due to loose rocks along the steepest sections.
Turkey Foot Girl Scout Camp
Turkey Foot Campground is located on the banks of War Fork south of Resurgence Cave. The Sheltowee Trace will pass near the campground but does not go through. The trail is often crowded near this popular spot.
Several major branches of War Fork converge at this point- Elsam Fork, Hughes Fork, Guys Branch, Lime Kiln Fork, and Steer Fork unite to make War Fork. Named for the Turkey Foot Lumber Company, which owned the land, the campsite is very popular and is full most nights during the warmer months of the year.
The National Forest Service established a campground at this spot in the 1970s with help from the local girl scouts. The campground includes opportunities for camping with a picnic table, fire rings, tent pads, and lantern poles at each campsite.
There are no potable water or electrical facilities at this campground, so plan to filter your water. War Fork runs beside all 15 of the lower campsites at Turkey Foot and is stocked annually with trout. Vaulted toilets are available for seasonal use.
Turkey Fook Campground sits on the banks of War Fork of Station Camp Creek, which ultimately flows into the Kentucky River at Irvine, Kentucky. Hikers will follow War Fork downstream for 2.26 miles to Resurgence Cave. War Fork will continue beyond the cave for 4.53 miles. These miles are difficult and are some of the most remote sections along the Sheltowee Trace. The path makes its way uphill and meanders along the side of the mountain before making a sharp right turn up Alcorn Branch.
Legend holds that War Fork was named for the constant fighting between three landowners over the exact boundaries of their property. More recent hikers have suggested that it is a battle to get through the downed trees in this roughly 5 miles section that lies beyond Resurgence Cave.
Along the banks of War Fork is one of the nicest camping spots along the Trace. The flat area near the mouth of Resurgence Cave is a cool place to sleep and refresh during a hike. Located in Jackson County, Resurgence Cave was created by the wearing away of limestone rock by years of water flow. The water funneled underground by layers of limestone rock reemerges at this point as the water makes its way downstream.
The surface creekbed is frequently dry in this area as the water flows completely underground and hidden. The only water source in this area is usually what flows from the cave. Take some time to explore the area and look for fossils in the creek bed. Take a swim or kick off your shoes and rest your feet in the cold water- just do it downstream from the people filtering their water.
Alcorn Branch Falls
Approximately .76 miles up Alcorn Branch lies one of the Sheltowee Trace’s hidden gems. As you climb up the trail near the branch, hikers will begin to hear the sound of falling water before you see the waterfall on your right. The waterfall plunges over the edge of the rock line and drops more than 18 feet to the valley floor below. The falls were created after years of water wearing away the shale and limestone rock beneath the Alcorn Branch soil.
The falls can be seen from a distance below the trail, but it can be very difficult to access the area below the falls due to steep hillsides and slick conditions. If you choose to visit this site, please be careful and watch your step. For more information, visit the Kentucky Waterfalls website.
The Trace continues up to the top of the hill and crosses a gravel roadway. The trail will continue on down a steep and often muddy old section of the county road down to Highway 587 at Arvel.
Embry Curry Memorial
About 20 feet before you step onto Highway 587 at Arvel, a stone monument is lying on the ground at the intersection. The monument was placed years ago to honor Embry Curry but was knocked over in an accident. The stone was placed by friends of Curry in appreciation of his hard work organizing numerous trail rides across the state and especially along the Sheltowee Trace as the President of the Appaloosa Horse Club.
Curry, a proud Korean War veteran, was born on November 10, 1929, at Valley View in Madison County and was the son of Walker and Rea (Benton) Curry. He was orphaned when he was young but was lovingly raised by his uncle, Robert, and his wife, Lydia Curry. He attended mortuary school and found work at Oldham, Robert, & Powell Funeral Home in Richmond.
He was elected and served six terms (24 years) as Madison County Coroner. He died on June 19, 2008, in Richmond and was buried in the Richmond Cemetery. He is described on the monument as “A Real Character Who Never Met A Stranger.”
Lee County, Kentucky
Lee County, Kentucky was created by the Kentucky Legislature in 1870 from parts of Breathitt, Owsley, Wolfe, and Estill Counties. Original sources state that the county was named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Lee County, Virginia, a region where many of the area’s earliest settlers originated. The original county seat was at Proctor, Kentucky, but county leaders moved the county seat to Beattyville about 1872. Lee County is home to 7,395 residents, according to the 202 Census. Lee County was a dry community from 1870 until 2019. Beattyville is home to the Wolleyworm Festival each year.
According to one source, there is more kudzu by the pound in Lee County than in any other county in Kentucky. In the early 20th century, Lee County was the state’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, with many companies, including Ashland Oil, Lee Co., and many others, operating huge oil fields. Hikers will pass many abandoned and current oil wells and the remnants of the operation all along the trail in this section. Lee County is listed traditionally as one of the nation’s poorest communities despite the billions of dollars of oil that have been extracted from beneath this 211-square mile county.
Located near the corner, the intersection of Jackson, Lee, and Owsley County, the community of Arvel, Kentucky, is an unincorporated portion of Lee County. The community is unusual because the post office was located in Lee County, and the other side of the roadway was Jackson County. Less than a quarter-mile away is the western corner of Owsley County.
Owsley County, Kentucky
Owsley County was created in on January 23, 1843, by the Kentucky Legislature to ease the travel requirements of inhabitants of the area who were forced to travel long distances to file legal paperwork. Located on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, Owsley County is home to 4,501 inhabitants, according to the 2020 Federal Census. Named in honor of Governor William Owsley, the county is the poorest in the nation based on income per household.
The county seat of Owsley County is Booneville, named for Daniel Boone, who was one of the first to explore the area. Owsley County is the second least populated county in Kentucky, behind only Robertson County, with 2,196 inhabitants. The county has an area of 198 square miles and only one major waterway, the South Fork of the Kentucky River.
The Trace makes a right turn onto Highway 587 and 1209. Hikers will walk the roadway for .5-mile and pass through the community of Old Orchard. Nothing remains of the once-thriving community but a few remaining homes and an abandoned storehouse near the intersection of 587 and 1209.
For more than 40 years, a Forest Service fire tower stood near Reece Lane. The Old Orchard Lookout Tower was manned 24 hours during fire season by an attendant who watched over the area for forest fires. The tower was abandoned and removed after the forest service introduced more effective and cheaper means of fire observation beginning in the 1970s.
The Sheltowee Trace verse to the left onto Hale Branch Road and makes a right turn to reenter the woods. The turn is well-blazed with white turtles on the roadway.
Copperas Cave Creek
The Sheltowee re-enters the woods off Hale Branch Road and begins a trek down Copperas Cave Creek. As you make your way down and over the mountain from Hale Ridge, you will hike on both the right and the left forks of Copperas Cave Creek. Hikers with a keen eye will spot several stone retaining walls, several concrete structures used by the logging operation, and evidence of two strip mines that removed coal from the area around Farmer Ridge, which divides the forks.
The creek is named for the two large rock shelters found along its banks. The stream and the surrounding area were part of the 37,00 acres that the Turkey Foot Lumber company purchased in 1912.
Hikers will have to pass through Copperas Cave Creek and will find a creek crossing less than a mile from the endpoint of Hike Three. Be careful when crossing Copperas Cave Creek at this location, as it is very slick and can have fast-moving water. Don’t fret the wet- look at it as an opportunity to wash off your boots just before the shuttle ride to your car.
One other obstacle lies ahead in the last quarter mile of the hike- a rickety old bridge. The Trace follows an old roadbed and crosses a bridge that has seen better days. Be certain of your steps and tread on the boards that look the most solid in your best Indiana Jones style. Choose wisely- remember this is a challenge after all. There should be some excitement.
Hike Three comes to an end at the intersection Todds Road and Levi Todd Road on the banks of Sturgeon Creek. Hike Four will follow Sturgeon Creek through the big city of Cressmont to Heidelburg and beyond.
By the end of Hike Three, you should be getting your equipment dialed in much better than in January. Continue to add those items to your kit that are needed and ditch those that you do not use. Long-distance hiking is an exercise in constant adaptation. We learn the lesson that our backs and feet teach us as we go and change accordingly. Just think, after you complete Hike Three, we have hiked about 26% of the trail, with many more wonders to see in the coming months.
I look forward to seeing everyone on the trail.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling
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