By Stephen D. Bowling
Hike Four is here, and the weather is warming up. Most of Hike Four is on the blacktop. It is hard and long, but I can assure you it is better to get it finished in May than in July. The climb out of Heidelberg is steep, and dogs will often bark at you along Highway 399 and 1036. Walk in groups and work together to get to Lago Linda Saturday night and on the Natural Bridge on Sunday. This is a great hike to wear comfortable walking shoes on the roadway. The STA will help offset the water issues as we hike but, overall, this is not a bad hike. Smile and put one foot in front of the other.
Our northbound hike begins at Virgil Todd Road and follows Sturgeon Creek to Heidelberg. Sturgeon Creek is one of the largest tributaries to the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Lee County, Kentucky. The stream is four miles from Beattyville on the Kentucky River and drains more than 106 square miles. During the earliest days of settlement, large schools of shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus) gathered at the confluence of the creek and the river in the warm waters each spring to spawn. Settlers gigged and seined the fish to supplement their diet of pork and wild game. The creek was also one of the earliest places in Lee County to be inhabited by Europeans who crossed the Appalachian mountains to the area.
The Turkey Foot Lumber Company moved its operation to Lee County from West Virginia in the early 1900s. The center for its operation in West Virginia was a community named Cressmont. When the timber company established its new Kentucky base of operation at Farmer’s Ridge, the new town applied for a post office with the name Turkey Foot, Kentucky. the request was denied because a Turkey Foot already existed in Scott County. The second application for a post office changed the name to Cressmont, Kentucky, which was approved in 1913.
The company constructed 28 new houses, a grade school, tennis courts, a movie theatre, a baseball field, and a large clubhouse for company employees. The company store housed the post office and served more than 400 families that eventually inhabited the area. Cressmont became the first community in Lee County to have running water, electricity in every home, and modern toilet facilities. The Cressmont Post Office closed in 1948 when timbering operations ceased, and the residents moved away to other jobs.
Turkey Foot Saw Mill
In 1912, the Turkey Foot Lumber Company purchased the rights to 37,000 acres of timberland on Sturgeon Creek in Lee County, including all of the lands on Upper and Lower Sinking Creek. Logs were hauled from around the area to the main sawmill located in the large fields at Cressmont. The large mill was 300 feet long, sixty feet wide, and three stories tall. A two hundred horsepower engine powered the belts and blades of the mill.
More than 100 miles of standard gauge track stretched up and down Sturgeon Creek as trains brought logs to the mill and hauled millions of board feet of sawn lumber away. Cressmont Road, which you will hike, follows the original bed of the railroad tracks that served the area. A camping and recreation area would later be named for the Turkey Foot Lumber Company after the timber operations ceased and the Daniel Boone National Forest was established.
Lock and Dam #14
The lock was constructed in 1917 as part of the state’s efforts to make the Kentucky River more navigable. It is located 249 miles from the mouth of the Kentucky River. The shallow shoals and steep turns made navigation by barges and coal boats difficult. The proposed dams would hold water and raise the navigable pools between locks. The locks allowed vessels to pass from pool to pool as they made their way upstream.
Several locks and dams were proposed to float coal and timber from the mountains to the markets in Lousiville and along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Heidelberg was the last of the projects to be completed. No other locks were built upstream from Heidelberg. As the coal business slowed, the lock was no longer used, and in 1999 it was sealed permanently. The Willow Lock and Dam (#13) is located about 8 miles down the Kentucky River from Heidelberg. The Lee County Fiscal Court is currently constructing a water treatment facility at Heidelburg Park to help supply clean municipal water for the southern sections of the area.
Heidelberg, Kentucky 41333
Heidelberg, a rural community in Lee County, Kentucky, grew and prospered during the “King Coal” era. Located three miles west of the county seat of Beattyville, Heidelberg was settled in 1799 by a family of German immigrants who named the area after the city of their origin. Large farms on the flat river bottoms along the Kentucky River dominated this subsistence farming community until 1902.
In 1902, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad laid tracks through the area, and Heidelberg boomed. A post office was opened in 1904, and several stores, including the Updike Grocery Store, opened. The community remained a center of commercial activity until the decline in the coal and timber industries in the late 20th Century. Several companies loaded barges of coal at this point for transportation downriver to markets. A community park has been established here to remember the city and its importance to the economy.
The great joy of hikers on the Sheltowee Trace along this section is the “gentle” stroll up Heidelberg Hill. An important part of the tradition “Heidelberg Death March,” the climb up the hill is not long but exacts its revenge due to the steep ascent. The roadway (Highway 399) is a narrow, two-lane road that is heavily traveled. Be sure to walk on the left side of the roadway and be aware of oncoming vehicles. The views once (or if) you get to the top will be a small reward for the effort.
St. Theresa Church
St. Theresa Church, west of Beattyville, Kentucky, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It is a wood-frame church on a concrete block foundation. It was built in 1948 from materials salvaged from the Contrary Creek Settlement School Church, a previous church located about a mile away, which had been built in the 1920s. The new church was built with a different design. A kitchen and living quarters for Catholic nuns and for the circuit-riding priest were added in 1949.
When the Sheltowee Trace opened in 1979, the section of the trail that passed through Bear Track left the roadway and ventured down into Contrary Creek. Through the years, property owners changed, and access to the old trail was reduced. The Sheltowee was forced onto a long road walk through Bear Track and onto Highway 52. Plans are currently underway to move approximately 6 miles of road walk back into the woods. Unfortunately, for the Class of 2023, that effort will not happen by the time we pass through here in April. You will have to hike the Challenge again in 2024 to try out the new (old) section and the nice walk up Contrary Creek.
For many Sheltowee Trace hikers, a stop at the Conveniently Country store was a welcomed break from the heat of the road walk and a chance for a cold drink and maybe a bologna sandwich. A stop provided hikers with the opportunity to meet many locals and experience the kind hospitality of a rural county store. Sadly, the store is currently closed and may not reopen. The building still serves as an important landmark on Highway 399, marking the end of the major climb. The STA van should be here with some refreshments.
Bear Track, Kentucky
Bear Track is a remote section of Lee County in the Highway 399 and Highway 52 area. A large mission school was once located here in this community before the Youth Haven Camp was constructed. The Bear Track Fire Department continues to use the popular bear silhouette on its sign. Spotting the bear sign at the Bear Track Fire Department means you are almost to your Saturday night camp at Lago Linda Campground.
Lago Linda Campground
In 1969, Doug and Linda Black purchased 410 acres in a remote section of Lee County as a weekend getaway. They were impressed and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area. In the 1990s, the Blacks opened their property to campers and those who loved the outdoors and find their way into Lee County.
The property was purchased by Larry and Katie Frederickson, who have expanded and improved Lago Linda Hideaway. The Hideaway offers cabin, camping, trails, resupply, and wildlife viewing opportunities. It is located 16 miles from Beattyville and will be our camp for Saturday night.
Youth Haven Camp
Located on the hill above Highway 399 just after leaving Lago Linda are the buildings of the Youth Haven Bible Camp. The camp is owned and operated by the Kentucky Mountain Mission. The camp grew from the dreams of Miss Annie Bethke. Bethke left her German-speaking family in Minnesota to attend the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in California. After conquering certain language difficulties, Miss Bethke graduated and came to Breathitt County, Kentucky, in 1919, where she continued her Christian work until she retired.
To continue her work, the Kentucky Mountain Mission was incorporated in 1942. The Youth Haven Bible camp was established on 70 acres of property purchased in Lee County and has heated cabins, a dining room, indoor and outdoor chapels, horse and hiking trails, boating, swimming, fishing, and other activities for children and church retreats on a yearly schedule. The campus and the beauty of the facility cannot be seen from your hike on the road. Plan to come back for a visit when you can experience the campus of the Youth Haven Bible Camp.
As you hike along Highways 399 and 52, you will see remnants of a once-thriving oil industry in eastern Kentucky following the discovery of oil deposits in the early 1900s. Old and abandoned rigs and pump heads dot the landscape and often are accompanied by a strong smell of petroleum. The oil and gas industry was once the largest employer of men and women in the area and accounted for almost three-quarters of the area’s economic activities. From here to the crossing of Interstate 75, hikers will see evidence of the oil and gas industry scattered throughout the fields and woods that we pass.
After turning off Highway 52 onto New Virginia Ridge Road, the trail makes its way down the hill to Big Sinking Creek. Sinking Creek is one of the natural beauties of this area and is a very picturesque section of the trail. It can also be one of the most difficult in wet conditions, and the high water route should be taken during these times. After fording the creek near the foundations of a long destroyed bridge, hikers will carefully make their way over piles of limestone rocks that have filled the valley floor as you climb up Little Fork of Big Sinking Creek.
High on the hills above the trail are numerous arches in the limestone cliffs, including the Sinking Creek Arch Complex, which is home to four arches. The Sheltowee does pass within ten feet of the Little Sinking Cave Bridge and several natural springs that feed this stream. Many of the springs drain or “sink” back into the ground, and from these sinks, the creek got its name.
Nothing is left of the Greeley, Kentucky community except a large white house that sits on the opposite side of the creek from the trail. The area was once filled with families who worked the oil fields and timber woods of the area. This home was built by John M. Combs in about 1902. The Combs Cemetery and this old homeplace are all that remain.
Named for Horace Greeley, the famed newspaper publisher, and abolitionist, a post office was established at Greeley in 1900 and operated with a few interruptions until 1957. The general store and Masonic Lodge are both long gone from the area.
Mount Paran School
An example of a rural mountain school, the Mount Paran Schoolhouse, stands beside Highway 1036. Made of stone and native timbers harvested from the area and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the school served the children of the community for many years. In addition, the school was used by the community as a voting house and frequently as a church. Students were moved to Lee County High School and other schools when school consolidation started in the 1950s, and the school was closed. The Hobbs family saved and remodeled the structure into a residence several years ago.
Be ready- Mount Paran translated to “steep road ahead.” They call it MOUNT Paran for a reason.
Hollerwood Park draws hundreds of thousands of ATV and off-road enthusiasts to the area each year. The 2,500 acres of land that are included in the park present adventurous drivers with a wide variety of off-road trails and challenging rock climbs.
The property is an adventure located at the intersection of Powell, Wolfe, Lee, and Estill Counties and is owned by the Powell County Fiscal Court. Hollerwood Park offers ATV rentals, camping spots, and tours of the area. The office is located beside Highway 52 and offers a General Store with a variety of cold drinks and treats.
The community of Standing Rock sits at the intersection of Big Bend Road and Highway 52. This unincorporated community in Lee County and Wolfe Counties was a hub of oil exploration and production from the early 1900s through the 1990s.
Ashland Oil and the Sun Oil Company operated thousands of pumps in the area, and many can be seen on display along Highway 1036 as you near the headquarters for Hollerwood Park. Several homes and the Standing Rock Church of Christ are all that remain of this one heavily populated community.
Big Bend Road
Big Bend road runs 2.5 miles from Highway 52 to the edge of Natural Bridge State Park. The gravel road crosses back and forth over the Powell and Wolfe County border and skirts the Estill County line. This gravel road is a tough hike and passes several camping spots along the way as it follows Big Bend Ridge. A sharp turn takes hikers into the Natural Bridge State Park. The Park was expanded to include this area after a land purchase was completed by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Wolfe and Lee County Line
As soon as you step off the blacktop of Highway 52 onto the gravel of Big Bend Road, you enter a new county- Wolfe County. You started your hike in Lee County by virtue of our reroute for Hike 4. Hikers will cross into the southwestern corner of Wolfe County as we head North. Wolfe County was created by an act of the Kentucky Legislature on March 5, 1860, and named for Nathaniel Wolfe. Many years of controversy ensued over the location of the county seat, and Campton was finally chosen. Wolfe County is 223 square miles in total area and was home to 7,355 people in 2010.
To protect the land purchased by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, the Parks Service and the Forest Service installed a series of deep trenches and concrete pillars intended to keep vehicular traffic out to the area of the Narrows Road/Whites Branch area. Several groups protested the closing of the Narrows Road and the popular Pocket Wall climbing areas, and the building of the trenches.
According to the Parks Service, the trenches and roadblocks are intended as “impassible tank traps” to impede ATV, horse, and motorcycle traffic, but they also present a difficult challenge for hikers. Be prepared to climb through and across these barriers as you make your way toward Natural Bridge.
The Narrows and Whites Branch Arch
The Narrows was the name given to a thin strip of exposed sandstone that caps the ridge between Whites Branch, Townsend Branch, and Crow Drive Creek. A natural arch has opened in the underlying layers of stone and is known as White’s Branch Arch. The Narrows was once the only arch in America that had an official roadway over the top of the opening. The Narrows Road was a popular offroad vehicle destination and was closed following the purchase of the property by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. The arch can be accessed by following a short side trail over the side of the narrows and down a precarious rope descent. The 60-foot arch is beautiful but difficult to access.
The Sheltowee Trace does not pass through or over the natural arch known as Natural Bridge. The arch (not actually a bridge because there is no watercourse the flow below) measures 78 feet wide and 65 feet tall. It had been a popular destination for nearly 175 years. The Lexington and Eastern Railroad popularized the natural feature by scheduling daily excursion trains from Lexington and Winchester. The Historic Trail comes to the base of the arch, and a popular sky-lift also brings visitors up and down the mountain.
A left turn at the intersection of Sand Gap Trail and the Sheltowee Trace allows hikers to walk the ridge for less than a quarter mile to the top of Natural Bridge. The bottom may be accessed via the “Fat Man’s Squeeze” but is not recommended with a backpack. Make a right on the Sheltowee Trace and follow the Balanced Rock Trail to the bottom of the hill.
One of the most popular sites in the Natural Bridge State Park is the balanced rock. The large, precariously perched rock is not the first natural feature to be called the “Balanced Rock” at the park. A larger, more precarious boulder earned the name first but has been placed out of bounds for park visitors for safety reasons. This eroded sandstone pillar, originally called The Sphinx, is now known as the “Balanced Rock.”
The Sheltowee Trace passes within a few feet of the Balanced Rock, and several benches near this spot offer an opportunity to sit and eat a snack or rest in the shade. Trust me- your knees will need it after coming down the 600 steps from the ridge.
Natural Bridge State Park
Natural Bridge is a 2,300-acre forested park, and nature preserves with 22 miles of trails, a 60-acre lake, two campgrounds, lodging, and dining facilities. It is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest and adjacent to the Red River Gorge National Geologic Area.
Natural Bridge became a tourist attraction and a shortline railroad was constructed to the site. Opened to tourists in 1895 as a resort created by the Lexington & Eastern Railroad, the park in Powell and Wolfe Counties. Thanks to the signature of Governor William J. Fields, Natural Bridge State Park was established in 1926 and was one of Kentucky’s first four state parks. The bridge itself is the primary feature of the park, but other areas, including Whittleton Branch, Battleship Rock, How Down Island, the Hemlock Lodge, and other areas draw more than 500,000 visitors to enjoy the trails and outdoor adventures a year. Its close proximity to the popular Miguel’s Restaurant and Campground probably doesn’t hurt much either.
The trail crosses the swinging Bridge at Natural Bridge State Park and rounds the lake. Climb up the steps and into the parking lot where your ride to the Skylift and your vehicle should be waiting. Go home and clean your gear. Rest up, but get ready for the Red River Gorge in May. The wildflowers should be in full bloom as we pass through this natural wonder.
See you in May.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling