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Late winter is waterfall season

Explorers know that late winter is waterfall season in our part of the world.

The dry season typically ends around early to mid December, and the return of substantial rains means waterfalls that don’t flow during the summer or fall months will create picturesque landscapes throughout the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the Daniel Boone National Forest, and in the Cumberland Mountains.

Mild stretches of late winter weather can be excellent times to get out and explore these waterfalls. This is especially true when the mild weather follows heavy rainfall.

This week fits that billing. It’s going to be mild, with temperatures in the 50s most days. It’s going to be dry. And we saw a couple of inches of rain fall over the weekend, which means the waterfalls are going to be flowing.

There are literally hundreds of waterfalls — some large; some small — in the Big South Fork NRRA alone. Most of them are off-trail, but there is plenty of falling water to be found on the trail. 

Honey Creek Falls is frozen over during a stretch of prolonged subfreezing temperatures | Photo: Matt West.

When it comes to waterfalls, there may be no better trail to hike than the legendary Honey Creek Loop Trail on the south end of the national park.

Honey Creek is the most challenging hike in the Big South Fork, and it’s even more challenging and technical during the winter months — due to the possibility of ice and the water that abounds. A long section of the trail is through the Honey Creek gorge, and a portion of it travels through the creek itself. 

Slipping on ice-covered boulders is a real concern in subfreezing temperatures, especially when the cold weather has directly followed a period of rainy weather. Ice won’t be an issue until and unless colder temperatures return, but Honey Creek should not be attempted during the winter months without good, waterproof footwear.

There are a number of waterfalls along the trail, some more spectacular than others. Among the most popular ones are Honey Creek Falls, which is located on an unmarked but well-worn side trail towards the end of the hike (if you’re hiking in a counter-clockwise direction) and Boulder House Falls, which is also located on Honey Creek and also on the main trail. Boulder House is so named because the creek literally flows through a “house” of boulders, with a small waterfall as the stream crashes through the “ceiling” before cascading down a flat, smooth, solid rock stream bed. It is one of the more aesthetic waterfalls in the entire Big South Fork NRRA.

Boulder House Falls on the Honey Creek Loop Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Photo: Mike Cochis.

Another popular waterfall is Ice Castle Falls, which is a wet-weather waterfall located on the main trail, in between Boulder House and Honey Creek Falls. While it’s little more than a drip during the dry season, and even during the wet season if it’s been a few days since it last rained, it should currently be flowing good. It’s not really known how it got its name, but one can only imagine that it is for the ice formations that form here during periods of prolonged subfreezing temperatures like the one we experienced earlier this month.

The entire Honey Creek Loop Trail is about 5.5 miles, and requires at least half a day to complete. Due to the technical challenges and the difficulty, hikers who move at a slower pace will want to allow all day to complete the hike.

There are a few more trails that are worth mentioning for the waterfalls that they feature, but none of them have the volume of falling water that Honey Creek has. 

There is Slave Falls Loop, a 4.2-mile, easy hike that is highlighted by the waterfall from which it draws its name. It is located at Sawmill Trailhead off Divide Road on the west side of the Big South Fork. A key footnote to Slave Falls: legend has it that the large rock house behind the waterfall was once used to hide runaway slaves.

There is also Yahoo Falls, a 1.2-mile, easy hike that is highlighted for the waterfall from which it draws its name. It is located west of Whitley City on the northern end of the Big South Fork. A key footnote to Yahoo Falls: it is the tallest waterfall in the State of Kentucky, Cumberland Falls not withstanding.

A huge mound of ice towers above two girls at the base of Yahoo Falls in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Photo: Steven Seven.

Then there’s the John Litton Farm Loop, a 5.5-mile loop hike that includes a visit to Fall Branch Falls. If hiked in a counter-clockwise direction from Bandy Creek Swimming Pool parking lot, the waterfall is located about two miles into the hike. 

There may be no waterfall in the Cumberlands that is any more spectacular than Northrup Falls, which is located in the Colditz Cove State Natural Area just outside Allardt. The mile-long loop that visits the waterfall is an easy hike, and the trail is noteworthy for its old-growth hemlocks and the several rare or endangered species that make their home here. A key footnote to Colditz Cove: While Northrup Falls was named for the Northrup family that once made its home at the top of the waterfall, part of the land at Colditz Cove was donated by Oneida businessmen Arnold and Rudy Colditz, for whom the state natural area is named.

Winter is an under-utilized season in the Big South Fork. Chances of seeing other people on the trail are very slim until mid February or so, when the weather starts to warm. But winter is an exceptional time to hike. Not only are the waterfalls typically flowing good this time of year, but there’s little worry of snakes, ticks and other creepy-crawlies that aren’t much fun to deal with. And while black bears don’t truly hibernate, they do become sluggish in the winter, so there’s less of a chance of running into one of them on the trail this time of year, as well.

This story first appeared in the Independent Herald as part of the Explore series presented by First National Bank.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garretthttp://gocumberlands.com
Ben Garrett is publisher of Go Cumberlands. He lives in Oneida, Tennessee with his wife, three kids and dog, Boone.

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