Distance: 2.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 360 feet
Week 2 of 10 on the 40 Mile Challenge is packed with adventure. There aren’t many trails in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area that offer giant rock formations to explore and a spectacular overlook, but this week’s trail does. And not just one overlook, but two.
We’re headed to the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork — about a 25-minute drive from Oneida — to Blue Heron, site of Mine No. 18 back during the heyday of the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co.
The Blue Heron Loop Trail is a 6.3-mile look with nearly 900 feet of elevation gain when it is hiked in its entirety. But we’re not asking you to do that this week … unless you want to. Instead, we’re going to focus on the most adventurous part of the Blue Heron Loop: the north side. We’ll begin our hike at Devils Jump Overlook and hike to Cracks in the Rock and back.
Cracks in the Rock is just what the name suggests: a series of giant fissures through huge slabs of sandstone. The trail passes through these natural passageways, and they make excellent spots for exploring and picture-taking.
But, first, we’re going to visit Devils Jump Overlook. And if you liked Leatherwood Overlook last week, you’ll love Devils Jump Overlook this week. It is one of the best vantagepoints found anywhere in the BSF.
Let’s start with how to get there, because it can be a little confusing if you aren’t familiar with the trail. There are two official trailheads for Blue Heron Loop, and several other places to jump on and off the trail. We’re going to start at the parking lot for Devils Jump Overlook.
Getting There: You’ll take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Pine Knot. At the traffic light, where the pedestrian bridge crosses the highway, turn left onto Old Highway 27. Then turn right onto State Highway 1651 and continue for about 2.5 miles. Then veer left onto State Highway 742 and continue along 742 into the Big South Fork. After you enter the national park, keep an eye out for a sign pointing the way to “Gorge Overlooks.” You’ll turn left onto Gorge Overlook Road and follow it to the parking lot.
The parking lot for Devils Jump Overlook is the second parking lot on the left after you turn onto Gorge Overlook Road. The first parking lot is the upper trailhead for Blue Heron Loop. That’s not our destination. The second parking lot will be signed “Devils Jump Overlook.”
Visit the Overlook First: We’re going to begin our hike with a slight detour to the overlook. From your vehicle, look for the paved walking path on the left (east) side of the parking lot. Follow it to the overlook. Shortly after you leave the parking lot, you’ll see a footpath where people have been skipping ahead and you might be tempted to take it. Don’t! You’ll miss the overlook if you do, because it actually drops down to another trail. Continue following the paved walking path all the way to the overlook.
A Spectacular View: There are actually two overlooks at Blue Heron. When you reach the large viewing platform at Devils Jump Overlook, you can look north along the gorge and see a gazebo in the distance. That’s the second overlook: Blue Heron Overlook. It’s part of the hike, too. But the best of the two is easily Devils Jump. It is positioned along a bend in the river, offering a panoramic view of the gorge. It’s at its best after the green-up that’ll occur in the next few weeks, but it’s pretty spactacular, even now.
From the overlook, you can see a recently-reclaimed coal mine along the river’s edge and, if you look slightly to your right, you’ll see Devils Jump rapid, the overlook’s namesake. Devils Jump is a Class IV whitewater rapid that earned its name after oil was discovered upstream near Bear Creek in the early 19th century. The prospectors were drilling for salt brine and had no idea what oil was. When the tarry substance bubbled up from the ground, they feared they had drilled too deep and had drilled straight into hell. Their fears were confirmed when they hired someone with a boat to take a couple of barrels of the “devil’s tar” down the river (which they felt would be an easier route than packing it out of the gorge with mules). The trip ended in disaster when the man’s boat capsized in the rapids and the barrels of oil were smashed on the rocks. He returned to tell a story of the devil himself appearing out of nowhere to jump into the boat and reclaim his “tar.” The last he saw of the devil, the man said, was when satan sprinted up the hill with a barrel under each arm. From that point on, the rapid was called “Devils Jump.”
Back On The Trail: From the overlook, it’s time to get started. Retrace your steps a short distance, until you come to a trail intersection. Turn left to continue following a paved walking path down the river (turning right would lead you the opposite direction on Blue Heron Loop). After a short distance, the pavement ends and the trail turns to dirt and rock.
For a little more than half a mile, the trail will continue along level ground, following the edge of the gorge. At times, the bluffs push the trail close to the river and you can hear the water rushing below you. Soon, you’ll see a gazebo over your head, perched on the edge of the rock above. That’s Blue Heron Overlook, which you first saw at Devils Jump Overlook. And you know you’re getting close.
The Descent: You’ll come to a trail intersection, where a right turn would take you to Blue Heron Overlook two-tenths of a mile away. We’re going to save that for the walk out. Instead, continue on the Blue Heron Loop and you’ll come to a set of steep stairs that lead through a natural passageway in the rocks.
You’d be forgiven if you think this is “Cracks in the Rock.” Indeed, it’s a crack in the rock; it just isn’t the crack in the rock.
Cracks in the Rock: A short distance beyond the base of the stairs, you’ll see a sign where the trail appears to disappear into the cliffs. You’ve arrived at the destination. This is Cracks in the Rock, one of the most spectacular geological formations in the Big South Fork. The trail passes through the cracks, with wooden stair cases aiding your journey.
Retrace Your Steps: After you’ve enjoyed exploring Cracks in the Rock, head back up the steps. The climb up the stair case is the only really hard part of the hike. At the top, take the spur trail to Blue Heron Overlook for another great view of the BSF gorge. (Note: You can drive to Blue Heron Overlook, but it’s actually a longer walk from the parking lot than it is to take the short spur from the hiking trail.) The view from Blue Heron Overlook isn’t as nice as the view from Devils Jump Overlook, but the facilities are awesome — the best of any developed overlook in the Big South Fork. The large gazebo offers a shaded area to sit and rest. From the overlook, it’s an easy walk back to the parking lot the same way you came in.
Look For: This week’s “Look For” is a small rockhouse that you’ll find along the trail between the two overlooks. Snap a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #40MileChallenge.
Listen For: As you walk along the Blue Heron Loop Trail along the river, you’ll hear the roar of powerful white water below you. That’s Devils Jump, the Class IV rapid that is the last major white water before the Big South Fork is tamed by Lake Cumberland.
Be Careful For: The stairs leading to Cracks in the Rock are steep. Use caution with children.
Make It Better: From Cracks in the Rock, continue on Blue Heron Loop to the old Blue Heron mining community. There, you can explore life as it was in the early 1900s through the National Park Service’s use of interpretive structures. It’s less than half a mile from Cracks in the Rock to Blue Heron. You can walk back out the same way you walked in, or continue up-river and complete the entire Blue Heron Loop Trail, which will circle you back to your vehicle (6.3 miles total hike).
Remember To: Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Memories. Please pack out anything you pack in!