Sheltowee Trace, March 2014 (1)

Although I’ve spent dozens of nights backpacking in the Big South Fork and Rockcastle River areas, for one reason or another I had never hiked the Bark Camp Creek Trail. Circumstances lined up for me to make a quick overnight trip as February ended and March began, and I decided to finally hike from the Bark Camp Creek trailhead to Cumberland Falls. My route would be relatively moderate in regard to difficulty — about five miles (via the Bark Camp Creek Trail and the Sheltowee Trace) to the Star Creek Shelter, spend the night, then continue on the Sheltowee to Cumberland Falls, with a side trip to Dog Slaughter Falls.

Since this was a point-to-point trip rather than a loop, I had Sheltowee Trace Outfitters provide a shuttle from Cumberland Falls to the Bark Camp Creek trailhead. They were prompt and the price was reasonable. Aside from a group hike organized by the Sheltowee Trace Association earlier in the year the employee said that they hadn’t shuttled any other backpackers in the past few months. As expected, I didn’t see anyone else on the trail until I reached Cumberland Falls and the trail appeared to be infrequently used between the Bark Camp Creek Trail/Sheltowee Trace junction and Dog Slaughter Falls.

Given the beautiful scenery, the good condition of the route, the logistical ease of arranging a shuttle, and the bonus of being able to camp at a trail shelter (there are only a handful of trail shelters in Kentucky) I am baffled as to why this trail isn’t even a fraction as popular as trails in the Red River Gorge. This area is featured in several Kentucky hiking guidebooks and the Sheltowee Trace is a well-known trail, but for the most part the landscape I passed through was unmarked by the abuse and overuse that plague the Red River Gorge. Many people I speak with about hiking and backpacking who are familiar with the Red River Gorge are completely unaware of the great opportunities for backpacking on the southern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest. That said, perhaps plenty of people do hike this section of trail, practice Leave No Trace, and don’t write about it on the Internet — giving it the illusion of being seldom-used. For some reason I doubt this, but if this is the case then I hope it doesn’t change.

I was dropped off at the trailhead around 1:30, giving me plenty of time of time to leisurely hike the five miles to the Star Creek shelter. As the diesel smoke from the shuttle vehicle dissipated and the sound of its tires rolling along the gravel road faded, I surveyed my surroundings. Like most trailheads in the Cumberland Plateau the scene was initially unimpressive, but hinted at the landscapes potential. The trailhead is located where a Forest Road crosses Bark Camp Creek, and the large culvert allowing the stream to pass under the road (or the road to pass over the stream, depending on your perspective) provides a somewhat industrial feel to things. The trash at the trailhead — plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminum cans, pizza boxes — adds to the “modernity” of the landscape, for lack of a better description. Fortunately, a few hundred feet down the trail a more primitive charm is expressed as the single-track trail winds through rhododendron thickets and along clifflines, always in sight of the creek. The creek at this point is as wide as the larger streams in the Red River Gorge, but has a more hurried character and deeper pools.

The day was perfect for hiking and provided the right amount of light for easy “point and shoot” picture taking. Temperatures in the mid-50s and partly cloudy, with bits of blue sky peeking through the clouds every so often. Icicles clinging to clifflines contrasted with the relatively warm temperature. Somewhere along the way I dropped the mechanical pencil I was taking notes with and had to backtrack a few hundred feet to find it, giving me time to ponder a question of wilderness ethics — if I had gone to the Beaver Creek Wilderness as I’d initially considered, would it be OK to have brought a mechanical pencil? Such are the conundrums of backpacking, along with the agonizing pre-trip decision of whether to bring Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark or a collection of Jack London’s short stories for the evening’s entertainment.

The noise of the stream was relatively constant and the trail also passed under several low-flow waterfalls spilling over the tops of moderately-sized rockshelters. There were also some sections of cliffline with nearly gold and vermillion streaking. In a certain way, I found the Bark Camp Creek Trail and its narrow, path of least resistance routing to be reminiscent of the Swift Camp Creek Trail in the Red River Gorge, although the scenery on Swift Camp Creek is more dramatic than Bark Camp Creek for the most part (although the cascades on Bark Camp Creek near its mouth are phenomenal).

The new bridge over Bark Camp Creek is built to last and provides great views of the stream mid-crossing. The next section of trail is still a work in progress and is heavily flagged, but follows no discernible path . . . it’s pretty much just a straight line downstream to the old crossing. There are multiple “teaser” cascades and drops you can hear from this section, but even without foliage blocking the view they are difficult to see. I’ll likely be returning sooner rather than later to try and get a better view of these. The main set of cascades visible from the old crossing are absolutely stunning. The series of stream-wide drops turn and tumble with a fluidity that is mesmerizing. I paused to snack, rest and take photographs and could’ve lingered much longer than a mere half-hour. I was tempted to roll up my pants and creekwalk above the cascades to scout out the ones I’d heard from the trail, but the frigid temperature of the water and limited amount of daylight required the postponement of that adventure.

After the cascades, I followed the Sheltowee Trace upstream along the Cumberland River. I passed the Bark Camp Creek shelter and several tall clifflines were visible through the trees. The trail was usually about midway between the water’s edge and the base of the cliffline and followed a relatively level course. It crossed several small streams, Devil Creek being the most intriguing, until it reached Star Creek and the Star Creek shelter. Star Creek spills down a steep cliff face before free-falling when the cliff face reaches the lip of a rockshelter and made for an impressive scene. After setting my pack down at the shelter I scrambled up to the plunge pool of the waterfall to filter a few liters of liter.

Once I’d unpacked, walked down to the sandy bank of the river and enjoyed the view. This would be an excellent place to enjoy a meal or stargaze, but the trash strewn banks detract from the experience. The view of the Cumberland River from the shelter was better than I expected and I spent what was left of the evening simply lounging around the shelter and reading.

The river provided excellent background noise, as there were several small rapids upstream and downstream, and I pondered how incredible the river must have been before it was dammed as I drifted off to sleep. I awoke to crisp, almost chilly temperatures, and was packed and on the trail by 8:30 a.m. The sky was increasingly cloudy, although after the initial morning chill lifted it felt warmer than the previous day. Rain was in the forecast — as well as a winter storm warning for that evening — and I hit the trail at a slightly quicker pace than usual. I found the section of trail between Star Creek shelter and the junction with Dog Slaughter Falls to be more scenic than the section between Star Creek shelter and Bark Camp Creek shelter, mostly due to more boulder jumbles to navigate through, the increased presence of cliffline next to the trail and more dense vegetation. The river also begins to narrow and the boulders in the river and along its banks become more frequent and larger, giving the area a rougher and wilder feel. There was one boulder along the trail that was so immense and had such a defined spire to it that I reflexively paused and said “Wow.”

I also encountered more wildlife along this section than I had the previous day; I crossed paths with several squirrels and startled perhaps a half-dozen turkeys in rapid succession. I reached the spur trail to Dog Slaughter Falls shortly after 10 a.m. and dropped my pack under an overhanging boulder to spare me the burden and keep it dry in case it rained during my side-trip. I’d visited Dog Slaughter Falls once before and was eager to see it again, especially since the water levels on this trip were higher than they were on my previous visit. The short trail to the falls is merely a footpath and has a rugged charm, which complements the falls and its setting nicely.

Leaving the falls, I was only a few miles away from Cumberland Falls, which was the end of my hike. Although I’d hiked this section of the trail before, it was not a boring walk. The cliffline, jumbles of boulders and the river never seem to get monotonous and I was treated to an eye-catching glimpse of Eagle Falls across the river. I made it back to Cumberland Falls before noon and admired the falls briefly before changing my mode of transportation from feet to vehicle.

I’ll likely be returning to this area before the end of the month to creekwalk some of the Cumberland River tributaries the Sheltowee Trace crossed. Several looked like they could have significant waterfalls, given the right water level, a few tenths of a mile in the their drainages, and the cliffline was close to many of the stream courses which is always a neat landscape feature to follow and admire.

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