Published: February 18th 2012May 24th 2011
Big South Fork
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland, looking upstream from Blue Heron Overlook
Today is my first day in eastern Kentucky.
Most of this part of the state sits on the Cumberland Plateau.
Rivers have carved into this plateau for many centuries, creating small valleys locally known as hollows (pronounced ‘hollers’, go figure).
The region is known for several things.
For starters, it’s rather pretty.
Most of the hollows are very picturesque.
The second characteristic of the Cumberland, unfortunately, is poverty
This region contains the poorest rural counties in the US, with evidence of hard times everywhere.
The most important local legacy, for better and worse, is coal
The Cumberland Plateau sits on the largest deposits of high carbon bituminous coal in the US.
Companies have been extracting it for a century.
In the old days, it was done by underground mines.
These days, it’s done by huge strip mines that are destroying entire mountains [see Winding Roads and Falling Water
It’s hard to spend any time around outdoor enthusiasts in these parts without hearing about the mines, and local campaigns to stop them
My first sight today was one of the conservation movement’s early
Devil's Jump Rapid, from the Blue Heron Overlook
success stories, the Big South Fork
This major branch of the Cumberland River was the site of timber harvesting
and underground coal mining for over a century.
(For what it’s worth, the area is called “Big South Fork” to distinguish it from a nearby tributary called the “Little South Fork”).
By the late 1960s, the coal had pretty much run out.
The Tennessee Valley Authority proposed damming the river for power and flooding the entire area.
Residents banded together and successfully fought the project.
A dam was built, but the final reservoir was much smaller than originally planned.
The current park
, founded in 1974, is their legacy.
The first sight I saw in the park is the Blue Heron Overlook.
It’s on top of a high cliff reached by a short trail.
The cliff has a wide view of the gorge.
The first thing I noticed from the overlook is that the Cumberland Plateau really is a plateau; the top of the gorge is completely flat.
The walls of the gorge are lined with steep white cliffs.
The river below was green.
Blue Heron coal tipple
The coal tipple, the only remaining structure at Blue Heron. Coal was brought in at the top, and dropped into the train cars at the bottom.
to more rain in the area, it was pretty fast moving.
Just downstream from the overlook, a large rock had crashed into the river creating a nasty rapid, the Devil’s Jump.
The sound of the water echoed up to the overlook.
The next sight is located directly under the overlook, the former town of Blue Heron
In the late 1800s, the Stearn’s Coal and Timber Company bought a large tract of land in this area.
Their goal was to harvest timber.
They needed power for their machinery, so they also dug coal mines.
They built a large tipple to handle the coal from the mines, and Blue Heron grew up around it.
It lasted until the coal ran out, about fifty years.
Blue Heron was small, even for a coal town.
People mostly lived here because they had to in order to make a living.
As it turned out, the local mine was not very productive.
Blue Heron survived as long as it did thanks to the tipple, which processed coal for the entire region.
The Park Service
Ghost of the Wash House
Outline of the former wash house at Blue Heron. The foundation is original.
has an interesting interpretation of the site.
When they acquired the land in 1970 for the planned reservoir, the coal tipple was the only remaining evidence that a town had ever been there.
Coal towns in this region were deliberately built of shoddy material, since they never lasted long.
After the park was established, the park service rebuilt the town as “ghosts”.
are metal outlines of buildings created on the original locations.
Inside each one is a plaque describing how the building was used.
This method is unlike any historic site I have ever seen.
It’s so unusual, there is even a plaque trying to justify why they did it this way.
The first notable building is the tipple
A coal tipple separated coal into different sized ore, which was used for different purposes (trains, home heating, industrial equipment, etc.)
It worked by dropping the coal through a set of screens with different sized holes, which filtered the coal into waiting rail cars.
Coal that could not fit through any screens was crushed and then passed back into the input stream.
Big South Fork in the rain
Big South Fork with mist from a rainstorm. I took the picture on a bridge next to the coal tipple just after the rain stopped.
The Blue Heron mine
itself is located at the end of a bridge at the top of the tipple.
A miniature train brought coal out of the mine to the tipple.
Old mine equipment, from the last phase of mine use, is located next to the mine.
It’s pretty high tech compared to most of the mine’s history, when men had to blast coal with black power and shovel it into the train cars by hand.
Next to the mine is the only other building with its original foundation, the public washhouse
In a mine town, it was the most important morale booster a company could have.
A public washhouse allowed workers to wash the coal dust and grime off their clothes after their shifts, so they did not bring it home to their families.
The miners in Blue Heron considered it so important they staged a two day wildcat strike to get the building expanded to its current size.
The last notable building is the church
The miners, like most in this area, were Southern Baptist.
The coal company built the
Trail under cliff
Muddy trail along the base of a cliff on the way to Yahoo Falls
church at the miner’s request.
A gospel quartet, the Blue Heron Quartet, was based here.
They became famous enough that they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.
The reconstruction has a document that I have seen nowhere else, a copy of the Southern Baptist Covenant.
It describes the obligations of church membership, including learning the gospel and spreading it to others.
I had lunch in the Stearn’s Café.
The town of Stearn was founded by the same company that ran Blue Heron.
The railroad from Blue Heron ended here, and the company used it as their headquarters.
In the old days, it was fully a company town.
Starting in the 1960s, the corporate influence faded, and Stearn is now like most other small towns in the Cumberland.
The café is one of those places where every regular has been going there for years and knows everyone else.
The food is pretty good.
The walls have tributes to high school football champions and local war heroes.
After lunch, I went to what became my favorite part of the park.
Yahoo Falls, the tallest waterfall in Kentucky
Readers probably remember a website that was founded in the late 1990s with the goal of creating a directory of the internet.
Unfortunately, the internet proved to be far too large (and growing too fast) to index by hand, and the site has been repurposed as a portal.
The founders chose the name because it sounded cool.
What the creators of yahoo.com probably didn’t know is that Yahoo is also the name of a ninety foot waterfall in the Big South Fork, the tallest in Kentucky. Yahoo Falls
is spectacular, one of the highlights of the trip so far.
The trail to the waterfall starts by following the top of a gorge.
It soon reaches a viewpoint.
The trail to the viewpoint is notable for being covered in mountain laurel.
The viewpoint shows a side gorge connecting to the main Big South Fork.
The water is flat and motionless at this point, the lower tip of the Cumberland Reservoir.
The trail follows the top of the side gorge.
It soon forks, one branch to the top of the waterfall and one to
Yahoo Falls Cave
Closeup of part of the cave behind Yahoo Falls, with its incredible shadow effects
The bottom trial, unfortunately, was closed by a washout.
I continued on the top.
It soon reached a spot that was once an overlook.
It had beautiful stone posts connected by rotting logs.
This work is a hallmark of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
When the overlook was created in the 1930s, it must have had a wonderful view.
Since then, the trees have grown in, so all I could see was some sort of grotto and water dropping.
My main reaction was wanting more.
Soon enough, the trail crosses the stream.
The level was high, but skillful rock hopping was still possible.
Downstream was a very obvious drop.
The trail then reaches another overlook.
This one had the same stonework as the first.
The view of the waterfall was even worse.
What was visible was the gorge downstream.
Whatever was below, it was a long way down.
I really wanted to see this waterfall by this point.
The trail then passes into the woods until it reaches a different stream.
This stream is
Yahoo Falls and Grotto
Yahoo Falls and the gotto behind it, possibly the most beautiful sight in Kentucky
a tributary to the one with the waterfall.
It follows this stream into the lower gorge.
Soon enough, things got interesting.
Large rocky cliffs started appearing above the trail.
Many of them had grooves carved in them from the wind.
It had rained recently, so these cliffs were dripping like crazy.
Not only was hiking under them guaranteed to be a bath, the trail was muddy and slippery.
The trail now picked its way around large rocks that had fallen from the cliffs.
It then turned a corner, and there was Yahoo Falls in all its glory.
The waterfall is first seen from the side.
It is a free dropping waterfall in front of an enormous cave grotto.
From the perspective of the trail, it appears to fall through thin air, barely touching the cliff.
The grotto in the cliff is huge, to the point everything else shrinks to insignificance.
In the back of the grotto near the center is a huge pile of rocks.
Worryingly, those rocks used to be on the roof.
A lone tree grows at the edge of
Cumberland River above the falls
The Cumbeland River just above Cumberland Falls.
the rock pile, equidistant from the back wall of the grotto and the waterfall.
When the sun shines directly in to create cinematic effects of light and shadow, as it was now, people could be forgiven for not noticing the waterfall at all.
This may be the best picture in Kentucky.
The trail goes into the cave and behind the waterfall.
Unlike Dry Falls and Grotto Falls [see The Land of Falling Water
], where the trail behind the falls is right next to the water, here it was a distance away.
The view is the downstream gorge, interrupted by a sliver of falls.
A number of plants are growing in the grotto wall, fed by waterfall spay.
Such communities are rare, and must be left undisturbed.
The trail finally reaches the other side of the waterfall, where the view is very similar to the first.
A display board here notes that evidence has been found of the grotto of Indian habitation over five hundred years ago.
The view in front of me was beautiful, one of the best of the trip so far.
I wanted to never
Cumberland Falls close up
Cumberland Falls from the viewpoint at the base, in high water.
I eventually did, both because spending the night here without gear would be tough and I had one more sight to see.
The trail out was as muddy as the trail in.
I found the crossing at the top more disturbing, knowing that I was basically standing on a large rock shelf.
The final sight of the day was Cumberland Falls
It’s the most powerful waterfall in Kentucky, measured by volume.
The Cumberland River falls over a U shaped cliff.
The parking lot is upstream from the waterfall.
It gives a wide river with some minor rapids.
A clear horizon line is downstream.
A sign by the fence warns that wading in the river is illegal, and will be prosecuted.
Of course, people will need to survive their trip over the waterfall first.
The trail from the parking lot first goes to the top of the falls.
Under normal conditions, the waterfall is a wide curtain falls
over a cliff.
It’s impressive, but not worthy of hype usually thrown at it.
After a heavy rain,
Cumberland Falls from Lover's Leap
Cumberland Falls from the Lover's Leap viewpoint, one of the most famous views in Kentucky.
like today, the waterfall becomes a huge brown pour over.
Some of the brown color, unfortunately, is tailings from strip mines upstream.
The bottom of the falls is a large rolling boil, giving off tons of spay.
At these times, the name state residents like to give this waterfall actually makes sense: The Niagara of the South.
A sign near the overlook describes the famous moonbow effect
When the moon is near full, it gives off enough light that the spray from the waterfall produces a rainbow.
A waterfall needs to face the right direction and produce a large amount of spray to get this effect, and north facing Cumberland Falls is one of only two in the world where it appears reliably (the other is Victoria Falls
The trail then goes to an overlook near the bottom of the waterfall.
From here, the sheer amount of water pouring over is obvious.
The viewing area is soaked with spray.
The trail then goes to the final overlook on a downstream cliff, another place called Lovers Leap [see Stress, Danger and Discovery
The overlook has a head-on view of the waterfall.
This view ranks with horse farms and bourbon distilleries in the list of stereotypical Kentucky images, because every guidebook has a picture of it.