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Late winter and spring are the best time for waterfalls in the Cumberlands

Late winter and spring are the best times of year to visit waterfalls in the Cumberland Plateau region

As winter slowly drags on towards spring, more and more folks start hankering for opportunities to get outside in February and March. Mild weather is typically making more frequent interludes, songbirds are starting to migrate back through the region, and early flowers are beginning to sprout. By sometime around mid February, frogs will begin to sing. The seasons are changing.

There’s no better excuse for getting outside and beating off the winter blues during this time of year than by visiting one or two of the many waterfalls that can be found throughout the Cumberlands. Late winter and spring are the waterfall season in this part of the world — specifically because it is the wet season. Some of our waterfalls flow at full strength year-round, but most of them are dependent on recent rainfall, which means they dry up to a trickle during the summer months.

There are advantages to both the winter and spring seasons. Cold spells in the winter months can create stunning ice formations around waterfalls, adding to their beauty. Spring brings a lushness to the landscape that’s otherwise missing. Either way, this is the best time of year to get out and explore falling water.

Some of the best waterfalls in this region are located off the trail. Bandy Creek Falls is easily the most spectacular waterfall in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, but it’s difficult to get to. No Tell Falls is the most unique waterfall in the national park, but it, too, is off-trail. Other waterfalls — like Black Creek Falls — are located on private land; to get to them is to trespass on someone else’s property.

Fortunately, though, there are plenty of options that are on public land and on the beaten path. Here are a few of them.

Northrup Falls is the crown jewel of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area in eastern Fentress County, between Rugby and Allardt | Photo: Sarah Dunlap

Northrup Falls

There is no better place to start your waterfall explorations in this part of the world than at Northrup Falls. This 60-ft. waterfall is among the most spectacular waterfalls in all of Tennessee, and it’s located in the Colditz Cove State Natural Area just outside of Allardt.

Colditz Cove is a 165-acre natural area surrounding Big Branch Creek. It is named for Oneida’s Colditz brothers — Arnold and Rudolph, who were born in Allardt before making their fortunes as businessmen in Oneida, and who donated most of the property that makes up the state natural area. This treasured landscape is home to several relatively rare animals, like the Black Mountain dusky salamander, the woodland jumping mouse and the smoky shrew. It’s also home to Northrup Falls, which can be accessed via an easy, 1.3-mile loop trail that begins and ends on Northrup Falls Road.

To get there, take S.R. 52 west from Elgin, past Rugby, and to near Allardt. Just before reaching Allardt, Northrup Falls turns left. The sign for Colditz Cove is on the right about a mile down Northrup Falls Road. If you come to the “giant pumpkin” water tower on S.R. 52, you’ve gone too far.

During prolonged periods of subfreezing temperatures, monstrous ice mounds form at the base of Yahoo Falls in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Photo: Greg Davis

Yahoo Falls

Not only is Yahoo Falls the tallest waterfall in all of Kentucky, but it has the distinction of being the most famous waterfall in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Located in McCreary County, Yahoo Falls is the site of an alleged massacre of Cherokee Indian women and children in the early 19th century. As legend has it, the Cherokees were ambushed and murdered by Indian fighters under the command of John Sevier.

The massacre probably never happened, historians agree, but that makes Yahoo Falls itself no less spectacular. There is an easy, 1-mile loop trail that leads hikers both above and beneath the falls, and a massive rock shelter behind the waterfall that is almost as stunning as Yahoo Falls itself.

To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Whitley City. Turn west on Ky. Hwy. 700 for four miles and follow the signs to Yahoo Falls Trailhead.

Princess Falls is located on the Sheltowee Trace Trail in the Daniel Boone National Forest | Photo: Sarah Dunlap

Princess Falls

While you’re in Kentucky to check out Yahoo Falls, you might want to knock out two waterfalls at once by also visiting nearby Princess Falls. It, too, is a spectacular waterfall, though it isn’t nearly as tall as Yahoo Falls.

Speaking of Yahoo Falls, it has more in common with Princess Falls than just their close proximity to one another. Princess Falls is named for Princess Cornblossom of the Doublehead Cherokees, who legend says was present at the alleged massacre at Yahoo Falls.

Just like the massacre itself, historians and genealogists agree that Princess Cornblossom probably didn’t exist. But the story is an intriguing one, and many people throughout the Cumberlands trace their ancestry through this mysterious figure.

Princess Falls is formed by a rock ledge along Lick creek, not far from the Big South Fork River, which creates a curtain of water that drops 20 feet into a pool below. If it has recently rained, the hiking trail leading to the waterfall will be quite muddy. But it is otherwise an easy and scenic hike, an out-and-back trail that is just over two miles in length.

To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Whitley City, turn left onto Ky. Hwy. 92, and travel about 6.3 miles to the Big South Fork River. Just before the Yamacraw Bridge, there is a parking lot and trailhead. The Sheltowee Trace departs the highway on its north side.

Slave Falls is a picturesque waterfall near Divide Road in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Ben Garrett/IH

Slave Falls

Yahoo Falls and Princess Falls aren’t the only waterfalls in the Big South Fork region with historical connotations. Legend has it that runaway slaves were once hidden in the rock shelter behind the 60-ft. sheer drop where Mill Creek drops over a cliff as it makes its way towards the headwaters of Station Camp Creek.

Slave Falls is one of the more picturesque waterfalls in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and it is the crown jewel of the Slave Falls Loop Trail that begins and ends at Sawmill Trailhead off Divide Road. The hike is an easy, 3.8-mile loop featuring only 150 ft. in elevation gain. There is a four-tenths of a mile spur trail that leads hikers to Needle’s Arch as an added bonus, and the trail also includes a visit to Indian Rock House, which is one of the largest rock shelters in the Big South Fork NRRA.

To get there, take S.R. 297 west through the Big South Fork NRRA to S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn north on S.R. 154 and continue for two miles to Divide Road (if you enter Pickett State Park, you’ve gone too far), then right again onto Fork Ridge Road. Sawmill Trailhead is located seven-tenths of a mile along Fork Ridge Road.

DeBord Falls is located along the Emory Gap Trail at Frozen Head State Park | Photo: James Vallee

DeBord Falls

The scenic DeBord Falls is actually one of two waterfalls featured on the Emory Gap Trail at Frozen Head.

Coupled with the state forest that surrounds it, Frozen Head State Park encompasses 24,000 acres of sheer beauty in the Cumberland Mountains. Frozen Head itself is a peak that stands more than 3,32 ft. in elevation with thickly forested slopes below it and a series of hiking trails that explore the area.

Emory Gap Trail is a 2.8-mile hike that features more than 450 ft. in elevation gain, giving it a difficulty rating of moderate. DeBord Falls is the most easily-accessed of the two waterfalls along the hike, located just six-tenths of a mile from the trailhead. There’s a set of wooden steps leading from the main trail to an unobstructed view of the two-tiered waterfall.

It’s another seven-tenths of a mile to the intersection of Panther Branch Trail and Emory Gap Trail, and from there, a half-mile to Emory Gap Falls.

To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Wartburg, then continue straight at the traffic light onto S.R. 62. In two miles, turn left onto Flat Fork Road and continue 5.2 miles to the end of the road at the upper end of Frozen Head State Park.

Fall Branch Falls, located along the John Litton Farm Loop Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Ben Garrett/IH

Fall Branch Falls

Closer to home, Fall Branch Falls won’t get much recognition among the other waterfalls featured on this list, but it’s still well worth the hike. It’s located along the 6.3-mile John Litton Farm Loop Trail that begins and ends at Bandy Creek Campground in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, but it can also be accessed via a 4.4-mile out-and-back hike.

Despite its length, the Litton Farm Loop isn’t terribly difficult to hike, and visiting the historic farm of John Litton and General Slaven makes the extra couple of miles well worth the effort.

From the parking lot at the Bandy Creek swimming pool, the trail is mostly downhill along Fall Branch for 2.2 miles — featuring a short ladder and a low-hanging rock ledge — before the waterfall comes into view on the right. It’s possible to scramble down to the base of the falls and stand behind it, enjoying a different perspective as the water tumbles into the pool at the base.

To get there, take S.R. 297 into the Big South Fork and turn right onto Bandy Creek Road. Upon arriving at the National Park Service’s visitor center and campground, turn right into the campground, then left to go to the parking area.

Melton Mill Branch Falls is a spectacular waterfall along the Bridge Trail to Lilly Bluff Overlook in the Obed Wild & Scenic River | Ben Garrett/IH

Melton Mill Branch Falls

There are actually two waterfalls along the 1.3-mile Lilly Bluff Overlook trail at the Obed Wild & Scenic River, both of them slightly off-trail, but one of them visible from the trail itself.

The trail is short, but its 240 ft. in elevation gain give it a difficulty rating of moderate. The destination is Lilly Bluff Overlook, which offers spectacular views of Clear Creek. Explorers can actually drive to the top of the gorge and enjoy a short, level stroll from a parking area to the overlook, but skipping the 1.3-mile trail from the river to the top robs hikers of a visit to the waterfalls.

Both the upper and lower Melton Mill Branch Falls are located along the stream of the same name. There are unnamed and unsigned spur trails leading to both waterfalls, the roar of which can be heard before they even come into view.

The second waterfall — Upper Melton Mill Branch Falls — is easily the most spectacular of the two, though both are scenic and photo-worthy.

To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south through Sunbright. A short distance past the Morgan County Fairgrounds, turn right onto S.R. 62 and continue west for 4.3 miles before turning left onto Ridge Road. Continue another 3.8 miles to Clear Creek Bridge. There is ample parking on either side of the bridge, and Bridge Trail — the official name of the 1.3-mile trail leading to Lilly Bluff Overlook — leaves the highway on the west side of the bridge.

Footnote: There are many additional waterfalls not featured here, in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area but especially in the Daniel Boone National Forest just to the north in Kentucky. Greg Davis, a McCreary County photographer, has documented many of these spectacular landforms. His photos can be found in various places, including on Facebook.

This story is the February 2021 installment of Focus On: Outdoor Life, presented by Ray Varner Ford of Clinton on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B5 of the Feb. 4, 2021 edition of the Independent Herald.

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