Distance: 2.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 95 ft.
Unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of the waterfall season in this part of the world. With the exception of a few behomoths like Cumberland Falls, most waterfalls in the region have slowed to little more than a trickle as the plentiful rainfall of late winter and early spring has become a distant memory.
That means Princess Falls can’t be viewed in all its splendor this time of year. The best time for visiting this incredible waterfall is a little earlier in the year — after the spring green-up has begun but before summer’s dryness has set in.
Still, the hike to Princess Falls is worth the effort — not in the least because it really doesn’t require much effort. It’s an easy out-and-back hike on level ground, featuring less than 100 ft. of elevation gain over the course of 2.9 miles.
To put that into perspective, last week’s hike to Needle’s Eye — if hiked from the O&W — featured nearly 500 ft. of elevation gain in less than half a mile to start.
So, yes, it’s fair to say that the hike to Princess Falls is a leisurely stroll through the woods, which will likely be a welcome reprieve for participants of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge who are still catching their breath after the exerting climb on the John Muir Trail and the knee-straining descent on the so-called “Oh Poop” trail back to O&W Road.
Located on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, the hike to Princess Falls begins at Yamacraw Bridge on Ky. Hwy. 92 west of Whitley City. The hike itself begins in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, but the waterfall is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Princess Falls is formed by a rock ledge along Lick Creek, not far from the Big South Fork River, creating a curtain of water that drops 20 ft. into a pool below.
The Sheltowee Trace Trail along which hikers will travel to get to Princess Falls is named for Daniel Boone, the notable American explorer who pioneered these lands. Sheltowee was the name given to Boone by the Shawnee Tribe after he was adopted by Chief Blackfish. It means “Big Turtle.”
Boone, who blazed the route through the Cumberland Gap that was taken by more than 200,000 Americans as they moved west from North Carolina into Kentucky and Tennessee, was not actually friendly with the Shawnee Indians of Kentucky, however. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was captured by members of the tribe while on a trapping expedition in 1769. Later, his oldest son James was brutally tortured and killed by Shawnee warriors in a massacre in Powell Valley not far north of Claiborne County.
Boone later battled the Shawnee during Dunmore’s War in 1774, and during the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the Shawnee captured Boone’s daughter, Jemima, and two other teenage girls. Boone pursued the party and rescued the girls in an episode made famous by the fictitious account, The Last of the Mohicans.
In April 1777, Boone was wounded during a Shawnee raid on Boonesborough that was led by Chief Blackfish.
The following winter, Boone led an expedition of men to find salt for food preservation and was taken captive by the Shawnee. He helped convince his comrades to surrender rather than put up a fight, and convinced the Shawnee not to attack Boonesborough, saying the women and children who were encamped there would be ready to surrender by the spring.
That’s how Boone came to be “adopted” by the Shawnee. It was a custom of the tribe to adopt prisoners to replace fallen warriors. Though Boone was said to have lived happily with the Shawnee for several months, he escaped in June 1778 when he learned that the warriors were planning to attack Boonesborough. He made it back to the fort in five days to warn the settlers about the pending attack, and helped the whites defend the encampment against Blackfish’s warriors during a 10-day siege.
Following the battle, Boone was court-martialed because it was believed that he had switched his loyalty. But he was acquitted, and his court testimony helped make him a legend.
Still later, Boone’s brother was attacked and killed by Shawnee warriors. Believing they had killed Daniel Boone, the warriors beheaded his brother and carried his head away as a souvenir.
That’s the story behind the Sheltowee Trace. Meanwhile, Princess Falls also has Native American connotations. It is named for Princess Cornblossom, the legendary — and, likely, mythical — Cherokee war princess.
As legend tells it, Princess Cornblossom was born in 1765, the daughter of Chief Doublehead, or Chuqulataque, of the Cumberland Cherokees. She married Big Jake Troxel, a trader from Wayne County, Ky. The Troxels had seven children, but died in the Yahoo Falls massacre of 1810 — a completely different legend, also likely a myth, that tells the story of defenseless Cherokees, mainly women and children, being murdered by Indian hunters under the direction of John Sevier.
One of the daughters of Big Jake and Cornblossom was Catherine “Katy” Troxel, the first wife of Jonathan Blevins, who was among the first white settlers of the Big South Fork settlements on the Tennessee side.
Before the Internet made genealogy research easier, the legend of Princess Cornblossom was generally accepted. However, as Troxel descendants researched their family and exchanged notes via the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they began to doubt the validity of the legend.
Today, both the Yahoo Falls massacre and the very existence of Princess Cornblossom are doubted by historians.
Genealogy experts say it’s unlikely that Cornblossom existed because there’s no evidence to support the claim, and Cherokee women did not bear the title of princess; there was no royalty in the Cherokee tribe. Jacob Troxell, they say, likely did not marry an Indian woman.
The legends of Princess Cornblossom and the Yahoo Falls massacre began with a 1958 book written by a Troxel descendant. That book was the first documentation of Cornblossom.
Nevertheless, Princess Falls is a beautiful waterfall, and the trail getting there is quite scenic.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to near Whitley City, then turn left onto Ky. Hwy. 92 and continue about 6.3 iles 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.
Fun Fact: The Sheltowee Trace Trail is blazed with a turtle. Sheltowee means “Slow Turtle,” and was the name given to Daniel Boone by the Shawnee.
Be Careful For: The trail is muddy in places, particularly after a rainfall. If exploring around Princess Falls, be careful for slipper rocks.
Make it Better: Because the only thing better than one waterfall is two waterfalls, continue your hike up Lick Creek to Lick Creek Falls. From Princess Falls, you’ll leave the Sheltowee Trace and follow the creek by hiking east along the Lick Creek Trail, until you reach a spur trail leading to the waterfall. After you reach the waterfall, retrace your steps to Yamacraw. The total hike to both waterfalls is 5.5 miles with 614 ft. of elevation gain.
Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and Instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be eligible for a drawing.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, please pack it out!