Rockcastle Area Loop

Rockastle Area Loop
London Ranger District
Daniel Boone National Forest
(approx. 9 Miles Round Trip)


-Jason Burton

John Muir seems to always be going places in order to "see what I might learn". This phrase appears often in his work. And so, at the end of another year of changes, I went to the woods alone, to see what I might learn.

Life is still surprising for me, at the age of thirty-one. In the year 2003, I have made great new friends, been to some remarkable new places, improved my health, started performing music again, am about to fulfill a dream of mine to teach at the college level, and have really settled into my own skin. This has not all come easy. So, with the idea in mind of getting away from everything and everyone in order that I might reflect some light from my past into the future, hopefully illuminating some path, I set out for a place I'd never been for a weekend backpacking trip.

I drove South on I-75 to London, and then drove West to the London Dock and Marina at the confluence of the Rockcastle and Cumberland Rivers. Here, there is a loop trail of around 8 miles or so, with some side trails to add into the mix for a 9 to 12 mile backpacking trip. In my time at, I can not tell you the number of times that it has been asked where there is a nice 10 mile loop trail that doesn't require any road hiking. Not too many opportunities exist in KY for this type of trip, so it was with much anticipation and little expectation that I set out on the Lakeside South Trail (#412) which follows the east bank of the Cumberland River for about 5 miles.

Right away, I realized that I was not on a popular trail in the Red River Gorge or Big South Fork. This trail didn't look like it had seen much traffic in years, and the leaves of this past fall lay undisturbed along the path. Trail makers were never abundant, but always came at opportune times, making for a nice hiking experience. All was quiet except for the crunch of leaves beneath my shoes, and the occasional startling thunder of ice falling from cliffs. I walked on frost till I rounded the first bend in the river into glorious sunshine, instantly warming both my body and my heart. At the 2.5 mile point, I came upon a lovely cascade before reaching some rustic summer homes nestled in the woods above the lake. This community was completely deserted now, save for the distinct barking of a large and mean sounding dog I was glad I did not have to come face to face with.

Past this, the scenery improves, with impressive rock formations looming to the left, boulder fields strewn along the trail, and the river to the right. The north facing sections of the shore still held a thick hoarfrost which brought the welcome tint of blue to the normally dreary brown mudbanks.. The hiking here is never strenuous, with very little change in elevation as the trail only occasionally meanders away from the river in order to cross small streams. I am a fan of carrying as little weight as possible, so to be able to stop occasionally to filter a bit of water to drink was nice. I was in no hurry, only needing to cover about 5 miles the first day, so I took frequent breaks to scramble up to the cliffs or down to the water to take pictures.

Soon I reached the Twin Branch shelter, an open faced Adirondack shelter with room for at least 6, or 10 close friends. It was remarkably free of graffiti and very clean. Spider webs lined the roof, but the spiders were long since gone for the winter. I was nursing a slightly sore knee, so I did little exploring, only walking a short distance to a nice place to filter water for dinner and drinking, after which I just hung out in the shelter. Whether by design or accident, the shelter was positioned so that its open face caught both the last light of day and the first light of morning as the sun arcs low across the winter sky. I sat barefoot, napping in the afternoon rays, then reading a bit on the life of Francis of Assisi, and writing in my journal, reflecting on 2003.

In the morning, the suns reflection on the river cast a wonderful amount of light into the shelter, warming me and entertaining me with the dance of light on the shelters ceiling from the movement of the water. It had gotten below freezing during the night, but it was easy to crawl out of my warm bag into such a bright and cloudless morning. After breakfast, I was off up the 1.1 mile Twin Branch Trail (#406). I stopped again to filter water for the day, and then pressed on. The trail is never strenuous, though almost always heading up hill for the first of a mile. The trail winds through a forest of towering hemlock and sandstone, with an under story of the miserly rhododendron clinging to everything. The trail climbs through a series of boulders and low cliffs of beautiful conglomerate, and then eventually gains the ridge, where pine dominates the landscape.

Or at least it used to. The infestation of the Southern Pine Beetle a few years ago has left the ridge top a scene of devastation and scrub. Most all the pines are dead, their brown fingers stretched skyward into the now useless sunlight. Worse yet, many have fallen, and the trail is scarred with dead-fall. It is never difficult to negotiate, especially with a light pack. Some of the dead-fall has been cleared, but it is obvious more trees are falling all the time. Hikers are cautioned of this at each trailhead, and it would be wise to look up often while hiking along these ridge-tops.

The trail eventually meets KY highway 3497, and across form here, I started down the 2 mile Ned Branch trail (#405) which seemed to have seen even less traffic than the previous trail sections. The trail wanders mostly down hill into more hemlock and rhododendron, marked with several stream crossings and some nice scenery. At the stream crossings, the landscape is thick with green, even in mid winter. Moss grows everywhere and on everything. It is quite wonderful to walk a trail that has seen so little foot traffic that you are often walking on a bed of moss. This makes the feet glad, and makes the abused footpaths of the world seem little like wilderness. Sunlight filters through the barren trees, warming the active hiker, but frost stays in the deeper folds of the valley.

Once in the stream bottom, the trail has seen some damage. After a crossing in a bend, the trail is being overgrown with small hemlocks, which are easy to push through for now, but will eventually overgrow the trail. Near an area of obvious washout, the trail becomes somewhat difficult to negotiate. It stays on the right hand side the whole time, but you must clamber over some fallen trees and along banks of erosion. This section is mercifully short, and then the cause of this destruction becomes evident when you see a huge mass of trees in the stream bed, washed down during a flash flood.

Soon after this, you meet the Lakeside North Trail (#411), a spur trail which follows the Rockcastle River for a mile to a dead-end. The Ned Branch trail turns left about 30 feet before the trail sign for 411, crosses the creek at a "foot travel welcome" sign, backtracks slightly, then heads uphill under some large boulders and around the side of a hill and into the Rockcastle campground. This campground is obviously older, as it is almost entirely tent sites, with no large parking spaces for RVs or even pop-up campers. The campground is closed in winter and was completely deserted. In fact, I didn't see another soul on the whole trip save for a lone boater on the Cumberland River, and a few folks at the marina as I was leaving. I had the entire trail all to myself the whole wonderfully warm weekend.

From the end of the Ned Branch Trail back to the parking area is just a half mile or so, but I decided to check out the overlooks of the Scuttle Hole Trail (#404). This short trail goes uphill to some beautiful sandstone cliff, with a gap in the rock which has been turned into a set of steps which go up to the ridge top. Here, the overlooks are beautiful; but again, not trampled like so many other scenic overlooks in the state. Nature is recapturing the area, and that is a wonderful thing to see. Grass grows high at the overlook railings, and rotted timbers haven't been replaced.

After playing around in the area for a few minutes, I backtracked down the hill into the campground and out to my waiting car. I spent the next couple days readjusting to being around people, as the solitude I had on this wonderful loop hike was startling. This was also just what I needed. I went to be alone so I could reflect and think. On this trail, I found plenty of solitude, and the long night of winter left me with plenty of time to think. I won't bore you with what I learned about myself on this trail, but I will tell you something I did learn. The next time somebody asks me to recommend a 10 or so mile loop trail; I know where I'll point them.

How to Get There:
Take I-75 to exit 38 at London, turning west on KY 192. Go 14 miles, then turn south (left) on KY 1193 for 1 mile, then head straight (bearing right) onto KY 3497, go 6 miles to the end of the road and the marina.

Seasons to Go:
Fall and Winter will likely give you the most solitude and best views. Late Spring and Summer will bring swarms of bugs along the river, as well as the constant traffic of boats.

Other Considerations:
The Twin Branch Shelter is very nice and gives you the opportunity to do some backpacking without having to pack a tent, though in summer you might want some bug netting. Around the shelter is space for several tents if it happens to be full or if you take a larger group. There is ample water available on this trail, though i would suggest always filtering water from the small streams and not from the river itself. The trail isn't always easy to follow, so keep an eye out for occasional diamond blazes and chainsaw cut deadfall for trail markers when you get disoriented. Carry a map. All the trails are contained on the Sawyer Quad. The campground is open May-October for $7.00 a night. The trail is remarkably free of trash, even along the river. Keep it that way, practice leave no trace hiking and camping.

More Information
For more information about hiking in the Rockastle Area or the London District of the Daniel Boone National Forest, contact
London District Office
PHONE: 606-864-4163

London Ranger District
Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky
Rockastle Area Trails
Trails hiked:
#412, Lakeside South, 4.2 miles
#406, Twin Branch, 1.1 miles
#405, Ned Branch, 2 miles
#404, Scuttle Hole, .75 miles one way
Rockcastle Campground, .5 miles
Total Mileage: 9.3


Bridge along the Lakeside South Trail

Cumberland River
Frosty bank of the Cumberland River

Thick frost in the morning shade.

Rock Formations
Rock formations along the Lakeside South Trail.

Twin Branch Shelter
Twin Branch Shelter along the Cumberland

Twin Branch Trail
Twin Branch Trail

Rockastle River
View of the Rockastle River

Overlook on the Scuttle Hole Trail

Looking at the confluence of the Rockcastle and Cumberland Rivers

The author drinks his breakfast in the early morning sun at the Twin Branch Shelter since he forgot his spoon. One thing he learned is that he should probably make a checklist.

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