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27 Mar 2009 - Rockcastle Narrows Loop

February 13-15, 2009

Rockcastle Narrows Loop
Daniel Boone National Forest

by Mark W

Rockcastle River


After spending Valentine's Day weekend in the Daniel Boone National Forest backpacking the loop formed by the Sheltowee Trace and the Rockcastle Narrows East trail, I can say for certain that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this area.  My girlfriend, who had never been backpacking prior to this trip, was thrilled with the experience and said she couldn't imagine a better introduction to backpacking.   The trail was easy to hike on and surrounded by beautiful scenery.  I can't remember encountering one dull stretch of trail during the 11 miles we covered.

We parked at the trailhead near the intersection of KY-592 and KY-1193 and hiked in about a mile and a half before making camp on the first night.  The site we chose was in the vicinity of a pleasant stream that paralleled the trail before joining a larger steam later on.  There was a large boulder near our site and the area reminded me of one of the designated campsites I stayed at during a backpacking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the previous summer.  We were able to get everything set up in time to sit down and enjoy the twilight before night set in, and being the middle of February night came early.  Flashlights were needed after about 6:15.  We went to bed early that night and enjoyed falling asleep to the soothing sound of a running stream instead of the sirens and traffic noise of Lexington.

There were a few light rain showers overnight, but most everything was relatively dry by the time we exited the tent in the morning.  The morning was chilly, but mild for February, and the fire we ate breakfast beside was more of a luxury than a necessity.  After packing everything up we made our way back to the trail and continued towards Van hook Falls and the intersection with the Rockcastle Narrows East trail.  I cannot emphasize enough how gorgeous this stretch of trail is.  Multiple waterfalls of varying size dotted the creek followed by the trail.  Some of these were easily accessed and others would have required a bit more effort than we felt like exerting with miles to go and camp to set up.  There were also several small trailside rockshelters.  The views of the miniature gorge created by Pounder's Branch, a tributary of Cane Creek, was also a highlight of the first section of this trail.

After about a half-hour of hiking, we arrived at the confluence of Pounder's Branch and Cane Creek.  Both streams were flowing fully and the rock ledges that constituted the banks of Cane Creek were an ideal spot to take a short break and soak up the scenery.  After we resumed hiking it was only about five minutes before we were at Van Hook Falls, which we could hear well before we could see.  Van Hook Falls was an impressive sight and we took an extended break there to eat lunch and admire the waterfall and the rockshelter.

The next section of trail featured nice ridge-top vistas early and exposed rock later, but the bar for scenery was set pretty high by the first two miles of this route.  The area where Cane Creek enters the Rockcastle River was the standout of the first few miles after Van Hook Falls.  We continued on the trail as it cut between the Rockcastle River on the left and steep hills and cliffs to the right (east) side of the trail.  After about a mile we came across a fairly well used campsite directly above a series of rapids and decided that would be as good a place as any to call home for the night.  We were definitely not disappointed with our choice.  Amidst the sun bleached tree trunks deposited atop the boulders by receding floodwaters after being carried downstream was a crumpled aluminum jon-boat that was a frightening reminder of the power of water.  The large boulders that lined the river made great places to lie in the sun and warm up the few times it showed itself during the afternoon and were perfect perches to stargaze from at night.

After breakfast, we began what the final leg of the journey that would return us to the parking area.  After crossing an inlet flooded with trash and debris, including a TV, we began the steepest climb of the trip.  Other than this accumulation, the rest of the trail was refreshingly free of litter.  On the climb we encountered our only significant obstacle, a downed tree over the trail, which was surprising given the ice and wind storms of the previous months.   Unfortunately, the tree was too large and the trail too steep on either side to circumvent this barrier.  I had to use my hand-saw to cut off several limbs on the bottom of the tree which allowed us to crawl under after removing our packs.  Other than this minor inconvenience, the rest of the climb was uneventful until we reached the ridge.  At this point, the trail intersected what appeared to be a Forest Service road, although this disagreed with our map.  There was no indication of which way to go and no blazes on nearby trees.  We followed the road, which was actually the unmarked trail, to the intersection with Forest Service road a quarter mile away and easily located the trail at that point.  The disorienting nature of this part of the trail is my only complaint.  After this point there was a moderate descent and some streamside walking, and before we knew it we were at the junction with the Sheltowee Trace which we would take back to Van Hook Falls.  The hike to the falls was very scenic with several larger trees visible from the trail and a few small waterfalls.  After reaching Van Hook Falls we followed the same segment of the Sheltowee Trace that we had begun on back to parking area.  This was the only backtracking on the trip and, fortunately for us, was on what we found to be the most pleasant part of the loop.

I would highly recommend this area to anyone in the central Kentucky area who wants to experience many of the features offered by the Red River Gorge and the Smoky Mountains, but without the crowds or the long drive.  The route we took is perfect as a weekend backpacking trip or a lengthy day hike and the moderate difficulty of the trail makes it perfect for anyone looking for great scenery without straining too much.
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