Pounder Branch Gorge

Pounder Branch Gorge
Off-Trail Hike
Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

by Mark W
Date:  April 10-12, 2009
Maps used:  U.S.G.S.  Ano quad

On a mid-February backpacking trip along the Sheltowee Trace, my girlfriend and I were intrigued by the numerous waterfalls that were either visible or audible from the section of trail between Cane Creek and the parking area at KY-192.  The most numerous of these waterfalls occurred between the confluence of Pounder Branch and a small tributary, located approximately a mile and a half down the trail from the parking area, and the bridge that crosses Pounder Branch.  Our schedule on that trip kept us from properly exploring the Pounder Branch gorge, and we decided to return later in the year to dedicate as much time as possible to exploring the area.

    The second weekend in April provided us with an excellent opportunity to fulfill this desire; there had been recent rains which would ensure the streams would be flowing swiftly and the forecast called for mild weather on Friday and Saturday.  In order to optimize the amount of time we could spend trekking through the Pounder Branch gorge we decided to spend both nights at a campsite we had used on a previous trip.  In the vicinity of a pleasant stream and amongst large, moss-covered boulders we pitched our tent and, since temperatures were predicted to drop into the upper 30s overnight, built a fire ring.  After completing these and a few other camp chores, we took a short stroll alongside the creek that flowed near our campsite.  No more than 50 yards downstream, the creek slid down a stretch of exposed rock and into a small pool.  A small cliff line, about as tall as a one-story building and nearly vertical in several places, rose from one side of the creek, adding an element of unexpected scenery.  We followed the creek to its intersection with the stream that parallels the trail. Upstream from the confluence, a small waterfall pours into a wide, shallow plunge pool lined with sandy banks and lush vegetation.  In the sun and warmth of the afternoon, an almost tropical ambience was present.  Several guidebooks mention this waterfall as being approximately 1.3-1.5 miles from the parking area.  Located directly beside the Sheltowee Trace, we found it to be an excellent landmark from which to begin our journey into the Pounder Branch gorge.

Creek and Cliff Confluence Pool

    After breakfast the next morning, we packed a small bag with our lunches and water and returned to the confluence we had reached on the previous night's hike.  We walked beside the creek, which from that point on is listed as Pounder Branch on maps, and were able to look across at the Sheltowee Trace before it became obscured by trees and other growth.  After only a few dozen yards, the stream suddenly narrowed into a chute between several large rocks and plunged several feet into a frothy pool below.  We were able to view this from a break in the rhododendron above the waterfall, but could find no way to view it from its base.  Continuing downstream, we again heard the familiar sound of water, gravity and topography combining to create the mesmerizing spectacle that is a waterfall.  Upon reaching where the sound emanated from, we discovered that it was not one waterfall, but rather a series of cascades, narrow channels through and under rocks, and short drops.  This stretch of creek was easily accessible and the numerous large boulders and rock outcroppings provided several places from which one could sit in the middle of the stream and enjoy the sight, sound, smell and misty feel of the water rushing past.

Drop and Cascade

    Shortly after this section of creek, the stream bent sharply westward before straightening back out and we noticed that we were gaining several feet in elevation every few dozen yards.  Within a few minutes we were once again able to hear rushing water, but were not able to see it due to thick growth and the dangerous drops that we would have to skirt to attempt to look down into the creek.  Careful examination of the area revealed a four to five foot drop, and using the assistance of exposed tree roots we were able to reach stream-side.  This short scramble seemed like a tiny inconvenience given the sights we were rewarded with once we began to look around.  Almost every square yard of water both up and downstream was in constant motion.  There were very few calm spots of water; it was almost all either swiftly flowing over rocks, dropping over small ledges, or turning white from the force which channeled it through the dozens of small boulders that filled the stream.  A narrow 15-foot tall waterfall lay just upstream from where we dropped down, only a few feet behind a small cascade shrouded on both sides by rhododendron.  Immediately to the left of this waterfall was a fairly large rock-shelter, accessible by a short wade across the stream.  This crossing required us to remove our shoes and carefully tread our way through the frigid water.  Upon reaching the other side, we decided to lounge around in our bare feet in the warm sun that reached the stream-side rock ledges and enjoy our lunch.  We found the rock-shelter to be free of graffiti, trash or other obvious vandalism, but we did see evidence of a campfire.  Looking at the map, we determined that the waterfall adjacent to the rock-shelter was fed by a drainage that crossed the Sheltowee Trace.  This was confirmed when we began to wade back across the creek to continue our journey and witnessed several backpackers hiking along the trail, partially hidden by foliage and oblivious both to our presence and the beauty that lay beneath them. 

    As we resumed our trek toward the Pounder Branch and Cane Creek confluence, we noticed that the creek kept dropping further and further away, with no readily apparent way to safely access it.  The undergrowth and topography for the next several hundred yards made it difficult, as well as dangerous, to venture close enough to the edge to obtain a view of the creek and the cliffs that bordered it.  Eventually we reached the small, unnamed brook that our maps indicated was a tributary of Pounder Branch.  We also recognized this stream as being the one that fed a tall waterfall we had seen tumbling into the gorge from the Sheltowee Trace on our prior backpacking trip.  We followed this stream to its steep, sudden descent and enjoyed a spectacular, and somewhat vertigo inducing, view of the Pounder Branch gorge.  From here, we decided to retrace our steps and look for a way to reach the base of this waterfall, which at this point was more than 60 feet below.

    After diligent scouting of every crevice and slope along the way, we finally found access to a lower level that provided us with a clear view of the creek.  From here we were able to skirt a narrow rock ledge and reach a steep slope that ended at water level only a few steps away from the creek.   Working our way downstream, we were forced by the thick vegetation, mostly rhododendron, to leave our waterside footpath.  At the end of this detour and accompanying descent, we found ourselves standing at the edge of the plunge pool of a wide, powerful waterfall approximately 10-15 feet high.  The pool was lined mostly with sand and a rock wall formed its outer boundary and directed the water downstream toward Cane Creek.  There was something very peaceful and awe inspiring about this waterfall and the place it poured into.  Perhaps it was the intimacy provided by the topography and the vibrancy of the plant life.  The rock walls stretched upward on either side, with countless trees and other plants following them for much of their upward course.  Captivated by the sight of the sun illuminating the spray of the waterfall, we paused for several minutes before following the stream to the base of the waterfall whose precipice we had stood at barely a half-hour before.  At the base of this waterfall, the stream widened considerably and deepened to waist-level before providing a footpath on the other side in front of what appeared to be a small rock-shelter, causing us to pause and debate whether or not we wanted to press onward.  Given the slow pace the difficult terrain would make for on our trip back to camp, the meager amount of food and water we had left, and the limited amount of daylight we had left, turning back seemed to be the prudent, although disheartening decision to make.

Waterfall and Pool Waterfall and Rock Shelter

    The incredible beauty of the creek's course sank in deeply on our hike back to the campsite; every simple sight we passed seemed more captivating and special given the context we could now place it in.  Every ripple of water and cliff face seemed more intense, more spectacular.  The relatively short distance, perhaps only a little over 300 hundred yards, between where we accessed the lower level and where we turned back was certainly one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery I have encountered in the region.  Rather than a single rock formation or waterfall serving as the aesthetic flagship of nature, multiple features combined in this stretch of Pounder Branch make it a truly awesome sight.  Rock, water, and vegetation are all displayed in stunning form in this area.

    Back at camp, we wound the evening down with cups of warm tea, followed by a brief after-dark adventure to view the nearby waterslide-waterfall as illuminated by our flashlights, and a small fire once the temperatures began to drop into the upper 40s.

Waterslide Waterfall

    Camp was broken quickly the next morning, as the forecast had called for afternoon thunderstorms in the area.  Arriving at the trailhead after a mile and a half hike back at around 11 a.m., both of us were still impressed at how much we had seen in such a short stretch of creek.

    To reach this scenic section of Pounder Branch, you should park at the KY-192 parking area for the Sheltowee Trace.  After hiking approximately a mile on the trail, those looking for the creek side excursion should begin scouting for places to descend to water level.  Crossing to the other side of the creek is perhaps not necessary, but we found it easier to do so.  Many of the access points are relatively difficult, and several spots downstream present significant obstacles to quick and easy travel.  Needless to say, persons not in their best health or those inexperienced in off-trail navigation or maneuvering alongside or in creeks should not put themselves at risk by attempting this trek.  Given the cold temperature of the water and the mild air temperature (65 degrees), our journey didn't involve any wading.  Upon my recommendation, a fellow hiker and his friend undertook this journey during the summer, wading through the shallow pools that we didn't attempt to cross and ultimately reaching the Sheltowee Trace at the bridge where it crosses Pounder Branch.  This provides an option for exploring the Pounder Branch gorge without backtracking and allows it to be travelled almost all the way to its confluence with Cane Creek.

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