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30 November 2009

Knobstone Trail

by Gene Snider

I had gotten bored hiking the same trails over and over again, so I decided to try another of the Indiana sites to see what it had to offer.  A little searching revealed a lot of available information on the Knobstone Trail (KT).  Numerous people have detailed their trips with GPS maps, waypoints, water sources, etc. There are two very good, free PDF maps of this trail from Indiana Dept of Natural Resources.  The KT runs basically north to south, paralleling and about 10 miles to the west of Interstate 65.  The southern terminus is at Deam Lake and the northern terminus is at Delany Creek County Park. 

I studied the material for a few weeks and decided on a three day/two night backpacking trip.  Unfortunately, work once again interfered with my leisure activities and I was forced to postpone the outing twice.  By the time I was able to make the trip, the weather had changed to heavy rain and I altered my plans to a two day/one night trip. 

I started at the Deam Lake trailhead and hiked north.  There is available parking at this point for 6-8 vehicles.  I don't know how secure this parking area is, so I opted for my wife to drop me off instead of leaving my car.  The parking area is only 30 feet or so off of the road, which is well traveled by locals.  It really appears to be a "safe" location.  I haven't read any reports of breakins on the KT so my fears most likely are unfounded.
The day I started, there were four vehicles parked at this location, so I expected to run into other hikers during my trip.

I took my first step on the KT about 8:10 am.  One nice feature of the KT is the inclusion of Carsonite mile markers at each mile point.  For a "first timer" on this trail, this proved to be a really nice feature.  I blew by the "1 mile" post only 20 minutes into my hike.  My pack weighed 30+ lbs and based on my first mile I wrongly assumed that this was going to be an easy backpacking trip.  Little did I know that this would be the easiest mile of the entire two day trip.

I stopped for quick photos around mile #3.

 Somewhere between mile #3 and #4 I ran into another solo backpacker traveling the opposite direction.  I must have surprised him as he didn't have much to say and didn't even break his stride while continuing on to the south.  He was the last person I would see for the remainder of the trip, so I have no idea why all the other cars were parked at the trailhead. 

Mile #4 found me atop of the first knob taking my first break.  There is a nice scenic view to the east and south on this knob.

During the summer months, with the trees full of leaves, I think this view would be obscured.   I noticed from this elevated vantage point that there were many planes turning on final approach to Louisville International Airport almost directly overhead.  This area must be close to one of the outer markers used for navigating turns when the planes are landing from the north.

Between mile #4 and #6 is where I got introduced to Knobstone's serious verticals.  This trail wasn't designed with backpackers in mind.  Day hikers will find the verticals challenging.  Backpackers will find them very strenuous.  In a few areas there are switchbacks to make the elevation changes more tolerable.  However, most of the ascents and descents are straight up and straight down, which makes for slow going.  I found the descents most troublesome.  They are so steep, that even in the areas where steps are provided, I had to turn sideways, and side step down the steps.  To add to the effort, it was wet and the ground was covered with new fallen leaves.  I would never attempt this trail without at least one hiking pole, preferably two.  I used two poles on this trip, and there were many spots where I was forced into pole plants for each individual step.  One slip and I would have gone rolling down the hills.

I stopped for a break at about 5.4 miles at the Jackson Road Trailhead intersection.

This is a nice stopping point with lots of water.

At mile #6, I was at Round Knob, with another nice panoramic view of the surrounding area.

I continued on with more serious ups and downs until I got to mile #7.  At this point I was getting hungry and starting to drag.  I also realized that I was less than halfway through the mileage that I had planned to cover the first day.  I knew it would be dark around 5:30 pm in the valleys, so I couldn't waste time during my stops.  I usually try to stop for about 10 minutes every 1.5-2 hours. 

At 7.3 miles I was on top of another knob with a nice panorama.

I was wet in perspiration even though I was wearing all synthetics.  The wind was blowing constantly on the ridge tops and with the temperature in the upper 40's I couldn't stop for long to take pictures before getting chilled.

Just as I started down off of this knob, to my right, was a small rock shelter with numerous names carved in the limestone. 

Obviously, people were visiting this area long before my time.  I walked up to the rock ledge and touched the names carved there.  I couldn't help but wonder who these people were who had taken the time to carve their names, so many years ago.  I wonder what kind of lives they had and whatever happened to them.  This is the spot where another backpacker's trip report noted the infamous "Waler" carved in the rock.  Poor Walter wasn't paying attention as he carved his name into this rock ledge.  Only after his efforts were complete did he realize that he had left the "T" out of his name.  In an effort to correct his mistake he tried to insert the "T" in his already carved "Waler".  He evidently gave up, moved over a foot and recarved "Walter Jackson".

I snapped a few quick photos and started the steep descent down from the knob.  At the bottom, I found a nice water source and decided to stop for lunch.  Even though it was cool in the valleys, I was at least out of the wind.

The only sounds were the occasional gunshots from hunters.  Yes, it was deer season.  My pack is bright red and I always wear a "hunter orange" hat when hiking during hunting season.  Even though the gunshots were distant, my memory is still very fresh of my neighbor and good friend, Jeff McDonald, who was killed by his hunting partner in Henry County Kentucky on November 11, 2007.  I, for one, never believed the accounting as described by Jeff's hunting partner.  But that's another story for another day.  I try to be cognizant of the hunters.

From the water stop at 7.6 miles to around mile 9.5 the trail tended to be a blur.  Nothing was particularly remarkable.  At mile 9.8, I was at the best view of the entire two days.  The panorama was beautiful.  At one point, while taking pictures, I thought that I could see some large buildings on the southern horizon.  As I moved around the top of this knob, I realized that what I was seeing was the Louisville skyline of tall buildings.  I zoomed in with my camera and hoped that when I downloaded the photos at home, I could see the buildings.

Later I examined the photos, looked at the track log from my GPS and determined that the buildings were in Louisville some 22 miles away.

Unfortunately, on this trip, all of the leaves had fallen and I wasn't able to take in the landscape during peak color change.  I would imagine that this view would be terrific during peak leaf color.

At mile #11, I stopped for a resupply of water.  There was plenty of water in this creek, and I can't imagine it running dry even in July or August.  The sun had finally come out and it felt good to soak up a few rays.  While sitting by the creek, I waved at the passersby on SR 160.  I only got 1 liter of water, as the descent to this spot was as steep as any that I had encountered, so I rightly assumed that my climb out would be equally steep and I wanted to carry the least weight possible. 

At mile #12 I was ready to stop for the night.  I was tired and I knew my legs would soon be talking to me.  I continued on.  I really wanted to get in at least 14 miles on this first day.  Shortly, I came upon this fenced in building.  Judging by the antennas and the signage, this must be one of the navigational markers used by the FAA.

As I continued on, the trail paralleled a paved road.  I noticed a pickup driving by and then stopping about mile away.  I was sure the driver never saw me, as I was down below his line of sight in the woods.  The trail crossed the road and I got a quick glimpse of the driver getting out of his truck.  I stopped and watched, as I could see he was looking around.  At first I thought he was just waiting to dump some trash or something.  He wasn't wearing any hunting gear so I assumed he wasn't hunting.  He exited the truck and entered the woods on his side of the road.  A few minutes later I could hear the rapid report of semi automatic gun fire.  It sounded like a pistol, and he must have gone through a full box of 50 rounds before stopping.  Perhaps it was just a new toy that he was testing out.  It did concern me that he was so close to the KT and my location. 

Quickly the trail dropped down to another valley with a very steep descent.  I was glad to be away from the ridge and the shooter.  I was at mile 13.2.  This was supposed to be Bowen Lake Picnic area and water source.  This is where I had planned to resupply my water and camp nearby.  There was plenty of water at this site, but it was nowhere near civilization, Bowen Lake or any picnic area.  As a mater of fact, there wasn't a spot flat enough to even set up a tent.  I had envisioned a large grassy area with a nice stream where I would set up camp for the night.  Wrong.  I was at the bottom of two extremely steep inclines.

I'm not sure how this waypoint got on my charts, but there is no picnic area near this spot.  Bowen Lake is northeast of here, about a mile.

At this juncture, I was not able to set up camp and I was out of water.  I was also beat.   Knowing that the next water source was over two miles away, in hilly terrain, I decided to go ahead and collect 4 liters of water.  That would be enough to last me through dinner and breakfast the next day.  Hopefully I would find a flat spot on the ridge to camp within the next mile and wouldn't be carrying the water all the way to the next water source.  

It was 4pm and I really needed to find a campsite within the next hour.  I slowly climbed back up to the ridge top carrying the additional 8 lbs of water that I had collected.  About a mile later (which took over 40 minutes) I saw an old road to my right which I was paralleling.  There were no good camping spots in view, so I left the trail, hiked over to the old road and began to look for a flat camping spot.  It didn't take long before I found a decent spot and quickly stopped for the night.  I was glad that I had carried the water, as there was none to be found anywhere near my campsite.

No sooner had I stopped to set up camp than it started raining.  It didn't rain very long, but I managed to get wet, as did much of my gear, as I unpacked and set up my tent.  With the tent up, I quickly got in, out of the rain.  I had thought about building a fire, but I was really too tired.  It takes work to build a fire and keep it going and then extinguishing it the next morning is always an issue.  Even though it had just rained, I was sitting in leaves an inch deep that extended for acres.  I didn't think it would take much to start a fire that could easily get out of control.  So, I decided no fire that night.  I cooked a Mountain House meal and settled in for the night.  By 9 pm the sky had cleared and it started getting colder. I could see the blinking red lights from an antenna, of some sort, not too far from me, perhaps a couple of miles.

I awoke to rain in my face.  I looked out and could see a clear, star filled sky, so at first I couldn't understand where the rain was coming from.  It didn't take but a few seconds to realize that it was raining inside my tent.  My Eureka Zeus is a super single walled tent for bad weather; rain or snow.  However, it doesn't breath well and condensation can be an issue. With my wet clothes inside the tent, and very little breeze, this proved to be a good recipe for condensation once the temperature dropped below the dew point.  I was wide awake and as rested as I was going to get, so I decided to break camp and move on out.

As I packed my tent, I noticed that it weighed considerably more now that it was wet.
When I left camp, it was still dark and the leaves were covered with frost and very slippery. 

As the sun came up, I snapped these pictures of the mist filled woods.

I found a nice source of water about half a mile past mile #15.  There are numerous water sources from mile #16.7 to #17.  This is a very scenic area and one of the nicest spots that I found on the KT.  From mile #17 to #19 the trail is part of an old road, so the elevation changes are minimal.

From mile #19.5 to mile #21.75 the trail follows an old road with some new illegal ATV trails.  There are numerous water sources in this area and it was the only part of the KT where the blazes could have been better.  Most of the blazes that I had seen looked fairly new, so I was surprised by the lack of blazes in this area.  The trail is easy enough to follow, as it is an old road.  The problem is that there are numerous ATV trails that branch off from the old road.  Whenever I couldn't see any blazes ahead of me, I would turn around to see if I could spot blazes going the opposite direction.  Sometimes this technique worked, but in this area it did not.  I find that it's an odd feeling when I'm not sure if I am on the correct trail.  I think most of us have experienced this sensation when you don't see any blazes for a long time and you begin to question if you have made a mistake at some prior point.

Mile #22 to #23 is another steep ascent.  I stopped for a break at mile #23

There is another steep descent to water at mile #24.5 and then a steep climb to the Leota Trailhead.  The Leota Trailhead is where I exited the KT at the end of my trek.  This trailhead is nothing more than a sign where the trail intersects a local road.  There is no parking and it would be easy to miss is you were driving.  The trailhead is located about of the way up a hill and there is only one spot where you can pull a car off of the road.  When I reached the road, I decided to hike down the hill to a local driveway where it would be easier to transition to my car when my wife arrived. 

I did have ATT cell phone coverage at numerous spots on this trip.  Most of the knobs had at least one bar.  There was coverage at the Leota Trailhead, which could have been an issue while trying to coordinate a pickup.  However, I called my wife from the top of the knob at Mile #23 rather than taking a chance on little or no coverage at the Leota Trailhead.

  1. The KT is very well maintained.
  2. Very pretty, panoramic vistas from the top of the knobs and scenic water sources down in the valleys.
  3. The blazes are simple "white" ovals of paint on the trees.  They were new, easy to see and well placed for the most part.  The road crossings and obscure turns were well marked as well.  I was very surprised at how much foot traffic this trail receives.  The trail is easy to follow even without the blazes in most areas.  There was only a short section of trail that I thought could have used more blazes.  The mile markers are a nice feature.
  4. Most of the blowdowns from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the January 2009 ice storm have already been cleared.  In a few spots the KT has been rerouted because of the blowdowns.
  5. There is virtually "no" trash or liter on this trail.  I saw only two aluminum cans the entire two days and I didn't see any paper or plastic artifacts and no toilet paper.  The KT is pristine and most of the hikers seem to be observing the "leave no trace" philosophy.   Even the established camp sites showed only fire rings, with none of the trashing that we see frequently in the RRG.
  6. There are plenty of water sources.
  7. Numerous road crossings for caching supplies or entering/exiting the trail.
  8. Steep hill climbs.  These can take all the fun out of a trip if you over extend yourself.
  9. No crowds
  10. Easy access from Louisville, Indianapolis or Cincinnati.

If I hike the KT again, I will shorten the distance that I cover each day, and make every effort to lighten my pack.  In my opinion, the steep ascents and descents make this a strenuous trail.  Should any readers need information, GPS tracks etc, just drop me an email.  I have included a copy of the elevation profile from my GPS.


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