Backpacking the Big South Fork

Just "stumbled" across this trip report that I originally posted over at KYWilderness.  Brought back some good memories of a great trip so I thought I'd share it here.

Big South Fork
Blue Heron to Catawba Overlook, Dick Gap Falls, and Big Spring Falls

Blue Heron to Catawba Overlook: 1.6 miles (one way)
Catawba Overlook to Dick Gap Falls: 0.6 miles (one way)
Dick Gap Falls to Big Spring Falls: 1.6 miles (one way)
Side Trip to Dick Gap Overlook: 1.0 mile (roundtrip)

Total Hike: 8.6 miles

November 30 - December 1, 2002


First stop, the Blue Heron Ranger Station. We stopped to get the necessary backcountry permit. The ranger on duty warned us about the wind. We assured her we'd choose our campsite carefully to avoid any falling limbs or trees. She then went on to warn us that the temperatures were expected to drop dramatically overnight. I indicated to her that we were prepared for a chilly night as she finished the paperwork for our permit.

The Blue Heron parking area was deserted when we arrived. We chose a parking space near the end of the lot and prepared our gear.

We headed up the hill and then across the tipple bridge. This bridge was built in 1937 to allow coal cars from both sides of the river to be emptied into waiting train cars.

Much to our delight, the weather was nearly perfect. Even the temperature (in the low 40's) was milder than we had expected.

During our highly scientific planning session (I assure you there were no darts involved), we decided to hike to Big Spring Falls and then find a suitable place to spend the night. We arrived at this decision because neither Arthur nor myself had hiked beyond the tipple bridge and because it seemed like a good mix of waterfalls and overlooks in a fairly compact area.

Along the way, our first stop was Catawba Overlook. The overlook provided a nice view of the bend in the river. Directly to the north, we could see Devil's Jump (Class IV rapid) and its overlooks on the bluffs across the river. To the northwest, a view of Blue Heron and the tipple bridge where the trip started. The whipping wind made for a short visit to the exposed overlook.

A sign at a side trail indicated the way to Dick Gap Falls. We made our way down the path and around the hillside for about 100 yards before arriving at the falls. However, the falls was nothing more than a trickle on this dry day, and we wasted little time getting back on the trail.

From the Dick Gap Falls side trail, it was only about 2 miles out to Big Spring Falls. Here, there was a nice overlook area complete with bench. We relaxed at the falls watching the water and taking in the day, with little need for conversation.

After leaving the falls, it was now time to make a decision about a campsite. We could continue on the trail south towards Ledbetter, or retrace our steps back toward Blue Heron. We opted for the latter, and hoped to find a suitable place in the area of Big Spring Falls. However, the terrain here was heavily forested and severely sloped on both sides of the trail. We scouted several potential sites only to find each one too small, too treed, or too uneven.

Finally, we arrived at the intersection with an old section of the Kentucky Trail (now closed). Apparently, the trail from Blue Heron to Dick Gap Falls (and just beyond) was created in an effort to route around a portion of the Kentucky Trail that had become dangerously unstable due to the slag-covered hillsides.

We hiked up the closed trail a short way, crossed a small drainage, and rounded a bend. Here, we found a fire ring and plenty of level ground for setting up camp. The campsite was ideal - out of sight of the trail, and nestled along the hillside sheltered from the wind.

Arthur setup the tent while I started dinner. On past trips, we've carried separate stoves. But, because I had to fly in for this particular trip, I decided not to bring my MSR with me. We had agreed while planning for the trip that we'd both cook from Arthur's new Optimus Nova stove. This was to be its first real field test.

Being Thanksgiving weekend, our supper was a bit more involved than the usual fare of Raman noodles and canned chicken. Dinner was beef stew (a Mountain House dehydrated package for two), four-cheese mashed potatoes, and Stove Top stuffing. Even with the appetite we'd worked up hiking out to the falls and back, we couldn't finish all the food.

Sunset came early, and with it, a noticeable drop in the temperature. We relaxed around the fire trying to keep warm and pass the time instead of turning in at such an early hour. Lying beside the fire, I realized something I have been missing since my move to St. Louis. Stars. They were everywhere. It was a pleasure to see them again, instead of the blinking rows of airplane lights circling the airport, lined up for landing.

We finally turned in around 8:30pm. The overnight temperatures dipped into the mid to hi-twenties. And, aside from waking at 2:30am with an irresistible urge to relieve myself, the sleep was restful and cozy wrapped up my sleeping bag.


The morning air was noticeably colder than that of the previous day. With some trepidation, I decided to venture out of the tent. I believe the only thing motivating me was some fresh ground Starbucks Breakfast Blend I had packed for just such an occasion as this.

The little Optimus stove performed equally well at breakfast as it had the previous evening with dinner. Again, breakfast was a departure from the usual oatmeal. This morning we had scrambled eggs with bacon, another of the Mountain House offerings. Surprisingly, it was much more appetizing than it sounded.

We waited anxiously for the sun to break over the hills to the east and give us a sliver of warmth. As I sat sipping my coffee, I caught a glimpse of fluttering white out of the corner of my eye. It was the underside of a redheaded woodpecker's wings. I pointed him out to Arthur and we watched as he landed in a tree just feet from our campsite. He hopped around on the tree only briefly before soaring back across the valley and out of sight.

We broke camp at around 10:00am started back for the trail. It was a short, uphill hike back to Dick Gap Falls. Having discovered this to be a wet weather waterfall, we continued past the side trail without so much as a thought of stopping.

The weather was dramatically different than when we began the trip yesterday. The wind that had been so fierce yesterday was now practically nonexistent. The sky was infinitely clear, and the temperature a good 20 degrees colder than what we had encountered the previous day.

Today we pushed past Catawba Overlook and on to a junction in the trail. Instead of continuing on downhill toward Three West Hollow, we opted for the horse trail that headed uphill in the opposite direction. From our map, we reckoned this to be the way to Dick Gap Overlook, though there was no sign here to confirm this.

The footing was uneven as we headed uphill on the horse path, but the trail soon leveled out to a pleasant walk. Within a short time we came to the parking area for the equestrian trailhead. A sign on the opposite side of the parking area was missing the important part - the part with the words on it. Fortunately, someone had been kind enough to write "Dick Gap - 0.3" on one of the posts.

The walk to the overlook was wide and level. The overlook itself was larger and of better construction than Catawba, though the view was much the same. We had a snack, snapped a few more photos, and relaxed for a bit before heading back past the parking area and toward the trail.

Before long the trail took us past Three West Hollow and back to the tipple bridge. We found Blue Heron just as we had left it, empty. Though, just as we walked across the bridge, a single car stopped in the parking lot and its driver got out and walked around briefly. I presume he thought better of the idea after realizing just how cold it really was.

Upon our return to Blue Heron, we made a quick stop by the "shop" (just a ghost building where the real shop once stood), and the entrance to one of the mines before returning to the car and heading for home.


The beginning

Crossing the bridge

The Parking area

up the hill


Blue Heron tipple bridge

Keith checking out the view

The falls

Keith leaving the falls

Stream crossing

Keith crossing bridge

Arthur at Dick Gap overlook

Blue Heron from Dick Gap overlook

Keith trying not to fall