The Sheltowee Trace is a National Recreation Trail that runs 319 miles through Tennessee and Kentucky. The trail is named for Daniel Boone, who was given the name Sheltowee, or Big Turtle, when adopted into the Shawnee tribe. The trail features numerous waterfalls, arches, sandstone cliffs and tremendous views. Sections of the trail are located in Big South Fork National Park, Daniel Boone National Forest, Cumberland Falls State Park, Natural Bridge State Park and Red River Gorge. Completed in 1979, the path is administered by the Sheltowee Trace Association.
Due to its relative proximity to Cincinnati, it was a natural for me to consider for a thru-hike in 2016. With a little research I saw that my logistical issues could all be solved by joining the Association’s Hiker Challenge and hike the trail through 11 monthly weekend hikes. In addition, rather than hiking solo, I’d have plenty of company on the trail and no decisions to make; new experiences for me. At a cost of $40 per section, all shuttles would be taken care of, daily mileages predetermined, campsites scouted and all sorts of other benefits provided. There wasn’t anything not to like. After getting a couple questions answered by the Association’s Director, Steve Barbour, I signed up, though I did miss the orientation meeting. After 1,000+ miles on other long trails though, I liked to think I’d be just fine.
Each section starts with a set of notes on the hike, including the starting point and time. A Friday night camping location is also offered though for some poorly thought out reason I decided to drive down on Saturday morning. On January 16 I left the house at 2:45 am and, apparently in a semi-stupor, drove right by the rendezvous spot right on time at 7 am. After wandering up gravel Divide Road for a while, I sent a text to Steve Barbour, Director of the Sheltowee Trace Association and got additional instructions to Charit Lodge Trailhead. Thankfully I still arrived in time to catch the 7:30 shuttle. From there we rode in a bus and some vans for just over an hour to Burnt Mill Bridge in Big South Fork National Park and the start of the hike. About three dozen hikers started north on from Mile 319 at 9:30 or so.
Immediately the scenery was pretty interesting. The first hour was spent between the aptly named Clear Fork with small rapids on one side and small cliffs and waterfalls on the other. The rest of the morning was a pleasant stroll through winter woods. I spent much of the time hiking with Laura, who had completed the end to end challenge last year and was back to do it again. She was a fountain of information about the trail and great to walk with.
Once past the Honey Creek Trailhead (6 miles in), things got very interesting again. One short climb was complete with a very necessary knotted rope. Boulder House had a short boulder tunnel to scramble through, a waterfall, and a scenic stream to cross. They were shortly followed by cliffs with arched caves eroded into them. A word of caution. If your Gatorade bottle likes to fall out of your pack when you bend way over, you may want to secure it before entering the tunnel. A second option would be to have your headlamp handy to help look for the bottle after it drops between some boulders in the tunnel.
By mid-afternoon, I was standing at a tremendous overlook of the Big South Fork and the O & W bridge. After a steep descent, it was across the bridge and a couple miles along the river to the Leatherwood Ford area where we would camp for the night. I set my tent near a rapid just before the picnic area and heated restroom. A few folks set up directly underneath Rt. 297; looking like a “hobo” camp until a Ranger came by and made them move. The walk lasted until about 4 pm to cover a very scenic 13.5 miles. Of course that was the “map” distance. Other hikers with GPS watches claimed a distance closer to 16.
The hike wasn’t that easy, and wasn’t for everyone. Two ladies on their first backpacking trip called it quits at that point. Other folks didn’t arrive till after dark. Overall though, the group seemed pretty happy with the situation.
The temperature dropped into the 20s overnight. My 23 degree bag was sufficient, but not overly warm by a long shot. The heated restroom was a treat and large enough that some used the building to pack up their gear. By 7:30 am, it was light enough that a headlamp wasn’t needed and I continued up the trail, hugging the river for a couple more miles.
Once the trail started climbing away from the river, it didn’t mess around. The bare rock was impressive. Ladders and cables were used along with a bit of rock climbing though it never felt dangerous at all. Once on top there was once again a great view of the Big South Fork near Angel Falls. There I met up with a couple other hikers, both from the Red River Gorge area. Chris was in his mid 20’s. Billy was 41, had hiked the trail multiple times and was traveling with his German Sheperd, Panzer. The trail continued along the top of cliffs from there.
The trail left the park for a few miles and crossed Scott State Forest. In the forest was Falls Branch Falls. Though only about ten feet tall, the falls are impressive in that you can walk right behind them. It was a pretty spot and where we stopped for lunch.
Chris began talking about being a vegetarian. Billy, an avowed “meatatarian” asked why. For Chris, it was mainly about the cruelty that factory farm animals endure. I told him that’s why I rarely eat red meat other than venison. I stated, “Unlike cows, deer get to live a pretty good life; right up until I drop ‘em.” Billy and I also both mentioned how, for deer, being shot is about the quickest and easiest death they can get. Surprisingly enough, Chris agreed with us.
We were soon strolling by the Bandy Creek Recreation Area. If you ever want to visit the park, but don’t want to backpack, the Bandy Creek Campground would be a great option. It is very well laid out with roomy sites; most with water and electric. The shower buildings are very nice. There’s even a pool. As with many of the road crossings, Steve Barbour was there, napping in his van, in case we needed help.
From this point, much of the trail was old forest service roads and the walking was easy. However, we still had to get across Laurel Fork Creek. The crossings to this point had been easy to complete with dry feet. This one had some rocks, but deeper water around them that made it a gamble. Despite the air temperature being about 30 and the water not much higher, Chris and Panzer waded across in bare feet. Panzer seemed unaffected, but Chris wouldn’t have warm feet again until he was well on his drive home. Billy and I risked rock hoping and both were able to keep dry feet. Regardless, at that point we were 2 miles and one significant climb from our vehicles.
It was early afternoon when we finished the weekend’s 26 mile hike. The truck heater felt tremendous as I drove back the gravel road towards civilization, but I was already looking forward to what February’s section might bring.
(Looking for what February brought? Click here.)