When the heat of summer sets in, and you still want to hit the trail, think cool: waterfalls, swimming holes and caves.
Fortunately, we have plenty of all three in the heart of Big South Fork Country!
Here are five cool hikes to try this summer:
Burnt Mill Loop
We’re partial to the Burnt Mill Loop, located on the southern end of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. It’s a 4.2-mile loop trail with only 410 feet of elevation gain, and here’s the really cool thing: It follows the Clear Fork River for much of its length. There are several perfect swimming and wading holes along the way!
The trail begins and ends at the Burnt Mill Bridge River Access near Robbins, and takes about two hours to complete. The best way to hike the trail is in a counter-clockwise direction. This will allow you to complete the elevation gain early in the hike, and pass the best swimming holes towards the end of the hike.
From the parking lot at Burnt Mill, head out by crossing Honey Creek Road and look for the trail on the downstream side of the bridge. For the first eight-tenths of a mile so, the trail will follow the river, and you’ll enjoy spectacular river views, bluff lines and rock houses on your left, and the sounds of songbirds. If you’re lucky, you might see a river otter. Early in the hike, you’ll pass a swimming hole that is popular with locals. If you’re hiking on the weekend, you’ll almost certainly encounter some folks at this hole of water.
At about eight-tenths of a mile, the trail turns away from the river and follows an unnamed stream as it begins its ascent to the top of the plateau. In the spring, this is an excellent place to find wildflowers. The uphill climb lasts for less than half a mile, after which you’ll reach the intersection with the Beaver Falls Trail and Honey Creek Road. The Burnt Mill Loop Trail crosses the road and continues on the opposite side.
For the next half-mile, you’ll enjoy a level stroll through the tabletop plateau forests. This is an excellent place to hear songbirds and enjoy the open forest. About 1.75 miles into the hike, the trail descends to the river again, entering a beautiful hemlock forest and paralleling a stream to the river.
From there, the trail will follow the river back to Burnt Mill. A little less than three miles into the hike, you’ll encounter a couple of backwoods campsites with access to the river. The floor of the river is solid rock, making for excellent wading pools and swimming areas.
It’s hard to go wrong with the Burnt Mill Loop Trail in any season. But summer is one of the best times to hike the trail, because the Clear Fork offers crystal clear water and excellent opportunities to wade in and cool off.
Angel Falls Rapids
The trail to Angel Falls in the Big South Fork is a flat, easy, 4.0-mile out-and-back trail to the Angel Falls Rapid on the Big South Fork River. It takes about 1.5 hours to complete, and is accessed from the Leatherwood Ford River Access near Oneida. (Park on the north end of the parking lot, furthest away from the gazebo and board walk.)
The name Angel Falls is a bit of a misnomer; there is no waterfall. The small waterfall was dynamited in the mid 20thcentury to open the river for a canoe race. These days, Angel Falls is a dangerous, Class IV whitewater rapid.
The trail follows the river for its entire length. If you’re hiking in the evening, you’ll likely hear the song of the wood thrush as it flits to and fro in the forest canopy along the river. The wood thrush is one of the most melodic songbirds in the Big South Fork. It’s song is almost hauntingly beautiful.
One thing you’ll want to be cautious about on the Angel Falls trail is snakes. There are only two species of venomous snakes in the Big South Fork: copperheads and timber rattlers. Timber rattlers are fairly uncommon, but copperheads are seen perhaps more frequently along this trail than any other. Fortunately, they’re a relatively shy critter, and bites are extremely rare. Just keep an eye on the trail ahead of you, and you’ll be fine. If you encounter a snake, give it a wide berth and allow it to slither away.
The trail to Angel Falls is also an excellent place to find summer wildflowers. The best part about it, though, are the huge boulders that are located along the river just below Angel Falls. Some are nearly as big as a house. This is a popular swimming area. Just be sure not to attempt to swim in the swift water of the rapids. Drownings have occurred here when hikers who are rock-hopping slip and fall into the whitewater. Only attempt to swim in the pool where the rapids have calmed below Angel Falls. A portage trail used by paddlers leads to the river.
Most waterfalls on the northern Cumberland Plateau slow to a trickle during the summer months, but not Northrup Falls! Sure, it doesn’t flow with the same velocity as it does during the wet season, but it’s still a sight to behold. The trail leading to it is a 1.4-mile out-and-back hike that only requires about half an hour to complete. It is located on the Colditz Cove State Natural Area near Allardt.
The hike to Northrup Falls is beautiful. Colditz Cove is full of songbirds and wildflowers, and some endangered species including wood mice and salamanders. The gorge surrounding the waterfall is a hemlock and rhododendron forest that allows hikers to escape the heat.
Many hikers enjoy taking off their shoes and wading into the ice-cold water at the base of Northrup Falls, or standing on the rocks beneath the waterfall for a refreshing “shower.” Use caution; the rocks are slippery.
Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole
The hike to Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is a seven-tenths of a mile out-and-back trail in the Big South Fork near Rugby. It is accessed from the trailhead at Laurel Dale Cemetery and requires about half an hour to complete.
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is just what its name implies: a swimming hole along the Clear Fork River. During the days when Rugby was a Victorian English village in the 1880s and 1890s, this is where the gentlemen of the village went to bathe. (The ladies had their own swimming hole a ways upstream.)
From the top of the plateau at the village’s cemetery, the hiking trails descends quickly into the gorge, entering a hemlock and rhododendron forest. The river is beautiful here, and many hikers choose to enjoy the clean, cool waters of Clear Fork for a refreshing swim before hiking back to the top of the plateau.
If you prefer a bit of a longer hike, you can continue downstream along the hiking trail once you’ve left the swimming hole. This will turn the hike into a loop hike that will lead you back to your vehicle at the cemetery. Along the way, you’ll pass the Meeting of the Waters, where White Oak Creek empties into Clear Fork.
We’ve visited swimming holes and waterfalls, so let’s close out the list with a cave trip. The thing about the Big South Fork region’s caves is that, while spectacular, many of them are difficult to get to, making them better suited for spring or fall. So, we’re going to stay in Rugby for the fifth hike, and visit Kellogg’s Crack in the Rugby State Natural Area.
This is a relatively little known trail that isn’t often hiked by anyone other than the residents of the Victorian English village. But it’s an enjoyable hike with an awesome destination awaiting.
It is a 2.3-mile hike, but it features only 210 feet of elevation gain, making it an easy hike. You will begin and end at an unnamed trail head on Rugby Pike just outside the village.
Kellogg’s Crack is a fissure through the sandstone. You’ll have to turn sideways to squeeze through, and you might feel a little uncomfortable if you’re claustrophobic, but no one has ever gotten stuck in there! Be sure to take a flashlight; you’ll appreciate having it when you’re traveling through the darkness.
Incidentally, Kellogg’s Crack is named for Nelson Kellogg, who operated Rugby’s Newberry House, which remains in operation today.
Unfortunately, the trails at Rugby are poorly signed and lightly traveled, meaning they can be difficult to find. You’ll begin your hike at White Oak Creek on Rugby Parkway, next to the old steel bridge that hasn’t been used in generations but still sits on the creek.
From the trailhead, you’ll head north along White Oak Creek, following it downstream. Almost immediately, however, you’ll take a left and head up the hill. Be sure to note the turn, because the trail intersection is not signed. If you miss the turn-off, you’ll be heading along the White Oak Trail and away from Kellogg’s Crack.
As you head uphill, you’ll be following an old road trace that was a precursor to State Highway 52, which was itself a precursor to Rugby Parkway. This was the wagon trail that the first settlers used to get to Rugby in the 1880s. It’s the same route that British author and Rugby founder Thomas Hughes took to reach his utopia when he traveled from the railroad depot at nearby Elgin.
The trail up the hill is not named; it is simply a link trail that links to Cox Branch Trail.
After cresting the hill, the link trail will emerge along Rugby Parkway. Head east along the highway, as if you’re headed back to your vehicle, and keep an eye out for a trail leading away from the roadway on its opposite side. This is Cox Branch Trail, which leads to Kellogg’s Loop.
It’s three-tenths of a mile down the Cox Branch Trail to Kellogg’s Loop, following the stream that is the trail’s namesake. The trail along this segment continues to follow old road traces.
Just before the trail crosses the stream, there’s a trail intersection. Kellogg’s Loop turns left. Then it crosses the stream itself. The entire Kellogg Loop, beginning and ending at Cox Branch Trail, is only 0.85 miles in length. Hike it in a counter-clockwise direction after you’ve crossed the stream. Once the trail crosses an administrative access road and descends a small set of steps, you’ll arrive at Kellogg’s Crack. You’ll see the crack opening in the giant sandstone rocks ahead of you.
There you have it. Five great hikes for the summer. Are you hiking in the Big South Fork region this summer? If so, be sure to join the Hiking Big South Fork group on Facebook and share your photos with us. Or, tag them @bigsouthforkphotos on Instagram.