Hiking along the Sheltowee Trace Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Fewer bugs. Fewer snakes. Fewer bears. Fewer people. 

Those are just some of the top reasons to enjoy winter hiking. 

When it comes to outdoors recreation, fall ranks as the top season for most enthusiasts — and no other season even comes close. When it comes to hiking, specifically, winter trails spring and even summer when it comes to preferred seasons for hitting the trails.

But perhaps it’s time for casual day hikers to start listening to what seasoned backpackers have long known: it’s hard to beat a few sunny days in December or January for a trek through the forest.

Most bugs and snakes have crawled into whatever comfy hidey-hole will keep them alive until spring. Contrary to popular opinion, bears don’t truly hibernate, but they are more sluggish and move about less in the winter months. And the same is true with people; trails that would’ve been crowded in October are often deserted by late December or early January — especially on week days.

But there are other reasons to get outside during the winter months, as well. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are gluttonous times of the year for our culture, with most of us over-indulging on the various goodies that are traditional to the season. That means we could stand to get outside and burn off a few thousand calories. 

The good news: It’s easier to burn off calories by hiking in winter than in summer.

That might seem odd, considering how much energy a strenuous hike on a 90-degree July afternoon seems to zap from our bodies. But science doesn’t lie: your body raises your metabolic rate by up to 40% when you’re outside in cold weather. That means an average-sized man can burn more than 5,000 calories in a single day! And it gets better: your metabolism will stay up after the hike — about 15% to 25% higher for the next two or three days. That means after you spend a cold winter day completing a strenuous hike, your body will literally burn fat while you rest for the next several days.

Raising your metabolic rate does more than just burn off calories. It also causes your body to produce the hormone Irisin, which converts “white” fat into “brown” fat. White fat is like a calory bank for your body, and it is associated with all sorts of health problems — including type 2 diabetes. But broan fat burns calories, and raises your resting metabolism.

There are other ways that strenuous exercise in cold weather helps your body, too. Athletes love to cardio train in winter months because cold temperatures constrict your capillaries — meaning you improve cardiovascular performance at a greater rate when exercising in cold weather than when exercising in warm weather.

There are lots of health benefits to hiking, as well. Being outside and on the trail helps boost your endorphins and serotonin, and the benefits from a single day in the woods can last for over a week. This is true any time of the year, of course, but it is during the cold weather months that a lot of us battle the winter blues. There’s actually a medical term for it, called Seasonal Affective Disorder. You can literally improve your mental state by being on the trail.

Places to hike

If you do a Google Images search for winter hiking, you’ll be greeted with countless photos of smiling hikers posing for perfect pictures in snow-covered landscapes. 

There are few things more beautiful in nature than a snowy forest, and there are few experiences more exhilarating than hiking after a fresh-fallen snow — when the new snowpack absorbs the sounds of the woods and the silence engulfs you. 

Unfortunately, winter days like that are rare in the Cumberlands and are becoming rarer still. But that doesn’t mean that hikers can’t enjoy all the benefits of winter hiking. It’s a great way to spend a few days during the holiday season when work slows down for many and free time is more readily available. With the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area just out our back door, there are plenty of opportunities to get outside.

When choosing a winter hike, there are two things to keep in mind: First, the changing of the seasons has stripped trees of their foliage, opening up scenic views that would not have been available in the summer months. Sure, the lush greens of spring and summer, or the brilliant autumn foliage, make for much better photos than the bare,gray backdrops of winter — but you can’t take photos of what you can’t see, and the summer foliage often obscures vantagepoints along trails that traverse the rim of the river gorge. Second, waterfalls are flowing again. For the first time since spring, this area’s bountiful waterfalls will be at full strength — or, at least, they will be once the seasonal rains pick up. So far that hasn’t happened. But it will as we move deeper into December or January. Trails with waterfalls as the main feature aren’t well-suited for summer hikes, but they’re great for winter hikes.

Suggestions

Try these five trails for a great winter hike: 

1.) Yahoo Falls. There are two ways to hike the loop trail that features Yahoo Falls. The shorter version is just a mile and a relatively easy hike. 

Yahoo Falls is the tallest waterfall in the entirety of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — even the tallest waterfall in Kentucky. But it’s not a waterfall like nearby Cumberland Falls; there’s not much water to start with, so it’s reduced to a trickle during the summer months. When it’s at full-flow, however, it is a sight to behold (as an added bonus, if you make the hike after several consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures, you’ll enjoy the huge ice formations that form at the base of the falls). The huge rock house behind it is yet another added bonus, and is the site of a legendary — and likely mythical — slaughter of Cherokee Indians by white Indian hunters acting on orders of John Sevier in the early 19th century. 

Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Whitley City. Turn left on Ky. Hwy. 700, then turn right onto Yahoo Falls Road after about four miles. The road dead-ends at the trailhead in another half-mile. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Oneida.

2.) Honey Creek. If we’re honest, Honey Creek Loop is a trail that deserves to be on any list for any season. It’s the most famous hiking trail in the Big South Fork for good reason. At 5.5 miles, it’s not especially long, but it’s also the most strenuous hiking trail in the national park. 

Honey Creek is truly a trail for all seasons. There’s never a bad time to hike it, but winter and spring are excellent times to hike it because the numerous waterfalls along the route will be at full strength after recent rainfalls. 

There are parts of Honey Creek Loop that require fording the creek, and the numerous rocks and boulders can become slippery in sub-freezing weather, so be aware of the conditions and plan additional time for completing the trail. This is not your typical 5.5-mile walk in the park. 

Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Robbins, and turn right onto Old Hwy. 27 just past New River. Follow Old 27, Mountain View Road and Honey Creek Road for another eight miles (following the signs) to get to the trailhead. It’s a 30-minute drive.

3.) Northrup Falls. This 1.4-mile loop trail is not in the Big South Fork; it’s in Colditz Cove State Natural Area just outside Allardt. But there’s no better hike for loading up the family for an afternoon excursion the day after Christmas than Northrup Falls — this area’s most spectacular on-trail waterfall.

Once you’ve dipped beneath the lip of the small gorge that encases the waterfall, you’ll no longer be looking at a barren winter landscape; there are too many greens from the hemlocks and rhododendron that pack the gorge. Big Branch Creek empties over the waterfall, with a pool of water at the base of the falls that is a deep emerald green during the winter months. It’s a perfect picture-taking opportunity. 

The entire loop includes only about a hundred feet in elevation gain, so it’s a trail that’s easy enough for hikers of all ages. And the waterfall is simply spectacular.

Getting There: From ONeida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Elgin, and turn right onto S.R. 52. Take S.R. 52 west 17 miles to Allardt, then turn left onto Northrup Falls Road. The trailhead is located a mile down the road, on the right. It is a 40-minute drive from Oneida.

4.) Frozen Head. There are two noteworthy waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park outside Wartburg: DeBord Falls, and Emory Gap Falls. You can hike to both of them in one outing, on a trail that is family-friendly.

From Panther Branch Trailhead inside the state park, you’ll find DeBord Falls just a little more than half a mile away from the trailhead. There are wooden stairs leading to the bottom of the small, two-tiered waterfall. After you’ve taken a moment to photograph and admire DeBord Falls, another seven-tenths of a mile will lead you to the Emory Gap spur trail, which leads to the waterfall of the same name just a half-mile further. 

The entire in-and-out hike is about 3.6 miles, and it’s relatively easy. There is 465 ft. of elevation gain, but it’s nothing too strenuous for the kids.

Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Wartburg. At the town’s only traffic light, continue straight onto S.R. 62-E, and two miles beyond the light turn left onto Flat Fork Road. Follow Flat Fork Road nearly four miles into the state park, and continue to Panther Branch Trailhead. It’s just under an hour’s drive from Oneida.

5.) John Muir segment. You’ll need to plan ahead for this hike, and take two vehicles so that you can shuttle. The segment of the John Muir Trail that links Grand Gap with Laurel Fork Creek is a popular mountain biking trail, but it’s also an excellent hiking trail. It’s mostly used by backpackers as part of a longer hike because it’s not a loop trail and, at seven miles, it’s too long for an out-and-back hike.

But sometimes you don’t want to see rushing water or rock houses, you just want a quiet stroll in the woods, and JMT is an excellent option for that. It follows the rim of the river gorge for the entirety of its length, sometimes entering the forest to travel around the headwaters of the drainages that feed into the river far below. There are several short spur trails leading to spectacular overlooks along the route, and the views are incredible during the winter months. 

To hike it, park a vehicle at the end of Duncan Hollow Road, then backtrack and begin the hike at the Grand Gap Trailhead at the end of Alfred Smith Road. Unfortunately, road maintenance is lacking in the BSF, and Duncan Hollow Road is no longer suitable for a standard family sedan beyond the Alfred Smith turnoff. You won’t likely need to engage 4×4, but will appreciate taking a pickup or SUV. 

Getting There: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west to Bandy Creek. Turn right onto Bandy Creek Road and enter the Bandy Creek Visitor Center and Campground area. Turn right into the campground, then turn left towards Loop A and the swimming pool. Continue beyond the campground onto Duncan Hollow Road. Alfred Smith Road is the second road on the right, and the trailhead is located at the end of the road.