Autumn is the most popular season for hiking, followed by spring and then summer. Without a doubt, hiking trails are utilized less in the winter months than in any other season.
But those who venture out in summer or fall and at no other time of the year are missing out on something unique: waterfalls.
The northern Cumberland Plateau has an abundance of spectacular waterfalls. But their noteworthiness is dependent on streamflows, meaning they’re usually at full strength in wetter months, which just happens to be the cooler months. Many of them are often little more than a trickle during the summer and fall months, when there’s less rainfall.
Some of the northern plateau region’s waterfalls are more spectacular than others. Some are located on well-worn hiking trails; others are far from the beaten path. And the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — while this region’s largest recreation area by far — doesn’t own the patent on waterfalls.
Here are five worth visiting during the winter months, ranked by how spectacular they are:
1.) Bandy Creek Falls: This one is probably the most spectacular waterfall in the entire Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Getting to it isn’t easy; it’s located well off-trail. But it’s frequently visited by adventurous bushwhackers — moreso in recent years, as it has been discovered by an increased number of people and its popularity has grown. Oneida’s Trinity Smith — best known for his Sept. 11 memorial runs — is partially responsible for the surging interest in Bandy Creek Falls, after leading a number of hikes to the waterfall.
There are two options for getting to the waterfall, which is located where the gorge encasing Bandy Creek narrows as the stream cascades towards the Big South Fork River. Neither of them are especially easy, though they’re markedly different hikes.
The first option is to park at Leatherwood Ford, off S.R. 297, and walk up Bandy Creek. Cross the river on the highway bridge, then walk down the concrete steps on the west side of the bridge as if accessing the John Muir Trail, before walking under the bridge and crossing a shallow ravine.
Bandy Creek is the first stream emptying into the BSF River upstream of Leatherwood Ford. From the mouth of the creek, bushwhackers can pick their way north along the stream bed. An old road bed makes for easier walking along a portion of the route. The waterfall is located nearly seven-tenths of a mile up the stream from the river.
The second option is to take the multi-use trail from S.R. 297 through the old Blevins Fields towards the Leatherwood Ford Overlook. The unnamed road is the first road to the left from S.R. 297 on the west side of the river gorge, towards Jamestown. It is part of the Cumberland Valley Loop equestrian trail. Motorists can stay left, taking what is known by horseback riders as a spur trail to access the Leatherwood Ford Overlook. At the point where vehicular access ends, just beyond the large field, park and walk north through the open pasture to the forest beyond.
From the edge of the forest, Bandy Creek Falls can faintly be heard in the valley far below. So it’s a far shorter hike from the top than from the bottom, but the walk out is much more strenuous. The most obvious route into the gorge will lead to the top side of the falls and hikers will have to pick their way to the bottom, which can be tricky when the ground is wet and slippery. A bit further east, towards the river, there is a hidden gap in the bluff line that will lead hikers to the bottom of the falls.
2.) Northrup Falls: Northrup Falls is the crown jewel of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area near Allardt. It is the focal point of the 1.4-mile loop trail that winds through the 165-acre protected area surrounding Big Branch Creek. It is a 60-ft. waterfall that flows good all year long, making it one of the most impressive waterfalls anywhere in Tennessee.
The walk to and from Northrup Falls is an easy one. That’s both good and bad. It’s an excellent choice for a quick Sunday afternoon stroll, or as a destination for the kids, but you’ll rarely have the falls to yourself on weekends, and you will frequently encounter other hikers on the trail, even on weekdays during the winter months. Still, the falls is never overly crowded, certainly not like the more popular waterfalls of the Great Smoky Mountains.
To get there, take S.R. 52 west from Robbins for 17 miles to Allardt, and turn left onto Northrup Falls Road. It’s the last road on the left before the “giant pumpkin” water tower in Allardt. If you reach the water tower, you’ve gone too far. In 1.3 miles, look for the trailhead and an unpaved parking area to the right. It’s a 35-minute drive from Oneida.
3.) Yahoo Falls: At 113 ft. in height, Yahoo Falls is the tallest waterfall in Kentucky — and the tallest in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. The volume of water flowing over the rock ledge pales in comparison to either of the first two waterfalls named on this page, but the sheer height helps make up for what Yahoo Falls lacks in volume, as does the huge rock shelter behind the falls and the cultural history behind it.
Yahoo Falls is easily accessed via a 1.1-mile loop trail that is mostly level. It is most spectacular when temperatures have been consistently below freezing for several days, which can lead to a huge build-up of ice at the base of the waterfall.
To get there, take U.S. Hwy. 27 north into Kentucky to Ky. Hwy. 700 in Whitley City. Take Hwy. 700 west for 3.9 miles, then turn onto Yahoo Falls Road and take it 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
4.) Honey Creek Falls: Waterfalls are among the main features of the Honey Creek Loop Trail — the most popular hiking trail in the Big South Fork NRRA and one of the best day hikes in America — and none of them are more scenic than Honey Creek Falls, which draws its name from the stream that is featured along the trail.
Honey Creek Falls is located early in the hike, if the trail is being followed in a clockwise direction. It is not directly on the main trail itself, but on an unmarked spur trail that leads under the bluff line to the serene pool of water at the base of the waterfall.
Honey Creek Loop is a 5.5-mile loop trail that rates as the toughest hiking trail in the entirety of the BSF, requiring most of the day for novice hikers to complete. But for hikers who don’t feel up to hiking the entire loop, Honey Creek Falls makes for a nice, relatively easy in-and-out hike that is less than three miles in length.
For that option, park at the Honey Creek Loop Trailhead and head west on the hiking trail, which meanders through upland forest before reaching Honey Creek. The trail follows the stream for a short distance before turning away from it and following the terrain features into a small ravine. The spur trail leading to the waterfall is the first well-worn footpath to the right of the main trail. If you reach a footbridge crossing the creek, you’ve gone too far.
5.) Boulder House Falls: This is an opportunity to knock out two birds with one stone. Boulder House Falls is also located along Honey Creek, and accessed via the Honey Creek Loop Trail. It’s less than a mile beyond Honey Creek Falls, and is unique for the way tumbles into a jumble of boulders that literally encases the stream bed like a house — hence, the waterfall’s name.
The nature of the Honey Creek Loop Trail becomes much more rugged beyond Honey Creek Falls, making Boulder House Falls a more difficult hike. The trail crosses Honey Creek via a footbridge, travels along a small bluff that parallels the stream for a ways, then dips beneath the bluff line and crosses the creek again before beginning an ascent towards the top of the ridge, then a quick descent into the jumbled boulders at the waterfall.