Large rock shelters highlight the Middle Creek Nature Loop Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Distance: 3.5 miles

Elevation gain: 388 ft.

Difficulty: Moderate

Trailhead: Middle Creek

The reaction of first-timers to Middle Creek Nature Loop, once they have completed the 3.5-mile hike, is often the same: “This is my new favorite trail!”

To be sure, the Middle Creek Loop Trail is one of the highlights of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s expansive network of hiking trails, mostly because of the spectacular geology that the trail exposes hikers to.

In fact, a hike along Middle Creek Loop is a virtual science lesson, with plenty of geology and botany rolled into one fascinating hike through the Big South Fork backcountry.

Middle Creek Loop marks the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge’s second consecutive visit to the Divide Road area on the western side of the Big South Fork NRRA. However, the drive to Middle Creek Trailhead is not nearly as far as the drive to Terry Cemetery. Whereas Maude’s Crack took participants of the challenge nearly to Kentucky before their drive ended and their hike began last week, Middle Creek Trailhead is located less than a mile off S.R. 154.

Middle Creek is a popular trailhead for backpackers who are beginning long-distance hikes through the Big South Fork. A connector trail links Middle Creek Loop to the Slave Falls Loop Trail and Sawmill Trailhead, which leads to many hiking possibilities spanning a multitude of trails that are all connected in some form or fashion.

Middle Creek Loop itself is a 3.5-mile trail that is best hiked in a clockwise direction, meaning that hikers will bear left when the trail forks a couple of hundred feet from Divide Road. The trail includes nearly 400 ft. of elevation gain, but spread out over 3.5 miles, it isn’t all that difficult. In fact, while the trail earns a moderate rating, it is actually a relatively easy hike that lends itself well to the inclusion of children and pets.

For the first nine-tenths of a mile, the trail sticks to the top of the ridge. The hike is uneventful, leading hikers through open hardwood forests that typify the tabletop plateau lands of the Big South Fork region. For much of that distance, the trail actually parallels Divide Road, although the road itself isn’t always in view from the trail.

Nearly a mile in, the trail turns right and descends beneath the bluff line. The nature of the hike changes quickly, as the trail follows the exposed sandstone walls, winding in and out of drainages for the better part of two miles.

Along the way, Middle Creek Loop passes by a series of large rock shelters, each of them seemingly more magnificant than the one before. Some can be explored; others are best left alone to avoid damaging the sensetive plant life that thrives in these sheltered areas.

One of the rock shelters actually includes a wooden fence to direct hikers’ steps and keep them away from the endangered Lucy Braun’s Snakeroot that grows inside. This rare plant is limited to the Cumberland Plateau, and there are thought to be fewer than 50 instances of it, many of them consisting of only a few plants. It is named for Dr. Emma Lucy Braun (1889-1971), the University of Cincinnati botanist who first described it in 1940.

Eventually, the trail begins a gradual ascent back to the top of the plateau, and follows an old log road back to the trailhead on Divide Road.

Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west to its intersection with S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Take S.R. 154 north to Divide Road. A right turn will place you on Divide Road (if you come to Pickett State Park, you’ve driven too far north on S.R. 154). It’s less than a mile along Divide Road to the Middle Creek Trailhead.

Be Careful For: Late in the hike, the trail scrambles up rock steps through a series of boulders that have broken away from the main rock wall. Many of the rock shelters seep water year-round and contain marshy areas. Avoid disturbing plant life in these sensetive areas beneath rock shelters.

Look For: A century ago, American hemlock trees were prominent in this area and throughout much of the rest of the Big South Fork region. The majestic tree was wiped out by a fungal disease in the first half of the 20th century. Today, a few large, decaying stumps remain, some of them containing young shoots of live chestnuts, which will die before they reach maturity due to the fungus still being present in the atmosphere. Several of these large stumps can be seen along the Middle Creek Loop Trail.

Make It Better: On your way to the Middle Creek Trailhead, take a brief detour to nearby Pickett State Park for a picnic lunch. This state park was developed in the 1930s on 12,000 acres that were donated by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company. Picnic facilities are available at Pickett State Park, and you can even take a little extra time to fish for trout in the park’s 12-acre lake.

Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.

Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you packed it in, please pack it out!