Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation gain: 150 ft.
As the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge hits its halfway mark, it travels back to Divide Road on the western side of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and also takes a step back in difficulty.
The 3.8-mile loop trail to Slave Falls is rated “easy” in difficulty. Its 150 feet of elevation gain are spread out over the entire length of the hike, meaning there are no major hills to climb and no major obstacles to overcome. The trail also offers a double feature: one of the most unique natural rock arches in the Big South Fork NRRA as well as the spectacular Slave Falls waterfall.
In fact, of the dozens of waterfalls found throughout the Big South Fork, none can top Slave Falls in terms of sheer beauty, with the possible exception of Yahoo Falls on the Kentucky side of the park. It is here, where runaway slaves were once hidden, that Mill Creek drops 60 ft. from the lip of a cliff wall, with a large rock shelter behind it.
And while Slave Falls is the crown jewel of the hike from the Sawmill Trailhead, it also features a short spur hike to Needle’s Arch, a photogenic rock feature that makes the four-tenths of a mile of added distance well worth the effort.
Then, late in the hike, participants will encounter Indian Rock House, one of the largest rock shelters in the Big South Fork.
It all adds up to make the Slave Falls Loop one of the most-hiked trails in the 125,000 acres of the Big South Fork NRRA. Because of its popularity, the trail is also well-maintained, typically free of undergrowth and storm damage.
The trail is best hiked by taking a right at the beginning of the loop, enjoying the dense hemlock forest and small streams before eventually dropping into the small gorge that encases Mill Creek on the lower side of the waterfall.
Hikers will actually trek along Mill Creek for a short distance, then get their first look at the gorge that contains Slave Falls. And, during this time of year, when the water level is high, you can hear the roar of the waterfall from the main trail long before you come to the spur trail leading to its base.
The only difficult part of the hike is a tricky step down a small rock ledge along the spur trail to the waterfall.
According to oral history, Slave Falls takes its name from the days of slave ownership. The homesteaders and subsistence farmers of the Big South Fork region had a reputation for self-sustaining lifestyles, did not utilize — and could not afford — slaves, and thus were hardly sympathetic towards the American tradition of slavery. Those residents of the region are said to have helped hide runaway slaves beneath the large rock shelter behind the waterfall.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 through the Big South Fork NRRA to S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn right on S.R. 154 and continue north for approximately two miles to Divide Road. Turn right onto Divide Road and, in about a quarter-mile, turn right again onto Fork Ridge Road. Sawmill Trailhead is approximately seven-tenths of a mile along Fork Ridge Road. The total drive time from Oneida is about 35 minutes.
Be Careful For: A tricky descent over a small rock ledge along the spur trail to the waterfall. Although some hikers choose to ignore the barricade at the waterfall, the foot path beyond the barricade is steep, slick and can be treacherous when wet. Not only do hikers risk a fall by ignoring the barricade, but traveling further damages the terrain and sensitive plants. It’s best to heed the signs and stay put at the safe vantage point of the waterfall.
Look For: The white, cotton-like tufts that cling to the limbs of some of the hemlock trees along the trail. These are the signs of the hemlock woolly adelgid, the pest that is slowly killing many of the hemlocks across the region. You’ll also notice blue markings at the base of many of the larger hemlock trees. These are the marks of park staff who have treated those trees to help them fend off the woolly adelgid.
Make It Better: Be sure to resist the urge to keep walking past the spur trail that leads to Needle’s Arch. It’s only another two-tenths of a mile to the arch (less than a half mile there and back to the main trail). While Needle’s Arch — so named because it resembles the eye of a needle that is laying on its side — is small in comparison to some of the Big South Fork’s more famous arches, it’s quite photogenic.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 pack it in, pack it out!