Trail: Blue Heron Loop
Trailhead: Blue Heron
Distance: 6.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 640 ft.
Two years ago, the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge called the Blue Heron Loop — located on the north end of the Big South Fork, near Stearns, Ky. — one of the national park’s most underrated hiking trails.
Two years later, we’re sticking to that assessment. Up in McCreary County, they’re quick to tell you that the Blue Heron Loop is one of the BSF’s best hiking trails. But those who make their home on the south side of the state line are still learning about the 6.4-mile loop trail, which explores both the plateau top and the river gorge around the historic Blue Heron mining community and the Devils Jump rapid.
If you make a list of the Big South Fork’s top hiking trails, there won’t be many ahead of Blue Heron Loop. The trail is steeped in natural beauty and jam-packed with interesting features, such as the Devils Jump Overlook, Cracks in the Rock — and, of course, the old mining community that lends the trail its namesake.
At nearly 6.5 miles in length, the Blue Heron Loop is similar in length to the John Litton Farm Loop, which was last week’s destination on the hiking challenge. But it’s not the toughest. It draws a difficulty rating of moderate, which ranks it below such hikes as Honey Creek. With the exception of the elevation change as hikers climb from the river’s edge back to the top of the plateau, the only thing that makes Blue Heron a challenge is its length. And the features along this hike make the distance more than worth the effort.
From the trailhead off Ky. Route 642, the trail is best hiked in a counter-clockwise direction, which means taking a right at the end of the short spur trail that leads to the loop trail.
The first half-mile or so of the hike is relatively uneventful, paralleling the paved road as the trail works its way along the ridge top towards the edge of the gorge. But the pace picks up quickly after that, with Devils Jump Overlook being the first interesting feature.
While all of the hiking challenge’s overlooks to date have been unprotected, meaning you have to use care with pets and small children, Devils Jump Overlook is fenced for safety and is handicap-accessible, with a paved walkway leading to it from a separate parking area.
The loop trail intersects the paved walkway and turns right; going to the overlook requires a brief detour by turning left. It’s well worth the additional tenth of a mile or so to see the stunning view of the Big South Fork River both upstream and downstream of Devils Jump.
Back on the main trail, the pavement soon ends and the trail turns back to dirt as it continues along the edge of the gorge, dipping beneath the bluff line that caps the gorge. The roar of the white water tumbling over Devils Jump can still be heard through the trees, until the trail turns away from the river and begins to work its way into the gorge.
Soon after the turn away from the river, there’s a spur trail leading to Blue Heron Overlook, another picturesque vantage point at the top of the gorge. The side trip adds four-tenths of a mile to the trip, for those who choose to take it.
Beyond the spur trail, the main trail switches back and descends through a gap in the bluff line by way of a series of wooden steps. It’s a neat feature, but nothing compared to the next gap in the rock that lies ahead.
Cracks in the Rock is one of the most popular geological features on the Kentucky side of the BSF. It is just what its name suggests: giant fissures through the sandstone, creating a natural passageway from one side of the ridge to the other. The trail passes through the tunnel, using another set of wooden steps to do so.
Nearly two miles into the hike, the trail reaches the abandoned mining camp of Blue Heron. This was the site of the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co.’s Mine No. 18, which began operation in 1938 and closed in 1962, when the seam of coal played out. At its peak, the mine employed 200 people, and the community was complete with an elementary school, a Baptist church and a company store. Today, “ghost structures” are used to tell the story of the mine and the workers who carved out a livelihood there. Hikers will want to take a little time to explore the old mining camp, and brochures are available to act as a guide through the camp.
The trail continues beyond Blue Heron, and about a half-mile later passes near Devils Jump, the rapid that hikers observed from the overlook at the top of the gorge. There are side trails that lead to the river and to the rapid. The main trail, meanwhile, passes through an area that was once used as a Boy Scout camp in the 1950s, though there are no signs of the long-abandoned camp remaining.
For the next 1.5 miles, the trail continues through the bottom of the gorge, passing a number of closed mine entrances that you can’t see from the trail itself, and a reclaimed mining site that you can see. The trail intersects with a horse trail for a short distance, before finally beginning its climb back to the top of thep lateau.
The ascent to the top of the gorge begins about four miles into the hike, climbing a series of wooden steps that lead up the side of the hill. For the next half-mile, the trail works its way up the gorge, finally leveling out about 4.5 miles into the hike.
The final two miles of the hike are along the ridge top once again, at times nearing the paved road and at times venturing deeper into the forest, once descending yet another flight of wooden steps away from the road.
For the most part, the Blue Heron hike is easy enough, with the only difficult part being the half-mile climb from the river to the top of the gorge. It’s a small price to pay for the scenery and the cultural lessons that the trail offers to its visitors.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 north to Pine Knot, Ky. At the pedestrian bridge, turn left onto Ky. Hwy. 1651 and take it north to Revelo. Directly across from the Revelo Post Office, turn onto Ky. Hwy. 642, which leads into Blue Heron. After entering the Big South Fork NRRA, and just past the entrance to Blue Heron Campground, look for the sign reading “River Gorge Overlooks.” Turn left there, and the Blue Heron Trailhead will be the first parking area on your left.
Be Careful For: There are lots of steep, wooden steps along the hike, which can be slippery in wet weather. If “rock-hopping” along the river at Devils Jump, be extremely cautious. Slipping into the river can be deadly, due to the rapid’s strong undercurrent.
Make It Better: Hike Blue Heron with a ranger! At 10 a.m. Saturday (April 20), a ranger-led hike will depart from the Blue Heron Outdoor Museum off Ky. Hwy. 92. The ranger will be able to provide background and answer questions about the hike.
Look For: From Devils Jump Overlook, look for the large rocks that create Devils Jump rapid in the middle of the river, downstream from the overlook. In the early 1800s, salt miners accidentally struck oil while drilling a well on the Tennessee side of what would become the BSF. The well would become America’s first commercial oil well, but the miners had never seen oil before. They were convinced they had drilled into hell, and called the black, tarry substance the “devil’s tar.” They hired a raftsman to float a couple of barrels of the stuff out of the rugged terrain. But his canoe capsized at the rapid, and the barrels of oil were smashed on the rocks. When the man returned to the miners, he told them that the devil had appeared out of nowhere, jumped into his canoe, and snatched the barrels — reclaiming his property. He claimed that he last saw the devil running up the opposite side of the gorge, a barrel of oil under each arm. And the rapid earned its name: Devils Jump.
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, please pack it out!
Go Big Points: While the Big South Fork NRRA’s Go Big 2019 Challenge is separate from the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge, you can earn points towards completing the Go Big Challenge while you participate in the hiking challenge. If you complete the Litton Farm Loop hike, you will earn 6 points towards your Go Big Challenge. Also, keep a close eye out for the wildlife you encounter; if you see any of several birds, you can earn 3 points for each bird you see (blue heron, wild turkey, crow, pileated woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, indigo bunting). To log your Go Big points, download the challenge booklet at nps.gov/biso. Participants who log at least 100 points will earn a challenge patch. Or, you can earn a medallion with 200 points (silver) or 300 points (gold).