Kentucky's Best Hikes that Lead to Water

Cumberland Falls is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Kentucky, and is a must-see.
Cumberland Falls is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Kentucky, and is a must-see. James St. John
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Kentucky is blessed with ample water resources, much of which goes towards growing bluegrass and making bourbon. That being said, there are plenty of worthy hiking destinations that offer up a bonus splash of water in the form of waterfalls or lakes—if you know where to find them.

There are numerous waterfalls to chase in Kentucky, with the highest concentrations found in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Many of these falls formed as the larger streams cut through the rocks quicker than the smaller bodies of water that flow into them. Flows in these smaller creeks fluctuate greatly during the year and the waterfalls can be more impressive in spring or after heavy rains. Check local conditions before setting off on your hike.

Waterfalls can be magnets for visitors, but if you’re willing to put some miles between you and the car, you’ll be rewarded with scenery and solitude. From the well-known Cumberland Falls to the underappreciated Honeymoon Falls, here are some top picks for Kentucky waterfall hikes, plus a bonus trail leading to not one, but two lakes.

Cumberland Falls

Perhaps the most iconic waterfalls in Kentucky, Cumberland Falls is not to be missed. Located in Cumberland Falls State Resort Park near Corbin, this will be a trip you’ll make time and time again. Often called the ‘Niagara of the South,’ Cumberland Falls stretch 125 feet wide. Curiously, they are nearly twice as long as they are tall. Consider visiting during a full moon for a chance to catch a glimpse of a rare moonbow.

The most popular trail to the falls is 0.5 miles and takes off from near the Dupont Lodge. There are almost 30 miles of trails winding through the park, or you can connect with trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest network to expand your adventure.

Yahoo Falls

Yahoo Falls is the tallest waterfall in the state.
Yahoo Falls is the tallest waterfall in the state. Edgar P. Zhagüi Merchán

Yahoo Falls is Kentucky’s tallest waterfall at 113 feet. Located in the northern unit of the Big South Fork National Recreation Area near Whitley City, the falls are near the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. The Sheltowee stretches 300-plus miles from the Tennessee section of the Big South Fork to the northern reaches of Daniel Boone National Forest north of Interstate 64.

Yahoo Falls is accessible from a 4.2-mile, out-and-back hike off of Kentucky 700. A shorter, 1.2-mile route takes off near the Yahoo Falls Scenic Area parking lot, but you’ll have to descend more than 200 steep metal steps from this path. Once you get to the water, you can experience Yahoo Falls from above, below, and even behind. The trail leads to a rock shelter tucked in behind the waterfall. Most locals agree that a side trip to the Yahoo Arch is worth the added 0.75 miles to reach the arch from the falls.

Honeymoon Falls

Not just for lovers, Honeymoon Falls is a popular hike in Pine Mountain State Resort Park in southeastern Kentucky near Pineville. This is a short but intense hike, gaining 350 feet in elevation in less than 1.5 miles.

Honeymoon Falls tumble 25 feet down, and flows fluctuate throughout the season with peak runs during the spring and following heavy rains. At least a trickle should be visible year round. This path is a scenic gem any day of the year, but if you love wildflowers, come in the spring. It is a well-maintained trail that receives less traffic than some of the other water features in the state.

Cascade Cave

Carter Caves State Resort Park sits in the heart of Kentucky Cave Country in Carter County. There are 26 miles of trail to explore above ground, but the best water feature is actually found underground. There are multiple caves at the park, but you don’t want to miss the Cascade Cave tour, offered year round. In addition to the 30-foot subterranean falls, you’ll see the reflecting pool of the Lake Room, the Cathedral room in North Cave, and the Dance Hall. The walking is fairly easy, although there are 250 stairs throughout the entire trip. Tours last approximately 75 minutes, and keep an eye out for roosting bats during the 0.75-mile walk.

Tioga Falls

Tioga Falls is on Fort Knox military property and has strict rules to follow.
Tioga Falls is on Fort Knox military property and has strict rules to follow. Tina Karle

At 130 feet, Tioga Falls are even taller than Kentucky’s tallest waterfall, but Tioga is broken up into a series of cascades, so the title still belongs to Yahoo Falls. Located near the border town of West Point, Tioga Falls originates from Tioga Spring and tumbles down the slope of Muldraugh Hill in a number of stair-stepped ledges. The moderate 2-mile round-trip walk is an out-and-back hike and is a popular destination. Expect rough and uneven terrain.

The falls flow on Fort Knox military property and posted rules—including no climbing on the falls and visitors must stick to trails—are strictly enforced. The trail may be occasionally closed temporarily throughout the year. A bonus on this hike is traveling over a pair of railroad tracks that date from the original Louisville and Nashville Turnpike.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Western Kentucky lacks the waterfalls found in the east, but it does have a pair of famous lakes, and the Canal Loop Trail allows explorers to hit up both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. This trail is popular with mountain bikers as well as hikers, and you can go anywhere from one to almost 11 miles.

For an overnight backpacking adventure, try the Nickell Branch Backcountry Area. All overnight backpackers must register and obtain permits at the North Welcome Station Trailhead. For an easy day trip in the area, try the Hematite Lake Trail looping 2.2 miles around a picturesque pond.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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