By Dana Kuhnline
Bad Branch Falls near Whitesburg, Ky., was one of the first hikes I experienced when I moved to Appalachia almost 10 years ago. I happened to be chaperoning two vans full of at-risk teenagers on a weekend trip from West Virginia to Whitesburg. The last stop before heading home was this hike.
To get to Bad Branch State Nature Preserve from Whitesburg, you take U.S. Route 119 over the impressive Pine Mountain, a ridge stretching from Tennessee to Virginia formed when West Africa collided into North America more than 275 million years ago. Now the second-highest mountain in Kentucky, Pine Mountain’s views and hairpin turns left me gasping at the massiveness of geologic forces and the comparative smallness of 16 sleep-deprived youths gazing quietly into the endless green rolling hills.
I’ve traveled back to Bad Branch State Nature Preserve on the south side of Pine Mountain several times since it first impressed me with its diverse forest and ability to awe angsty teenagers. The preserve started as 435 acres in 1985, but has grown to more than 2,500 acres through a state partnership with several conservation funds. Its rich ecosystems contain a number of rare species of wildflowers, occasional black bears and Kentucky’s only known nesting pair of common ravens.
Once on the trail, it’s about a mile of steady uphill to a side trail that takes you to Bad Branch Falls. The well-kept trail climbs along the beautiful Bad Branch, a state-designated Kentucky Wild River. There are several small footbridges that make for easy crossing and pretty pictures. The shady gorge is filled with rhododendron and a healthy forest with a few impressive hemlocks that were spared from 1940s logging. The first mile is popular with local residents, possibly because the sandstone cliffs and 60-foot falls at the end are one of the best places in the world for a picnic.
Bad Branch Falls is impressive year-round, with perfect boulders to scramble over to enjoy the spray at the foot of the falls and startlingly green ferns to frame the rainbows that often appear in the splashing water. The waterfall is too popular to feel completely secluded, but the upshot is that there might be a friendly stranger handy to snap a group photo for you.
After you have finished sunning yourself on the rocks beneath the waterfall, or perhaps even taken a quick shower in the falls themselves, you can head back to the car or continue up to the High Rock Loop Trail, which is a steep two miles to the crest of Pine Mountain. If you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views off of the sandstone cliffs at High Rock. It’s a wonderful place to contemplate how this 125-mile-long ridge stymied early settlers, who were forced to travel to Whitesburg via this steep trail. Even today, there are few roads crossing Pine Mountain; its inconveniently rugged beauty has thus far protected it from extensive human development.
Watch the signs carefully, because at this point the High Rock Loop Trail meets with the Highland Section of Pine Mountain Scenic Trail, which travels north up and down the ridge for 42 strenuous, view-filled miles. If you have brought a map of the Pine Mountain Scenic Trail, you might enjoy checking out a few of the rock formations and overlooks along this adjacent section – but keep an eye on your time. The lot at Bad Branch does not allow overnight parking, so if you’re looking for a longer adventure along the ridge you’ll need to leave your car at the trailhead for Pine Mountain Scenic Trail located nearby on U.S. Route 119.
Though the journey back from High Rock Loop to the Bad Branch parking lot will revisit some of the same trail, the varied forest and peeks into the gorge keep the walk interesting. To me, the best walks have rock formations to scramble over, epic views or a waterfall. Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve has all three packed into a strenuous but rewarding day-hike just a few miles off the highway.
Where: Letcher, Ky., 8 miles south of Whitesburg, Ky. From US 119, turn left onto KY 932 (following signs for Bad Branch), travel east for 2 miles to gravel parking area on left side of KY 932.
Length: 1 mile to Bad Branch Falls, 5 miles round-trip to the crest of Pine Mountain along High Rock Loop Trail.
Facilities: None. Bring water or a water filter.
Pets: No pets are allowed at Kentucky State Nature Preserves.