Bad Branch Falls and High Rock

Length/Type: Approximately 3.0 miles one-way, out-and-back (optional loop on top of the ridge); Difficulty: Difficult to Strenuous (steep grades and rugged footing); Other Considerations: Upper portion of the trail connects to the 42 mile-long Pine Mountain Trail, providing longer possible day hike or overnight options. A detailed trail map is available via the preserve’s website.

When most hikers think about high waterfalls, rugged mountain wilderness, and expansive ridgetop overlooks, they don’t typically think of the eastern Kentucky coalfields. This region, however, is home to some of the most underrated and scenic hikes in all of the central Appalachians – a consequence of a complex and tumultuous geologic history that produced a series of steep and cliff-lined mountains that are still considered inaccessible in most places, even by modern-day standards.

One of those places is Pine Mountain. Not just a single mountain peak, Pine Mountain is in reality a long, linear ridgeline extending some 125 miles from Jellico, TN to the small town of Elkhorn City, KY. A result of a geologic process called “thrust-faulting” (detailed in the Nature Notes below), Pine Mountain exists today as an impenetrable fortress of sorts on the Virginia-Kentucky border, with high, rugged sandstone cliffs lining its northern and western face. This landscape naturally lends itself to sweeping vistas and cascading streams, and that’s exactly what Pine Mountain has to offer. And the hiking community has caught onto this beauty in the past several decades: the 42-mile Pine Mountain Trail now serves as one of the few long trails on the western Appalachian front, and several state-owned preserves provide access from the mountain’s base.

Bad Branch State Nature Preserve is one of the main highlights of publicly-accessible hiking options on the mountain. Dedicated in 1992, the preserve encompasses a deep, narrow gorge carved into the south face of Pine Mountain to the southwest of Whitesburg in Letcher County. While most visitors only come to the preserve to see its namesake falls on the lower portion of the property, an outstanding trail continues above the head of the gorge to meet the Pine Mountain Trail and continue to the High Rock overlook, a sweeping vista perched on a high knob of the ridgeline. A “lollipop-style” loop also exists on the upper portion of the gorge, threading through an upland cove containing steep cliffs and boulders.

The Hike

The trail begins at a small, gravel parking area on SR-932, located a short distance off US-119 between Whitesburg and Cumberland, KY. The footpath itself begins behind the trailhead kiosk and register and enters the woods just behind the parking area. The original character of the hike gives little hint of the rugged terrain ahead, beginning mostly in a flat to rolling bottom-type habitat along the lower portion of Bad Branch. Over the next 0.8 miles, though, the trail begins to climb more steeply to its junction with the side trail to Bad Branch Falls.

Start of the trail along SR-932

The falls are reached via a 0.1-mile side trail that initially descends from the main trail to the bottom of the hollow. From there, this side trail climbs steeply – almost to the point of scrambling in places – to a notch in the sandstone where Bad Branch enters on the opposite side of the gorge.  The falls themselves are a sharp freefall over this lip of sandstone onto boulders below. Although a scramble down to the base of the falls might be tempting, the terrain here makes things risky at best…especially when colder temperatures turn the falls’ spray into a thin coat of ice across this side of the gorge. Sticking to the side view of the falls offered along the cliffline – and heeding the oddly-placed signs giving rattlesnake warnings – at the end of the trail is safest option and minimizes risk to both yourself and the fragile ecosystem surrounding the falls.

Bad Branch Falls

To continue on towards High Rock, backtrack down the side trail back to the main footpath, and turn right (north) onto the main trail to continue climbing. From here, the trail angles up a steep tributary to Bad Branch that cascades down the south face of Pine Mountain. With the stream hemmed in on all sides by sheer cliffs and steep slopes, the trail has no option but to climb along with it, never straying far from the water and ascending strenuously at times. This climb eventually begins to ease as the trail approaches its junction with the Pine Mountain Trail at mile 1.9, 1.1 miles from the turnoff to Bad Branch Falls.

At this junction, the Preserve trail and the Pine Mountain Trail become one for the rest of the journey to High Rock, bearing east over a low ridge dividing the tributary you’ve been climbing and a separate headwater stream that you will join on the last leg to High Rock. To the left (west) at this junction, the Pine Mountain Trail traverses the rim of the gorge you just climbed before heading out the ridgeline to its junction with US-119 several miles later. To continue to High Rock, follow the signs and angle right to straight ahead to continue on the combined Preserve Trail/Pine Mountain Trail. Large rock formations begin near this point and will be a companion for the rest of the hike.

Snowy trail on the ridge, on the way to High Rock

Just 0.2 miles from the junction with the Pine Mountain Trail, the path reaches a signed T-intersection just above a small headwater stream. This marks the start of the “lollipop”-style loop option mentioned at the start of this guide. Both legs (left and right) eventually lead to High Rock, although the left turn at this junction leads more directly to the overlook and is detailed here in this guide. The right leg of the loop initially descends along this stream, crosses it, and then climbs to meet the Pine Mountain Trail again in 1.6 miles, some 0.4 miles east of High Rock.

To reach High Rock most directly at this T-intersection, turn left and climb 0.6 miles along the headwater stream to Ran Polly Gap. From there, the trail climbs 0.2 miles more to High Rock overlook. The last pitch of this climb scrambles directly up High Rock – a steep, open outcrop of sandstone that slants steeply to the south and drops off precipitously to the north. The rock looks directly out over eastern Kentucky in a near 180-degree vista, perched almost directly over the North Fork Kentucky River Valley at the base of the ridge. The town of Whitesburg is in the valley to the WNW, with the rolling hills of the Cumberland Plateau on the horizon. The coalfields of southwest Virginia peek out over the treeline behind you, to the south. After enjoying the view, either backtrack the way you came or, alternatively, continue along the Pine Mountain Trail another 0.4 miles to continue on the loop, turning right at this point to descend the mountain and return to the T-intersection mentioned above.

Fog and rime ice near High Rock on the summit of Pine Mountain

Nature Notes

A lot could be written about the natural features of the Bad Branch Preserve. The steep walls of the gorge provide home to numerous creatures and keep many parts of the gorge constantly shaded. As a result, plants including eastern hemlock and rhododendron are a common sight along the trail, as are a number of moisture-loving plants in areas where persistent spray from waterfalls or other cascading headwater streams keeps things moist.

Perhaps most interesting on this hike, however, is what you don’t see. The rocks beneath you – the ones forming Pine Mountain and causing the steep grades found along the trail – are part of a unique geologic feature called a thrust-fault. All of Pine Mountain, in fact, is the result of such a thrust-fault, which happened near the Appalachians’ infancy, a time referred to as the Appalachian Orogeny (or mountain-building event). During this time, the continental plates containing North America and Africa were on a collision course, quite literally slamming into one another in slow motion and creating an immense amount of force. In terms of mountain-building, this force can do several things: it can cause a massive uplifting of high ridges (seen along the Blue Ridge on the eastern edge of the Appalachians), or it cause an accordion-like folding of rocks into parallel, upward-facing ridges and U-shaped valleys (as can be seen in the Valley and Ridge along I-81).

Pine Mountain’s thrust-fault is the result of another consequence of the immense force resulting from this continental collision. Rather than simply folding under pressure, the rocks surrounding modern-day Pine Mountain actually fractured, or broke, lifting upward and then sliding over rocks found to the north and west as the force from our continental collision pushed from the east. The result of this action was the steep-sided face of Pine Mountain – actually what remains of this original break-point when rocks were forced and angled upward. As you hike up Bad Branch, you are actually climbing the more sloped south side of the mountain to its eventual broken edge at High Rock’s summit. If you take a close look at High Rock, in fact, it’s not difficult to see that you’re actually standing on the uppermost edge of a 200 km long “block” of broken rock…all angled upward and extending well underground beyond the base of Pine Mountain.

Directions: From the junction of US-119 and KY-15 in Whitesburg, KY (at the intersection with the Pine Mountain Grill), travel south on US-119. Climb up and over Pine Mountain, passing the large parking area for the Pine Mountain Trail at the summit, and descend on switchbacks down the opposite side of the mountain to SR-932 for a total of 7.0 miles. Turn left onto SR-932 and travel 1.7 miles to the signed gravel parking area on the left.

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