Hike Sheltowee Trace: Kentucky’s 323-Mile Long Trail
Sheltowee Trace At a Glance
Length: 323 miles
Location: The trail runs from Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area in Tennessee to the northeast corner of Kentucky.
Trail Type: Out and back, or shuttle
Scenery: Most of the trail is on the Cumberland Plateau in Daniel Boone National Forest or in assorted state and National parkland. There are great views throughout, impressive waterfalls and several natural bridges. Time yourself to be at Cumberland Falls (the Niagara of the South) during a full moon and enjoy one of the few places on earth with a consistent Moonbow. (A black and white version of a rainbow caused by the mist from the falls and light from a full moon.)
“Kentucky’s Long Trail” is named for Daniel Boone, who was given the name Sheltowee, or Big Turtle, when adopted into the Shawnee tribe. The trail features numerous waterfalls, natural arches, sandstone cliffs and tremendous views. It even passes by a spot where clear skies and a full moon generate a moonbow. Sections of the trail are located in Big South Fork National Park, Daniel Boone National Forest, Cumberland Falls State Park, Natural Bridge State Park and Red River Gorge. Originally completed in 1979, the path is administered by the Sheltowee Trace Association (STA), and is still being extended and improved.
Most of the hiking would be considered moderate. There are some steep climbs/drops but few total over 500 feet in elevation change. The toughest part for me were some extensive sections of road walking; several miles in a few instances. Bring water shoes; there are a number of stream crossings.
Generally, the trail is marked pretty well with blazes in the shape of a turtle either nailed to trees or painted on trees, signs or roadways. A map set is available, very useful and sold here.
To get to the northern terminus, take I-64 approximately 50 miles east of Lexington, KY to exit #137. Start north on Rt 32 then right on Rt 377 to the trailhead. Leave the car at the trailhead. If you’re starting at the southern end, the best plan may be to park at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center in the Big South Fork, pick up a camping permit and have a shuttle arranged to the terminus. From Oneida, TN, turn west on Rt 297 from US 27 and watch for signs to Bandy Creek Recreation Area. Check out the shuttle info here.
Why Hike This Trail?
If you’re from the mid-west or mid-south, there are few nearby options for a long hike. Sheltowee Trace is not only within reach for this Ohioan, it also hits my sweet spot in length. At 323 miles, the trail is long enough to be a life changing experience without being so long that you have to give up your existing life to hike it.
Climate and Weather
The trail is in “the south” and elevations are under 2,000 feet. While snow and ice can be an issue, generally the trail can be hiked year-round. Winter offers seclusion and countless views through the leafless trees. In spring, waterfalls and wildflowers are at their peak. Mid-summer highlights include humidity and ticks. Late summer and fall tend to have the most stable weather, fewer bugs and sparse crowds. My favorite time is October with dry air, cool nights and some tremendous fall color.
There is no permit required or fee to camp on undeveloped Daniel Boone National Forest Land. Either a tent or hammock should work. There is a permit ($5) required to camp in the Big South Fork which can be obtained at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center. Food must be “bear bagged” in both Big South Fork and Red River Gorge and it’s a good idea along the entire route. Best practices also include camping at sites that have already been “established” by previous hikers. Other options along the route include developed campgrounds at Kentucky State Parks such as Natural Bridge.
With some foresight, running out of water should not be an issue. There are numerous stream crossings, lakeshores and occasional convenience stores along the route. To be safe, plan on filtering all water (with the possible exception of convenience store bottled water).
Resupply opportunities are fairly convenient along the trail with 60 miles being the farthest distance between possibilities. The STA is active and there are a couple stretches where arrangements can be made for association members to bring a resupply box to you on the trail. The city of Morehead is right on the trail and McKee, Livingston and Whitley City are nearby. A full list of resupply options is on the STA website.
The best place to start researching Sheltowee Trace is at the STA website. The association is active and seemingly filled with southern hospitality. The group appeared eager to help hikers with the challenges of the trail such as shuttles and even delivering resupply boxes.
Make no mistake—this trail is a challenge. However, the parks and National Forest it travels through are beautifully rugged with scenery and vistas you wouldn’t expect to find outside of a major mountain range.
Looking for a new way to thru-hike a trail? Try the Hiker Challenge. The Sheltowee Trace Association has set up a program where a hiker can complete the trail by hiking one weekend a month for 11 months. All shuttles, camp locations and camaraderie are provided for you; all you need to do is show up, hike and enjoy the show.
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