This spring, I’ve found myself spending every free moment I have exploring all of the different sections of Jefferson Memorial Forest. Between Scotts Gap, Tom Wallace Rec. Area, Waverly Park, Fairmount Falls, Kulmer Beach, Paul Yost Rec. Area, and Horine Reservation, theres been no shortage of adventures to be had. My very first trip here back in 2010, the one which first opened my eyes to the beauty of Kentucky’s wilderness, was hiking to Mitchell Hill Lake from the Tom Wallace Recreation Area.
This is Jefferson Memorial Forests main recreation area and the first area of the forest opened to the public, upon its establishment in 1948. Chances are that when people mention hiking in the forest, this is the area they’re talking about as it receives the bulk of the forests 350,000 annual visitors. Mitchell Hill Lake lies just below Horine Reservation, but if you ask your GPS for directions to the forest, it’ll take you to the lake via the Tom Wallace Recreation Area. A lot of people confuse this for the much larger Tom Wallace Lake, just across the street from the welcome center.
Hikes here always begin with a visit to the Tom Wallace Welcome Center. The iconic two story white and red roofed building has had many lives throughout its history. It was originally built as a country schoolhouse and when the forest was established, it was turned into a ranger station, before finally being transformed into the welcome center in the late 1990’s. Around the back of the building is a covered walkway leading to the different trailheads that spur out from this location.
Take a walk past the small demonstration garden to find the the trailhead for Mitchell Hill Lake Trail. In order to reach the lake, you’ll have to hike along the Yost Ridge Trail. This 1.6 mile trail directly connects to Paul Yost Recreation Area. I’ve hiked here dozens of times over the years and regardless of the weather conditions, the first quarter mile is always a muddy mess. Due to the steep climb to reach the top of the ridge, water always manages to find its way onto this path.
While you’re trying to avoid getting mud all over your shoes, you might’ve noticed the giant treehouse structures built high above you. These are all a part of the Zipline Kingdom rope course. If you ever get a chance to climb up to the zip lines, the canopy tour offers an incredible vantage point from which to see the forest. After that initial struggle to get up onto the ridge above the welcome center, its a pretty smooth hike there after. Trudging along underneath the dense canopy of beech, birch, and maple trees make this a special place to visit during the fall.
Although Jefferson Memorial Forest is not particularly known for wildlife, the rehabilitation of its natural habitats have encouraged many animals to come back to these knobs. Its not uncommon to encounter deer grazing in the open meadows, wild turkey gobbling around in the lower valleys, and the occasional snake. On the very hike I took to film the video for this article, I happen to lean up on a ledge to shake a rock out of my shoe, when out of the corner of my eye, a long shiny black thing slithered away into the leaf mulch.
After jumping off the rocks freakishly fast, I peaked over the brush to find a 5 foot long rat snake hissing at me. On the large end of the spectrum, in recent years a black bear has been spotted just a few short miles east of here, in Bernheim Arboretum.
After about a mile, you’ll reach the Mitchell Hill Lake Trail marker. From here one could finish hiking to the multi-use fields of Paul Yost Recreation Area or hike the Red and Orange Trails of Horine Reservation. Heading down towards the lake, the dry landscape of the ridge becomes lush and moist as the trail runs parallel to several streams feeding into the lake.
These tend to flood the valley floor during heavy downpours, making the trail impassable. Passing the small lagoon, you get the first views of Mitchell Hill Lake just beyond the tree line ahead.
On this particular visit, I find the lake brimming with activity. A few people are paddling their kayaks on the calm lake. Several young children are standing along the narrow beach, fishing for crappie. Families are spread out along the lawn having picknicks.
Snacking on my pack lunch, sitting on one of the several picnic tables, while watching a gander of geese swimming, how can this afternoon get any better? One geese decides to wander over and hassle me for food, so I take that as my queue to head off for the rest of the loop.
If you continue to follow the path along the lake, it’ll take you to a small stream with a wood slat bridge crossing. During early spring, the banks here are awash in the bright yellow blooms of bearded irises. Just past this, is the climb up onto the earthen dyke that keeps the lake full.
Follow it until you reach the Mitchell Hill Lake Loop. Most of the loop is a steep uphill climb, which can be quite strenuous, especially if you’re carrying a pack. Once you reach the top of a ridge surrounding the lake, it’ll loop back to the Yost Ridge Trail, leading to the Welcome Center.
After experiencing this peaceful gem, I’m willing to bet that it’ll become a regular haunt for those looking to escape into a little slice of heaven, just outside the bustle of Louisville!