As one of the oldest tourist attractions in Eastern Kentucky, Broke Leg Falls has been a popular stop for travelers for the better part of a century. This marvelous waterfall, fed by Broke Leg Creek, plunges 60 feet into a heavily wooded gorge, just outside the Appalachian town of Frenchburg. Those that decided to brave the long descent into the gorge will find an enormous cavern-like rock shelter hidden behind the falls, that visitors can walk through. Having such a colorful past as a failed state park, stripper filled dance hall, and weekend cabin retreat, this place merits a stop by anyone fascinated by mid 20th century Americana. Located a short 20 minute drive north of Red River Gorge, I decided to pop in for a visit after a day of hiking in the area.
Having experienced an unusually high amount of rain and snow this winter, a large swath of Eastern Kentucky became inundated by severe floods and one deadly landslide. With tiny creeks flooded to historical highs and once trickling falls roaring into life with all of the extra precipitation, this was the perfect time to head out in search of a waterfall.
Getting to Broke Leg Falls is quite easy as it is posted on most map applications I searched through. Located right on Kentucky Highway 460, its early owners sought to capitalize on its natural beauty by commercializing the destination around the turn of the century.
As traveling by automobile became more popular and the road trip craze of Route 66 became a viable option to bring economic prosperity to rural areas, every idea imaginable was used to bring people into Menifee County. Before the Mountain Parkway was built, Highway 460 was one of the main lifelines between Lexington and the southeastern counties of Appalachia extending all the way into West Virginia. As the landowners to the falls changed, so did the business ideas they proposed to convince people to stop here and pay a modest 0.10 cent fee to see the falls.
In 1958 Broke Leg Falls became an official Kentucky State Park, marking a new era of popularity and finally bringing some much needed economic activity. Only a mere five years later, the Mountain Parkway Tollroad opened up, effectively making Highway 460 obscelete. As the traffic flow was cut, park attendance dwindled and the state abandoned the site, selling it once more.
In 2002, after fifty years of sitting idle, Menifee County purchased the property and began a ten year project to revitalize the falls by building a new gazebo, picnic area, and hiking trails. As things seem to be taking a turn for the better, the falls was hit by a EF-3 tornado just 6 months after reopening.
The destruction caused by the natural event left a long lasting scar on Broke Leg Falls that can still be seen today, which leads us to our visit. As we make our way from the parking area to the gorge, we follow along the concrete maze that leads down to the gazebo on the edge of the cliffs above the falls. From here we walk down a short stairway and arrive at the top of the falls.
For such a tall waterfall, plunging 60 feet down, its incredible that we are allowed to walk across the top of it via a wooden bridge. Looking up at the rapids coming down from the ridge, you can just see the piled up wreckage of tree stumps lingering around the edge of the creek.
On the other side of the bridge is the beginning of a long staircase descending into the gorge as it curves tight against the cliff. The sound of the falls is deafening the farther down you go. Water is pouring down on us from the ridgeline above and strong gusts of wind are pushing us around as we walk down, giving us the impression we were stepping through a tropical storm.
Non of this is normal. Most of the year, Broke Leg Falls runs at half this strength and even less during periods of drought. Here you can see some of whats left of a picnic area and the beginning of a hiking trail that ends abruptly behind the mass of boulders and piled up tree stumps.
The county began an earnest effort to remove the fallen logs and stumps after the tornado, but began to recognize that the use of heavy machinery was causing more harm than good to the sensitive ecology of the gorge. A decision was then made to leave the area as is and let nature take its course. Just to the right of the staircase is the entrance into the rock shelter behind the falls.
Many thousands of years of erosion caused by splash back is responsible for this massive cavern. There is not a whole lot of information on the size of this rock shelter, but its one of the most impressive ones I’ve hiked through, especially since it travels behind such a large waterfall. The trail here is thin as sections of dirt are continuing to erode into the creek below.
Emerging on the other side of the canyon, one gets the best view of the falls. From here you can see the entire thing in all its beauty. We follow the trail over a large boulder field for another 30 yards before coming to a dead end at the edge of a cliff. Its hard to tell if the trail on the opposite rim goes further with all of the overgrown hedges and fallen trees. While the area doesn’t offer any impressive hiking, its still worth a stop just to get a chance to walk through the cavern behind the falls. Just make sure to plan your visit during a rainy period in order to the see this waterfall flowing at its very best. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!