The Eagle Falls Trail is considered the #1 rated trail in Kentucky for its incredible views of both Cumberland Falls and its own 40 ft tall waterfall. This short 1.5 mile trail in Cumberland Falls State Park takes visitors on a scenic journey over the banks of Cumberland Falls and ends at a secluded cove containing Eagle Falls. Known as, the “Niagara of the South”, Cumberland Falls 125 ft wide and 68 ft tall drop is considered the largest by volume in the eastern United States. With several strenuous climbs up to a Gorge Overlook and a 426-foot descent to Eagle Falls, the panoramic views found throughout make this a worthwhile adventure.
Eagle Falls Trail | 1.5 Mile Loop
Eagle Falls Trailhead Location | Google Maps
Cumberland Falls State Park is a hiker’s paradise with 17 miles of hiking trails winding throughout the park to scenic overlooks of the Cumberland River. Aside from views of Cumberland Falls, this trail leads to another popular waterfall in the area, the 44-foot Eagle Falls. . While the park has several roadside overlooks where guests can walk out over the top of and under Cumberland Falls, the best view hands-down is from the cliffs of the Eagle Falls Trail. Open year round, the park truly comes alive during fall when the forest and gorge are adorned in colorful hues of burnt orange, canary yellow, and auburn. In turn, we visited Cumberland Falls and Eagle Falls as part of a day trip to see Dog Slaughter Falls and several hidden arches in the London Ranger District of the Daniel Boone National Forest. If you’re in the area, you should also consider making the quick stop to see Kentuckys tallest waterfall, Yahoo Falls and Yahoo Arch.
Eagle Falls Trail (1.5 Mile)
The trailhead for Eagle Falls is on KY 90 just past the Cumberland Falls bridge. Once you cross the bridge heading south, look over on your right and you will see a small gravel area on the side of the road with a clearly marked sign. There is additional parking on the opposite side of the road, but if both of these lots become full, visitors will have to park at the Cumberland Falls viewing area and walk the 0.25 mile along the road to the trailhead. Be aware that the Eagle Falls Trail is located within the Cumberland Falls State Park Nature Preserve and collecting animals, plants or artifacts is strictly prohibited. This added level of protection was initiated by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to protect several rare species of plants and animals that inhabit the cliff overhangs present along the trail.
Eagle Falls Trailhead
Even though the direct journey to Eagle Falls is advertised as 1.5 miles long, this trail splits off into a much longer loop. Reaching the falls requires turning off onto a spur trail heading down to the banks of the Cumberland River somewhere near the 0.75 mile point. If you skip or miss the spur trail and continue hiking, this can easily turn into a 2.8 mile journey. As the trail starts off, you immediately have a view of the precipice of Cumberland Falls and the viewing platform on the opposite side of the river. On average, 1 million people travel from all over the world each year to see the “Niagara of the South”, and the park was recently named “The Best Long Weekend Destination in the Commonwealth”, by Kentucky Living Magazine.
Top of Cumberland Falls
History of Cumberland Falls State Park
There is historical evidence in the oral traditions of local Native American tribes that Cumberland Falls and Eagle Falls were considered sacred and regularly visited by the Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw, and Creek Peoples. Seen as a sign of spiritual significance or a gateway where the gods could speak from the upper world, these early peoples revered the falls for a visual anomaly which occurs only several times per year. Being one of the largest waterfalls in the United Stated, Cumberland Falls is one of the few places in the world that regularly produces a Moonbow. The “moonbow,” also called a white rainbow or lunar rainbow, appears on specific days throughout the year on either end of the full moon.
Cumberland Falls seen from Eagle Falls Trail
The first written account of Cumberland Falls was written by the explorer Thomas Walker who named it after the Duke of Cumberland. The first recorded landowners of the falls were Matthew Walton and Adam Shepard in 1800, who served under George Washington during the American Revolution. Walton and Shepard surveyed the land in 1814, and were issued a land patent in 1828. During the American Civil War, Lewis Renfro and his wife Mary settled in a cabin near the falls which served as a hospital for injured soldiers. The falls and 400 acres of surrounding land were purchased in 1875 by Socrates Owens, who built the Cumberland Hotel near the site of the present Dupont Lodge. After a heated year long debate from 1930-1931 between the governor wanting to divert the river from Cumberland Falls to build a hydroelectric plant against those wanting to preserve the land, the Kentucky House and Senate overruled the governor and voted to sell the land to the Dupont Family for preservation. A year to the date after the ruling, Cumberland Falls became an official state park.
White Asters in bloom
Just past the precipice of Cumberland Falls, the Eagle Falls Trail loses most of its views as it heads into the forest, but the best vistas are further up ahead. At the 0.25 mile point, we begin our series of ascents and descents that will total a whopping 420 feet of elevation gain. A winding staircase with wooden rails leads up to a sprawling cliff overhang where you have to crouch down under a low ceiling to enter another set of stairs leading higher up the ridge. A visit here during late fall will give you an opportunity to see white asters blooming profusely throughout these rock shelters. Plant communities of sandstone rock shelters in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest (which Cumberland Falls adjoins) are home to the majority of rare animals and plants the nature preserve status aims to protect.
Eagle Falls Trail
Following a series of heart pumping stair climbs, we reached the Gorge Overlook spur trail near the 0.35 mile mark. A set of stairs leads 100 feet up to a Civilian Conservation Corps shelter, built during the parks early days. The views from up here are best when the foliage dies back during winter, otherwise I wouldn’t expend the energy necessary to make the trek up here. One of the many reasons people wander up to the Gorge Overlook is because it is the secret trailhead to a little known ghost town hidden in the forest nearby. The remnants of the wild west theme park, Six Gun City, are in various state of disrepair as it was abandoned in the late 1990’s after operating for 20 years. The park sits on private land, but that hasn’t stopped curious visitors from wandering through its streets to check out the dilapidated buildings.
Gorge Overlook Shelter
After making our way back down from the overlook, it’s only a short distance to where the trail meets the start of the 1 mile loop. When the water level is high enough, this loop is well worth the extra mile as it leads to the Eagle Creek Cascades. A wide, 30 foot long slide waterfall upstream from Eagle Falls, the Eagle Creek Cascades resembles some of the larger and iconic waterfalls of Western North Carolina. Since we are only interested in seeing Eagle Falls on this trip, we are turning RIGHT at the intersection. It is at this point where we reach another length of exposed cliffs that we find what are thought to be, hands down, the VERY BEST views of Cumberland Falls. The stretch of wood railing from end to end marks the sweet spot. Here, you’ll find breaks in the foliage that perfectly frame Cumberland Falls and the Upper and Lower Falls Overlooks just across the gorge. My personal favorite vantage point is from the far northern end of the wood railing where the cliff, railing, and waterfall meet in a small frame surrounded by the stunning foliage.
Overlook of Cumberland Falls
Cliffs Overlooking Cumberland Falls on Trail 9
One of the best views of Cumberland Falls
Eagle Falls Spur Trail
The trail continues beneath the bluffs of some pretty spectacular sheer cliffs for another short stretch before hitting the Eagle Falls Spur Trail near the 0.75 mile point. On the way is a minor shelf arch known as Eagle Falls Arch that is easy to spot as well. If you’re busy looking around at all of the jaw dropping scenery this can be an easy trail junction to miss and on this trip we ran into several groups that swore they could not find Eagle Falls. The trail signage could be bigger and better stated, but for now just keep your eyes peeled for it. This entire length of trail is one very long, but staggered descent to the banks of the Cumberland River. It is considered strenuous and should be undertaken at a slow and steady pace.
Final descent to Eagle Falls
The whole things kicks off by zigzagging down a series of switchbacks until arriving at the first set of stairs. Consisting of twelve steps with a landing in the middle, this set is minor when compared to the final descent. Another series of switchbacks later and we meet face to face with a sheer 150 foot drop to the Cumberland River. Tucked into a crevasse, running the full height of the cliff, is the final staircase. Consisting of six separate flights with landings in between, the narrow staircase is only large enough to accommodate one person at a time coming up or going down. Once at the bottom, follow the Red Blazes marked on boulders along the cliff wall to reach the hidden cove of Eagle Falls.
Eagle Falls through the trees
Even at only a quarter of its full flow, Eagle Falls is still considered one of the most impressive and heavily visited waterfalls in Kentucky. Cascading 40 feet over a cavernous rockshelter, the water tumbles through a series of deep natural pools as it meanders towards the Cumberland River a mere 50 yards away. The entire scene evokes similarities with the boulder strewn waterfalls of the Great Smoky Mountains. While the water is too cold for a swim at the moment, during summer time this swimming hole is packed with visitors. The best time to see the full grandeur of Eagle Falls is after a heavy downpour or during the winter months. It should also be noted that in times of high water, the falls trail becomes inaccessible so plan your trip accordingly.
Front view of Eagle Falls
View of Eagle Falls from inside rockshelter
After viewing the falls, make sure to walk over to the Cumberland River and take a look upstream to Cumberland Falls. The huge rock formations scattered throughout the river are a sight to behold. This is a great spot to picnic and cool your feet off, but swimming is prohibited due to the strong undercurrents. During summer, a local outfitter offers rafting tours that paddle right up to the base of the falls. Just on the other side of the river from here is a nice sandy beach with a few photogenic upstream shots of Cumberland Falls.
If you haven’t already done so, go check out the Upper and Lower Falls Overlooks as well. Up next, we are headed to another waterfall destination just north of Cumberland Falls known for its unusual name, Dog Slaughter Falls. Reachable from Cumberland Falls State Park via the Sheltowee Trace Trail, this majestic waterfall also has a dedicated 1.15 mile trail deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!