The Yahoo Falls Recreation Area of Kentucky’s Big South Fork contains not only the states tallest waterfall, but a few of its most unique arches and rock shelters. A short hike from the parking area leads visitors to this 113 foot tall waterfall which dwarves all others in the state by at least a dozen feet. A rugged one mile trail from the falls is the massive Yahoo Arch, which conveys a unique spiraling shape not seen anywhere else. Located at the far northern stretch of the Appalachian Temperate Rainforest biome, this area has a long history of human inhabitance stretching back at least 9,000 years. With so much to see, learn, and explore I made a full day outing to Whitley City to immerse myself in all things Yahoo!
Yahoo Falls | 0.7 Miles Out & Back
Yahoo Arch | 1.5 Miles Out & Back
Yahoo Falls Recreation Area | Google Maps
Yahoo Falls Trail Map | Daniel Boone National Forest
Arriving at the Yahoo Falls Recreation Area parking lot just after sunrise, I was excited to find the area devoid of all visitors with the exception of a friendly forest ranger making his daily inspection of the premise. The trailhead contains several large informative posters about the areas history including a detailed map of the immediate falls area trails. Theres even an opportunity to extend our visit by later traveling to Markers Arch on the outskirts of the park where it meets the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Most of the maps I’ve seen show the winding trails that intersect like a jumbled maze near the falls, but what they don’t show is that most of that is actually made up of large staircases descending down into the falls ravine. With several hundred feet in elevation change throughout the area, most people arrange to climb down to Yahoo Falls first and save the 1.5 mile hike to Yahoo Arch last.
As the trail splits a few hundred feet from the start, with the path on the right heading straight across the top of the falls all the way to the arch, you will veer LEFT at the fork and begin the climb down to Yahoo Falls. The rough hewn stone steps here give way to a larger set of rusted metal stairs traveling the rest of the way down. This is the part of the hike visitors who chose to visit the arch first regret saving for last.
The dry ridges soon give way to a lush landscape of hemlock and white pine that dominate the cooler gorges of the Big South Fork. Receiving over five feet of rain annually, which feeds the massive understory of big leaf magnolias, rhododendrons, and ferns as far as the eye can see, this place resembles a tropical forest more than your typical Kentucky woodland.
Reaching the bottom of the gorge, you’re met with towering cliffs in every shade of red, tan, and black. Small overhangs and pocket caves dot the bottom of these bluffs throughout the entire length of the trail. Cutting a path through the woodland floor bellow is Yahoo Creek as it makes its way to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Continuing along our path to reach the falls, we were shocked to realize that we were walking along the Sheltowee Trace Trail, even if only for a quarter mile. Kentucky's longest trail, nicknamed "The Sheltowee” for short, winds its way along the banks of the Yahoo Creek ravine to the base of Yahoo Falls, as it travels north through the Big South Fork into the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Following the sound of rushing water as it grew louder and more intense, I round a bend in the trail as is usually the case, and walk straight into the cove containing Yahoo Falls. This waterfall is so tall that you only really see the bottom of it splashing into the pool below until one fully emerges out of the woods. It felt as if I had stumbled onto a hidden slice of the Garden of Eden. The falls area is stunningly gorgeous, especially with the warm glow of morning sunlight piercing through the forest canopy high above.
At 113 feet tall it dwarves its closest competitor, Broke Leg Falls, by a dozen feet. Following the initial reaction of seeing the falls, the next thing one notices is the behemoth rock shelter behind it. This is one of roughly 6000 rock shelters that the National Park Service protects within the Big South Fork. Archeological digs at this site have uncovered pottery shards and arrowheads dating back to 9000 B.C. It is commonly believed that, Paleo Indians or the First Peoples as their referred to, lived in these natural shelters before the advent of large scale communities. Exploring these shelters, one might even stumble upon a “hominy hole” carved into the floor or large flat boulder near the entrance. these holes were used like our modern day mortar and pestle to grind nuts, grains, and seeds into flour. It shows the natural evolution from hunter gatherer to a life where farming is beginning to force people to settle into permanent communities.
If you think this area is larger than life then you 'aint seen nothing yet. After taking my time to explore every inch of the falls area, I jumped back on the trail towards Yahoo Arch. To reach the arch, follow the trail through the rock shelter as it begins the gradual climb back up the ridge on the opposite end of where you came in. There are plenty of sights along the way to this spectacular and unique arch. The trail travels through a small natural tunnel with an open side that is similar to Arch Rock along the Alum Cave Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Past this area there is a trail intersection with the main trail continuing straight, while a turn left across a small stream rejoins the Sheltowee Trace. The only difficult part of this trail is coming up right about now. A steep hike of over 300 feet in elevation gain over numerous switchbacks hits you hard and quick. There is no escaping it, just be glad that you’re getting it out of the way now while your legs are still fresh. Upon reaching the ridge, you will run into the main trail requiring you to make a LEFT TURN to continue towards the arch. Heading right will take you back to the top of Yahoo Falls.
From this point, Yahoo Arch is an easy 0.8 mile stroll through the woods. The forest floor is awash in some of this springs last blooming wildflowers. Blue spiderwort and bright red royal catchfly hang on for dear life as the mass of ferns begin to engulf them. Looking up all around me I can spot large rock shelters along the base of the cliffs that lead all the way to the arch. A small side trail leads up a wooded hillside to one of these shelters that is commonly used as a backcountry campsite. A mass of low growing rhododendrons stretches out along the entrance of the cave.
More and more rock shelters begin to appear as the trail meets up with the base of the sandstone bluffs. Its hard to tell which one belongs to Yahoo Arch until you finally see it. This massive formation is every bit as big as the shelter behind the falls. Instead of having a nice cleared floor to roam, this one is covered in a dense field of rubble. At the far end of it lies Yahoo Arch. It seems like your average sandstone arch at first, until you step inside for a closer look.
Yahoo Arch is made up of what appears to be two separate arches or ridges 11 feet high, that spiral into one another over a span of 57 feet. The effect resembles a modern art instillation with an oval opening in the ceiling. Walking just outside of the arch few feet past it is another smaller window that is large enough for an adult to crawl through.The entire structure feels alien as if it was not from this world.
At the back of the arch is a dirt hill that we climb by hanging on to the tree roots growing down from the ridge above. Once on top I’m shocked to discover another rock shelter with an enclosed courtyard. Small streams of water pour over the ledges above this area into small pools created by indentations in the rock floor amidst a grove of trees. The whole thing looks like a wild garden. Stepping out onto the balcony of this shelter, one gets a birds eye view of the entire cove approaching it. Its a beautiful place and one of the most peculiarly unique I’ve had the pleasure of exploring.
For those that want to continue to Markers Arch, just follow the trail past Yahoo Arch for another mile until reaching the Markers Arch Trail intersection. Personally, I’ve decided to head back to the Yahoo Falls parking area and drive over to the Markers Arch Trailhead on State Highway 700. The 1.5 mile hike back takes visitors directly over Yahoo Falls where several overlooks offer new vantage points to view this impressive waterfall. Stay tuned and follow up with us as we visit this little known arch along the banks of the Big South Fork. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!