I happen to live in a large metropolitan city, in the southernmost part of the Midwest, that is spoiled with the most diverse, natural beauty our country has to offer. Along with being home to the Kentucky Derby and boxing legend Muhammed Ali, Louisville is also home to the largest urban municipal forest in the United States, Jefferson Memorial Forest!
At 6,500 acres, this urban municipal forest wraps around the southwest part of the city, in the knobs region of Kentucky, just due north of Mammoth Cave National Park. For those of you not familiar with the terms knobs or hollers, for which a part of this site is named after, they're regional terms for a very large hill that's just a bit too small to be called a mountain. Jefferson Memorial Forest is split up into different sections, separated by private land, and yet all interconnected by public hiking trails. What most people don't realize, is that a dozen miles east, is another secret section of the forest thats kept hush-hush, named Fairmount Falls.
Fairmount Falls won't be found on any map of Jefferson Memorial Forest, but if you know who to ask and where to look, you'll get the privilege of hiking this natural limestone cliff with a gorgeous streaming waterfall. First off, you can't just go and visit the falls. You have to get permission from forest management to do so. In order to preserve the area, only a handful of permits are given on a daily, first come first serve basis. Calling the Welcome Center, Fairmont Falls has its own special department dealing with visitor requests.
Thinking about just driving there and checking it out, without checking first? The locks to the gate, guarding the small gravel parking lot have an access code that is changed regularly and the area is under constant surveillance. I had to wait several days until there was an opening and cross my fingers the weather would oblige with my plans.
The falls are so out of the way and yet in the middle of a highly populated area, that when the day came for my visit, I realized that I had probably driven past the small unassuming entrance at least 100 times before. Its invisible even in plain sight. I pulled over into the narrow gravel entrance, got out of my car, punched in the access code into the padlock and opened the deceptively simple wire fence.
Its a pretty rudimentary first impression, with a gravel lot just barely big enough for 3 cars. Theres a simple wooden picnic bench, located on the crumbling foundation of what appears to be a long gone ranger station. There's really not a ton of information to be found about the falls. Some of the land in the near vicinity has been farmed since the early 1800's. Mainly consisting of tobacco plantations.
Making my way down the hill from the gravel lot, the trail meanders around moss covered limestone boulders, some as big as a house. Even on a clear and sunny afternoon, this place has an air of mystery to it. Though private and secluded now-a-days, this area has a lot of history. About a mile south of the falls, where the creek empties into Floyds Fork Creek, archeological digs uncovered limestone carved arrowheads dating back to the Woodland Period (500 B.C.- A.D. 1000)
This land was once a part of the Kentucky Band of Shawnee Indians. The Shawnee would launch raids from these knobs into the nearby colonial settlement of Louisville. Bardstown Road, which is the main road leading to the falls, was an important transportation artery during the Civil War. Small skirmishes throughout the area saw it change hands from Union to Confederate all throughout the war here. Just looking around, I get the impression that this place is ancient and has many stories we may never even know.
As you make your way down the hillside you will undoubtedly stumble across a freshly paved road, clearing a path through an otherwise unspoiled natural area. The aptly named, Hidden Creek Lane, leads to a small development of homes at the bottom of this quiet valley. It is rumored that at one point, a business man had drawn up plans to build an expansive home right on the cliffs over the cascading falls. By classifying it a natural area and bringing it within the jurisdiction of Jefferson Memorial Forest, conservationist succeeded in preserving the falls from future development.
Making your way past the road and back up the hill, you should be able to hear the sound of splashing water. The hillside eventually gives way to a gorge with a gully cutting downstream into the valley.
With the forest understory mostly barren of leaves this time of year, the grayish-yellow limestone cliffs stick out like a sore thumb. For such an unexpected place to see a waterfall, the sight is truly wonderful, with water cascading over the cliff into an almost turquoise crystal clear pool.
Much like Clifty Falls, Fairmount Falls likely originated much closer to Floyds Fork Creek, having worked its way north as the creek bed eroded over thousands of years. The gorge created by the falls looks identical to the waterfalls of Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve, with its perfectly round, bowl shape.
The trail continues around the back and across the creek feeding the falls. During spring, these hills are covered in vibrant wildflowers and even a few rare ferns local to this area. I caught myself from falling a couple times as I treaded across the running stream.
Although you'll be 20 feet from the edge of the cliff, take caution as there are no barriers to stop you from taking a deadly tumble over the cliff. Beware all selfie takers! Once you've made it past the creek, the remaining 0.5 mile of trail meanders across a ridge, under mature stands of juniper and maple trees.
Several handmade wooden benches are strewn about in scenic places to stop and take in the views. Reaching the loop at the bottom of the hill, I followed a small deer trail to an unnamed creek with a few small falls of its own.
At a certain point, the trail comes within a few yards of Hidden Creek Lane and again I found another small trail leading to the road. I really hate taking the same way back. To the left of the road is the waterfall fed creek cascading over boulders strewn about a makeshift ditch.
Gravity is hard at work as the trickle of water now resembles a small rapid. Crossing an overpass, the creek shifts to my right as I hike the road back uphill. Here the shallow stream gives way to a wide ravine, with all of the dirt being washed downhill, the large and flat limestone creek bed is totally exposed.
A succession of smaller, wider waterfalls hug the hillside perpendicular to the road, until dropping out of sight into the gully. Small detours can really pay off sometimes. Had I not taken the road back, I would have never seen any of this.
Following the road back to the trail crossing, I searched for a noticeable trail leading down to the small pool at the bottom of the falls, but nothing came up. Maybe its for the best, as I was reminded as to why this place is kept at a maximum of three visitations per day, to preserve it not romp through it.
If you plan on being in Louisville for a weekend or live nearby, make it a point to visit Fairmount Falls. We are all familiar with conservation efforts in our major public lands, but its little places like this that are the canary in the coal mines of large scale deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction.
If we turn a blind eye and give them up without a fight, its only a matter of time before our larger parks come under threat. Support groups like the Natural Areas Division of Jefferson Memorial Forest in your city and don't forget to help us make an impact by shopping our travel inspired tees, we donate a portion of each sale to help reforest our public lands across the country. See y'all on the trails!