Located in the Stearns District of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Beaver Creek Wilderness is one of only two officially designated wilderness areas in Kentucky. Its 17,753 acres provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species including the regularly sighted eastern black bear. A total of 12 miles of rugged trails lead deep into the Beaver Creek Canyon past numerous unnamed arches, rock shelters, caves, and waterfalls. One of the best views of the towering cliffs and deep valley lies at the end of the Three Forks Overlook Trail which also contains an option to travel deep into the forest to the banks of Beaver Creek.
Three Forks Trail to Overlook | 1 Mile
Three Forks Overlook Loop | 2.0 Miles
Three Forks of Beaver | 0.60 Miles
Beaver Creek Wilderness Trail Maps | Forest Service
Three Forks of Beaver Trailhead Location | Google Maps
Being only a 15 minute drive north from the Yahoo Falls Recreation Area, I decided to cap off a day of waterfall chasing by stopping in the Beaver Creek Wilderness (also called the Beaver Creek Wildlife Management Area) to take in the canyon vistas from the Three Forks Overlook. The name of the trail and general area is derived from the confluence of Beaver Creek splitting off into three separate creeks: Freeman Fork, Middle Fork, and Hurricane Fork. We will also be tackling a short spur trail near the overlook leading visitors down from the dry ridges into a lush forest thats being left to re-wild.
A note to those planning on visiting Beaver Creek Wilderness. Aside from having a large accommodating parking area, there are no amenities here. The trails are maintained annually during a single cutback and then left to their own devices for the rest of the year. This area backs up to a prime hunting area so check the Daniel Boone National Forest website for dates when hunting is allowed and ongoing (bright orange attire recommended). Long pants and bug spray are a must especially during summer. Bears are commonly seen in the area so practice proper bear safety.
Reaching the trailhead for the Three Forks Trail is via the north side of the wilderness along Bauer Rd which is just off KY-90. After several miles, this gravel road splits off into Bowman Ridge Rd. Follow the signs to the Three Forks Trailhead. This is the main lifeline to all the trails on the north side of the wilderness. From here you can go all the way to the Bowman Ridge Trailhead which offers a rugged 3 mile hike to some incredible mountainous vistas and down into the north part of Beaver Creek. As you start along the Three Forks Trail, there will be a split. Thats because this is actually a 2 mile loop, but for this journey we will be taking the RIGHT path straight to the overlook, roughly 1 mile away.
The Beaver Creek Wilderness was at one point part of the ancestral homeland of the Chickamauga Cherokee and Kentucky Cumberland River Shawnee. They roamed the canyons and cliff lines of this place for 12,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Much of this area was left uninhabited by early settlers due to its mountainous terrain until large scale industries arrived in the late 1800’s. This main path along the dry ridge follows an old logging road established by the Bauer Cooperage Company. Up until the 1920’s, they logged white oaks from this area to create whiskey barrels.
Most of it is overgrown with some plants going up to my knees. The main draw to this area is the peaceful solitude of taking a stroll through the woods. During some of my research I came upon quite a few negative reviews of the area being described as “boring, overgrown, not worth the hassle.” It goes without saying that the whole point of traversing through a space that is being left to re-wild was completely missed by those particular visitors.
After a 20 minute walk, you reach the large open meadow. Native grasses and wildflowers adorn this area thats kept purposefully cleared to create a habitat for wildlife. Bears, deer, wild turkey, and floor nesting birds are commonly seen in this particular section, so keep an eye out. The trail makes a quick detour around a massive downed tree before ducking back into the forest for the last 0.5 miles of the journey. Roughly 100 yards before reaching the overlook is the Three Forks of Beaver spur trail leading down into the canyon. Make a mental note of it as we will be hiking back to this in just a few minutes.
Soon the trail begins descending onto the exposed cliff and comes face to face with the vast canyon of Beaver Creek. The sight is just as magical as any I’ve witnessed in Red River Gorge or the Big South Fork, except here you have it all to yourself. The Civilian Conservation Corps built overlook faces the opening to Freeman Fork, with the confluence of Middle Fork and Beaver Fork hidden just below the tree canopy. Turkey vultures circle the sky above, diving over the cliffs just a few feet from where I stand. To say that the short walk to see this is “not worth it” is completely ludicrous.
Those wishing to make their way down into the canyon will retrace their steps back to the Three Forks of Beaver spur trail. This intersection is maker by a wide mown path creating an entrance into the dark forest. You’ll know you’re on the right path when you see the old decrepit Beaver Creek Wilderness sign just barely hanging on. This path leads straight downhill for 0.60 miles to the banks of Beaver Creek and connects with the Middle Fork Trail.
Off-trail exploration is the norm here. This lush and almost tropical landscape hides nearly a dozen unnamed arches and waterfalls. Winter is typically the best season to hunt for these formations as they are hard to spot through the dense canopy of spring and summer. Several caves found found in the wilderness are home to two endangered species of bats, the rafinesque’s big-eared bat (which is also found in Mammoth Cave) and eastern small-footed bat.
On the way down are two notable rock shelters and overhangs. The first one is on the left just across a small creek, with the second one requiring a short scramble near the base of the cliffs to the right of the trail. Crevices and small overhangs within these spaces provide habitat for the eastern woodcut, green salamander, and a number of mosses, liverworts and terrestrial snails.
Soon we can hear the sound of rushing water getting louder by the step. As we get closer to the creek, the trail passes through miniature canyons made from boulders the size of small homes that have broken off from the main cliffs on the hillside above. Add this to the fact that this part of the forest is nearly dark due to the dense shade cast by a hemlock grove, making it noticeably cooler and one feels like they’re in the same forest as Hansel and Gretel.
Our journey ends at the Hurricane Fork stream crossing. Its hard to miss as the trail suddenly drops off into the wide creek. A small sand bank that hikers commonly use as a beach lays tucked between the forests edge in a small clearing where all of these streams meet. The stream flowing across the beach is a mix of Beaver Creek and Middle Fork while the stream flowing directly away from the sand bank is Freeman Fork. This might as well be the quietest, most serene place on the entire planet right now. Not a peep can be heard besides the soothing sound of water trickling over stones, birds chirping nearby, and a strong gust of wind thats slowly rocking the trees overhead.
To head back to the Three Forks parking area just follow the trail back up the ridge and hang a RIGHT to merge onto the overlook trail heading north. Leaving the sand bank, you’re actually traveling on the 6.5 mile long Middle Ridge Trail. Its the definitive trail to hike in the Beaver Creek Wilderness and one I hope to tackle in the near future. Up next well be traveling north to checkout Natural Bridge State Park. I’ll be tackling the original trail from the Hemlock Lodge up to one of the largest arches in the state. Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!