The natural wonder known as Tioga Falls lies deep within one of Americas most heavily guarded military bases, Fort Knox. Although closed off to the public when the U.S. government purchased the land surrounding the falls to create the base, a partnership between the town of Radcliff and The US Army, reopened the area creating a permanent Historical Nature Trail. This trail is opened most of the year with the exception of black out dates during large military exercises at the base.
Known by locals for decades, this hiking trail has recently become popular thanks to social media. I can remember hiking here years ago and maybe running into a handful of other people. Now, this place gets so packed during the summer, that you can hardly find a place to park. The trailhead is conveniently located off one of the souths most iconic roads, Dixie Highway and the Louisville-Nashville Turnpike. Long before Interstate 65 was built, this was the fastest route to get to Nashville, Tennessee, making it an ideal place for tourists to stop and enjoy this natural attraction.
The out and back 2.0 mile trail to Tioga Falls starts at the large wooden gate leading visitors over a bridge spanning Tioga Creek. Water streaming down the falls branches into this creek, until eventually emptying out into the Ohio River. If you’re familiar with Jefferson Memorial Forest, this area is a southern extension of the same knobs region of Kentucky and looks very similar. After hiking for a few minutes down the trail we reached a dead end. Due to overuse, part of the original trail eventually washed down the hillside so its been rerouted back onto Railroad Trestle Road.
Follow the road across the bridge and past the small church to the right. On the left hand side, you’ll pass an old building surrounded by razor wire, once used as a guardhouse for the base. The road finally ends at a large gate, with the trail to the falls leading right and up a steep hill. This is the first of two strenuous climbs along the way. The stone covered path is extremely slick and muddy, making it a challenge to keep your balance while trying to move forward. At one point, I slipped and fell really hard, catching the brunt of the blow on the palms of my hands.
Reaching the top of this hill, the views begin to open up northward to the natural embankments of the Ohio River. Here you’ll run smack into the Paducah and Louisville Train Line. During the era of westward railroad expansion, this was the site of the Tioga Railroad Station. The station was built to service the now abandoned village of Little Prussia, founded by early German settlers. With passenger service long since abandoned, the tracks are used to haul precious fuels to power the various utility plants along the Ohio River.
Part of the fun of this trail is crossing the tracks to reach the trailhead on the opposite side. As this is an operational railroad, please use common sense and do not walk along the tracks. Once you cross over, you’ll hit the next steep climb. This trail is so narrow and rocky that its hard to imagine it once served as a stagecoach route. How a horse could handle the brunt of the sharp stones littering the trail is beyond me. I can barely walk on it without tripping over myself.
Reaching the top of the ridge over the falls, the trail smooths out and becomes a breeze to walk. Although the history of this area is still shrouded in mystery, we know that it goes back to Americas colonial past. The first settlers arrived here, at the mouth of the Salt River in 1776. Attempts to set up an outpost were made during the next 20 years, but were unsuccessful due to constant attacks by Indian tribes. Following several peace treatise between the Kentuckians and Northwestern Indian tribes, the western most outpost of American civilization was established just a mile from the trailhead and named West Point in 1796.
By now, its hard not to hear the roaring of the falls nearby. Descending down a hill, we reach the lower section of Tioga Falls. Most pictures of this waterfall you see online make it look like one huge waterfall. In fact its divided into 3 distinct sections, each separated by about 15 feet, dropping a total of 130 feet.
The very top of the falls cascades over several ridges until plunging down onto a limestone creek. This area is closed off to the public and people are prohibited from climbing the cliffs. Of course the opposite was true today as scores of people were climbing the slippery slopes to go up and take a closer look.
Once traveling down the creek, it plunges down another eight feet creating a rectangular waterfall. From here, the water meanders another fifteen feet through a stone bed, crossing over the trail, to cascade over a rock ledge down into Tioga Creek.
Each area had its own ankle deep wading pool, filled with kids playing and parents cooling their tired feet. Funny enough, earlier visitors to the falls had the idea of creating a natural spring fed swimming pool. Just below one of the falls is the remnants of an earthen dike used to secure water for the pool.
Several smaller paths can be found all along this area. Some lead up towards the cliff above the falls, while others follow the creek downhill towards the Ohio River. Just know that this area is regularly patrolled by police and if you wander too far off into the base, they will find you and kindly lead you back on the right path.
As for me, I’m going to sit near the falls and let me feet rest in the cool rushing water for a while before heading back. If you find yourself traveling through Louisville or the Fort Knox area, make sure to put this trail on your list of must see places in central Kentucky. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!