Van Hook Falls is one of the most iconic landmarks found along Kentuckys only long distance trail, the Sheltowee Trace Trail. Starting at the Sheltowee Trace Trailhead at the junction of KY 192 and KY 1193, it is a 2.75 mile out & back hike to reach this majestic 40-foot waterfall. Often undertaken as a full day hike, the path to Van Hook Falls is brimming with nearly a dozen off-trail waterfalls, cascades, and an arch that are equally as photogenic and worth making a side trip to explore. With 319-miles of trail climbing between deep hemlock groves and piney, craggy summits, making an excursion on this National Recreational Trail should be on every hikers bucket list.
Van Hook Falls from Trailhead | 2.6 Mile Out & Back | 5.25 Miles Roundtrip
Van Hook Falls Trail | AllTrails
Sheltowee Trace Trail Map | U.S. Forest Service
Van Hook Falls Trailhead Location | Google Maps
While the Sheltowee Trace Trails’ Northern Terminus is known for its incredible mountain summits, sweeping vistas, and arches, its Southern Terminus is all about the waterfalls. Late last year, we undertook a full day hike on the Sheltowee Trace Trail to climb Cloud Splitter and Indian Staircase in the Red River Gorge. This time around we’ve traveled 80 miles south to the outskirts of London, Kentucky to tackle the famed hike to Van Hook Falls. Flowing mostly year round, the best time to see this 40-foot waterfall is after a few days of consistent rainfall. To make the most of this 5.60 mile roundtrip, I have thrown in several stops along the way to check out a few worthwhile and easy to reach off-trail waterfalls and arches that can easily be found by searching the Kentucky Landforms website.
Van Hook Falls Trailhead
Running the entire height of the Daniel Boone National Forest for 319 miles, the Sheltowee Trace Trail has a handful of dedicated recreation areas where section and thru hikers can easily jump on and off the trail. One of these designated spots located at the intersection of KY 192 and KY 1193 is used primarily for people taking the hike out to see Van Hook Falls. At a little over 2.50 miles one way, this hike generally takes about 3 hours to complete. The Sheltowee Trace Association, who manages volunteers in protecting, maintaining, & promoting this National Recreational Trail, regularly put on “Hiker Challenge” led hikes to Van Hook Falls and can be seen at this trailhead on most weekends. Once you’re ready to begin this hike, simply walk across the street from the parking lot and enter the trail near the brightly colored trailhead sign.
(Trailhead to Van Hook Falls)
History of Sheltowee Trace Trail
Started by a U.S. Forest Service landscape architect named Verne Orndof in the 1970’s, this trail was inspired by some of the long distance foot paths pioneered by the Sierra Club on the east and west coasts of America. Beginning in Tennessees’ Pickett State Park, the trail travels north through the Big South Fork into Kentucky and spans the entire height of the Daniel Boone National Forest, ending in the town of Morehead. Some of the other notable waterfall destinations along the Sheltowee Trace Trail include Yahoo Falls (Kentuckys tallest), Cumberland Falls (Kentuckys largest by volume), Eagle Falls, Princess Falls, Lick Creek Falls, Dog Slaughter Falls, and Bark Camp Creek Cascades. Though still in the works, Kentucky State Parks is in the process of building its next long distance trail, the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. Nearly 120 miles long in scope, this linear state park will showcase the wild highlands of Kentuckys Appalachia Region along the Virginia border from Breaks Interstate Park to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
(Photography session at 1st Falls on Branch of Pounder with Rob & Billy)
(1’st Falls on Branch of Pounder only at half flow, but still quite photogenic)
Off Trail Excursions
After nearly a 0.50 mile into this hike, the ravine of Pounder Branch will become more pronounced with smaller side branches feeding into it and this is where we began encountering some of the easier to reach off-trail waterfalls on our way to Van Hook Falls. The first of these is located a short scramble down from the trail and is typically used to determine how well the rest of the waterfalls will be flowing up ahead since it is in a minor branch. 1’st Falls On Branch Of Pounder is roughly 5 ft high by 4 ft wide and is shouldered by a smaller seasonal waterfall 10 yards downstream. Completely surrounded by a dense grove of hemlock trees and narrow cliff overhangs, it is easily one of the more photogenic waterfalls that most people can visit. With the main trail traveling just overhead, this is a hard one to miss.
(2’nd Falls on Pounder Branch)
A short distance past this, we start to hit a significant grouping of waterfalls emanating from Pounder Branch. Though some of the first ones we see are minor cascades and don’t have enough flow worth making a dedicated stop for, 1’st Falls On Pounder Branch is a regular stop for every hiker traveling on this trail. A small side path leads down from the main trail into a hidden cove with a wide sandy beach surrounded by lush foliage. The entire area looks like it belongs in a tropical jungle, not Eastern Kentucky. Getting back on the main trail, 2’nd Falls On Pounder Branch is another one of the easily accessible smaller waterfalls found on Pounder Branch. This 8 ft high cascade can be heard from the Sheltowee Trace Trail as it picks up momentum before dropping into the 100 ft valley of Pounder Gorge.
(Overlook of half frozen Pounder Gorge Falls)
Continuing on the Sheltowee Trace Trail we make a trail crossing directly over the top of Lava Falls. Requiring a difficult off-trail excursion to reach, the ground view of Lava Falls 25 ft drop feeding into the 3’rd Falls On Pounder Branch is one of the more dramatic sights along the entire path to Van Hook Falls. Only a worthwhile adventure with a significant amount of rain, waterfall chasers make a whole day of traveling through Pounder Branch to see 4’th Falls On Pounder Branch, Pounder Falls, and the 60-ft high Pounder Gorge Falls. Over the next 0.25 mile stretch of trail you’ll be able to venture out onto several overlooks with sheer drops into the gorge below and an upfront view of Pounder Gorge Falls.
(Hiking up to Pounder Arch off the Sheltowee Trace)
(Close up of Pounder Arch’s unique “ M” shaped opening)
Pounder Arch (-37.02077,-84.28617)
From the heights of the wooded ridges at the start of our hike, the trail will suddenly begin a very quick 490 ft descent to the banks of Cane Creek. The effects of all of that erosion moving sediment downhill can be experienced as you walk through several expansive cliff overhangs that were once hidden beneath soil. A little known landmark that gets missed by most people traveling to Van Hook Falls is a small, yet interestingly shaped natural arch suspended 20 yards from the trail. Pounder Arch hides in plain sight on the hillside overlooking the final switchback down to Cane Creek at the 2.40 mile mark. If you look up at the exposed rock, one can easily make out the distinctive 7 ft wide “M” shaped opening.
(Cane Creek bridge crossing)
(Billy photographing the Cane Creek Gorge just past some rapids)
Cane Creek Gorge
Just past Pounder Arch, the trail travels through an open heath covered in reindeer moss, stands of highbush blueberry and mountain laurel to a short rope aided descent and the first series of bridge crossings into Cane Creek. The Cane Creek Gorge section of the Sheltowee Trace just south of Van Hook Falls has to be one of the most photographed parts of this trail and for good reason. Its boulder strewn stream filled with cascades and rushing rapids is reminiscent of those found in the Rockies or Great Smoky Mountains National Park. First timers to the wildlands of Eastern Kentucky are always shocked to find such an unexpected sight. Van Hook Branch empties into Cane Creek opposite where the trail enters the gorge, which will give you a good idea of the kind of flow you’ll find at Van Hook Falls. With Cane Creek running reasonably full, another sizable waterfall typically forms right underneath the bridge crossing here.
(Van Hook Falls as you first approach it)
Van Hook Falls
After crossing Cane Creek, Van Hook Falls is a short 0.16 miles away. As soon as you begin the series of boulder scrambles, you’ll be well within the valley of Van Hook Branch and the sound of crashing water will be ricocheting off the cliff walls. You’ll know you are there when you arrive at the newly built falls viewing platform. While the Sheltowee Trace Trail continues north up a set of stairs, you’ll be walking underneath the platform and into the expansive rockshelter at the end of the valley. A heavy layer of fog clinging low to the ground often obscures the view here during early mornings, so it’s hard to get a proper view of the falls without climbing down closer to the falls basin until you’re directly underneath it. Van Hook Falls has one of the more graceful appearances of any waterfall out there. Its wide and thin 40 ft curtain of water reminds me a lot of the peaceful wall mounted waterfalls you might find in a doctors office.
(Foggy view from behind Van Hook Falls)
(A very hazy front view of Van Hook Falls)
(Van Hook Falls shrouded in mist and fog from its western bank)
A long and steady dip into negative degree temperatures has caused a sizable snow cone of ice to build up at the bottom of the falls. From far away, the cavern below Van Hook Falls doesn’t seem all that impressive until you step inside of it. Stretching nearly 100 ft from end to end, this horseshoe shaped cliff overhang has boulders the size of small vehicles tucked inside. While a trail exist leading into it, the path quickly disappears as you scramble and jump over exposed openings to reach the back of the waterfall. If you time it just right, photographers can capture sun bursts and rays of light directly illuminating this waterfall from this vantage point. Another popular angle to shoot this landmark is from down at the bottom of the ravine, but you’ll have to get creative as to how to reach it since there is no discernible trail.
(Van Hook Falls sign and my favorite comp of the falls)
One of my favorite compositions includes snapping a shot of the Van Hook Falls sign tucked in a grove of rhododendrons with a perfectly framed image of the aforementioned falls in the background. There are a ton of opportunities for creativity here since it is such a large area with a wide variety of vantage points. If you hiked here just for the sake of hiking then a simple shot in front of the falls would probably suffice. Though we were hoping for heavier flows, which would lead to more magnificent images, it’s hard to deny just how awesome Van Hook Falls looks simply on any given day of the week. If this iconic day hike in the Daniel Boone National Forest has evaded your radar until now then go ahead and add it to your bucket list. This is a hike that just about anyone can and SHOULD attempt to really soak in the majesty of what draws so many adventurers to the wilds of Eastern Kentucky. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!