Without a doubt, living through a pandemic has had its challenges. But parts of this strange time have been truly fascinating too, not just in what we no longer take for granted, but how we’ve spent our time. More than ever, a lot of that has been spent outside.
Interestingly, January has been no exception. Up north, neighborhoods are coming together on frozen rivers to clear out spaces for skating rinks. Down south, paddling gear has flown off the shelves.
Around Lake Cumberland, people are likewise headed outside, no matter the weather. And by and large, that means they’re hitting the trails. Hiking has come to mean something different in the past months. Somehow, it manages to produce a magical combination: exercise and respite.
We thought about all this while we were trekking the Eagle Scout trails in Pulaski County Park, a place you should absolutely explore if you’re visiting our area. Simply, these trails, which together comprise 8.5 miles of route, wind through some of the most beautiful land Kentucky has to offer. It doesn’t matter if you’re high up on Piney Grove Trail or exploring beginner-level Hamby Hollow, you’ll feel inclined to take a picture in nearly every direction you look.
We start by choosing the Lake View Trail, which, as its name implies, offers pretty vistas of Lake Cumberland. With leaves blanketing the forest floor, it’s amazing how far you can see, and how quiet and peaceful everything is. While a green — or beginner — trail, there is nothing boring or standard about this gentle walk on the well-maintained path. You’ll cross little bridges, pass little signs, and see that, in addition to the lake, you are accompanied by rippling creeks. Either Turpin Branch, Hamby Creek or Porter Creek are almost always in view no matter which trail you’re on, offering a burbling soundtrack to our afternoon.
Lake View Trail joins Yellow Jacket Trail, another gentle walk, which leads to winding Hamby Hollow. The forest is so different this time of year. At first blush, it appears stark, austere even, but look closer and it’s easy to pick up on the subtle beauty that only the winter showcases. True, almost everything has been reduced to shades of brown and grey, but not everything.
The emerald, waxy leaves of the rhododendron are unchanged, as are those of the similar but smaller mountain laurel. Feathery ground cedar coats the forest floor. And moss is so lime green draped over boulders and fallen logs, it practically looks neon.
As we hike, we see signs of previous visitors, usually in the form of mountain bike tracks — these are beloved routes. But there are other indications as well. Against a crack at the base of a hollow tree trunk, someone has placed a tiny, colorful door. Any child spotting it would surely conclude fairies lived inside.
We talk about this and how the air is different. Yes, crisp, but, yes, crisp! You can walk for miles and not get overheated, which is definitely a welcome change to quickly feeling drained in the muggy summer months. In this area in the winter, daytime temps almost never dip too far below freezing, so a jacket is really all you need to stay warm for a hike. After a while, we take off our gloves because we’re too warm. It’s nice to get some exercise in an activity that doesn’t require a lot of equipment.
The path leads us across a creek, and we pick our way along the flattest, widest stones above the water line, feeling like kids. We’ve decided to head to the suspension bridge and feel the familiar satisfaction that comes from having an interesting destination. It’s a little more hilly on this side and, quickly, we can hear each other breathing. There is something comforting about that.
Soon, though, we hear water and know we’re close. We round a root-lined corner and there it is: a swaying, narrow bridge spanning two pieces of forest together. We climb onto it, feeling the swing of the bridge, once again remembering what it was like to feel very young. We stand in the center, staring in the distance at the water rushing around stones and boulders. Then we look down, seeing clear to the golden bottom.
We turn back, feeling restored, ready for the rest of our day in the pretty Lake Cumberland district. Already, we’ve started talking about where we can get a bite to eat (Steakhouse? Mexican? Pizza? Burgers?) and a warm drink. As we trek back, we realize the pandemic has taught us a lot of things, many of which were learned spending time like this outside.
Top five places to hike around the Lake Cumberland area:
- Eagle Scout Trail System, Pulaski County Park, a collection of trails comprising 8.5 miles total.
- Dog Slaughter Falls, 7.2-mile loop, starts at Cumberland Falls and brings you to a much smaller waterfall downstream.
- Eagle Falls, 2.2-mile loop, great views onto cliff-lined Cumberland Falls and pretty Eagle Falls.
- Natural Arch, 5.5-mile loop, a look at Kentucky’s biggest sandstone arch, as well as a pleasant walk through woodland.
- Bee Rock, 4.5 loop, views of the Rockcastle River and its scenic valley.
Tara Kaprowy is a freelance writer who lives in the Lake Cumberland area.