Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Daniel Boone National Forest: Bee Rock (Blog Hike #363)

Trails: Bee Rock Overlook and Rockcastle Narrows West Trails
Hike Location: Daniel Boone National Forest, Bee Rock Campground
Geographic Location: southwest of LondonKY (37.02899, -84.31899)
Length: 6 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2011
Overview: A loop hike with one steep section featuring views of the scenic Rockcastle River.

Directions to the trailhead: In southern Kentucky, take I-75 to SR 192 (exit 38).  Exit and go west on SR 192.  Follow SR 192 18.9 miles to its crossing of the Rockcastle River.  Immediately after crossing the river, turn right to enter the Bee Rock Campground.  Park in the day-use parking area at the rear of the campground.

The hike: Slicing a jagged northeast to southwest course through rural southern Kentucky, the Rockcastle River is a classic large-volume Appalachian Mountain river.  Like the Cumberland, Laurel, and New Rivers, over many years the Rockcastle River has cut a deep gorge into the rugged terrain, its course unaltered by glaciers, earthquakes, or other geological activity.  Unlike these other Appalachian rivers, most of the Rockcastle’s banks remain free from development, protected by the Daniel Boone National Forest.
            One of the few developed areas along the Rockcastle River is the Bee Rock Recreation Area.  The name Bee Rock comes from a local legend which states that a large number of wild honeybees used to live in this area, using a hollow area under this cliff as their hive.  Tired of the wild honeybees invading their hives, local beekeepers dynamited the rock, destroying the hive and causing honey to flow down the cliff into the Rockcastle River.  If nothing else, the legend makes for a good story, so make of it what you will.
            Operated by Daniel Boone National Forest, the Bee Rock Recreation Area offers an excellent campground divided into east and west areas separated by the river.  Combining the two areas, the campground offers 29 tent camp sites, many of which overlook the river.  Two trails depart from the east campground: the 2.2 mile Bee Rock Loop (FS trail #529) and the 3.2 mile Rockcastle Narrows Trail (FS trail #503).  This hike uses parts of both trails to create a 6 mile loop that gives good views of the wild Rockcastle River both from the riverside and from the clifftop.
            The red-blazed trail departing the rear of the day-use parking area is the Rockcastle Narrows Trail; it will be our return route.  To reach the start of the Bee Rock Loop, walk back through the campground on the gravel campground road.  After passing 14 campsites and 2 restroom buildings, ignore the steep east arm of the Bee Rock Loop and continue walking on the gravel road, which soon turns to blacktop.  Pass the Old Sublimity Bridge (built in the 1930’s by the CCC) across the river to your left and a third restroom building on your right.  After walking along the road for 0.4 miles and just before you reach SR 192, the west arm of the Bee Rock Loop enters the woods to the right at a brown carsonite post.  Turn right to begin the trail.
Wooden steps near beginning of trail
            The trail climbs some rather steep wooden steps built into the hillside to reach an old roadbed, at which point the grade becomes more moderate.  The Bee Rock Loop is marked by white diamond paint blazes, but this section of trail is wide enough you will hardly need them.  At 0.8 miles, you pass an interesting two-story rock house just left of the trail.  Within the next few hundred feet you pass a large sandstone block perched atop a smaller sandstone pedestal and a brown carsonite post marking the 0.5 mile point on the Bee Rock Loop.
Two-story rock house
Pulpit rock
            1 mile into the hike, the trail turns right to leave the old roadbed and cross a small creek on a wooden bridge.  For the next 0.3 miles the trail becomes increasingly hard to follow as it angles left and climbs gradually through the dense understory that encumbers the ridgetop.  Some blazes would be very helpful here, but none are to be found.  Just when you think you may have lost the trail, you come out onto abandoned Forest Road 5063, which is now a wide grassy path going left and right.  I was glad I was hiking the Bee Rock Loop in this direction: I would have never found the unmarked turn off of the abandoned forest road if I had been walking on the road.
            This hike will eventually turn left on the abandoned road to access the Rockcastle Narrows Trail, but first turn right to head for Bee Rock Overlook, the highlight of this hike.  After 0.5 miles of gradual descent on the abandoned road (white blazes reappear exactly where they are unnecessary), you reach Bee Rock Overlook.  The overlook gives a commanding view of the Rockcastle River gorge both upstream and downstream.  This overlook would be a world-class spot for some leaf-peeping in late October.  When I visited on a Friday morning in early October, a few trees had colorful leaves but most were still green.  A stone wall prevents you from accidentally falling over the cliff, and some boulders make for great benches.  Take some time to enjoy this panoramic view of the gorge.
View from Bee Rock Overlook
            The trail ends at the overlook, so you next have to reverse course and climb gradually along the abandoned forest road.  Note that the east arm of the Bee Rock Loop exits at a soft angle to the right just after leaving the overlook.  This alternate trail provides a steep short-cut back to the campground and a hike of only 2.2 miles.  Stay left at this trail fork to continue this hike.
            2.8 miles into the hike and roughly 100 feet after the west arm of the Bee Rock Loop leaves the abandoned road (if you can find that intersection), the Rockcastle Narrows Trail exits to the right.  This intersection is marked with a pair of brown carsonite posts, but the posts are partially obscured by vegetation.  Watch carefully for the posts and turn right to begin the Rockcastle Narrows Trail, our route back to the campground.  Also, watch for poison oak near this intersection.
Leaving the old road
            After 0.1 miles of level walking, you cross paved CR 807 and reenter the forest on the opposite side, following the trail’s red blazes.  The descent to the Rockcastle River now begins, gradually at first and then moderately with steep sections.  Some wooden steps and switchbacks ease the grade, but this descent still offers some difficulty.  On the bright side, you are hiking through nice hemlock forest, the understory contains nice stands of ferns and rhododendron, and sandstone cliffs rise some 30 feet above the trail on the right.
Cliff along trail during descent to river
            At 3.5 miles, you reach the bottom of the descent, where another brown carsonite post directs you to turn right.  For the remainder of the hike the trail parallels the Rockcastle River without ever reaching the river itself.  Often the river is obscured by trees, but a couple of openings give nice views of the river in particularly scenic sections.
            At 3.8 miles, the trail crosses a small tributary of the Rockcastle River that has a nice but small ledge-type waterfall upstream to your right.  Just shy of 4 miles, a wide side trail exits right to head for a private campground (NOT the Bee Rock Campground).  Stick with the red blazes as they continue to parallel the river, heading downstream.
Boulders in Rockcastle River
            5.4 miles into the hike, the trail crosses a rough area that appears to have been a landslide at some point in the past.  At 5.9 miles, the best close-up view of the river available on this hike opens up through a gap in the trees on your left.  Several large boulders lie in the river at this point.  Another 4 minutes of walking will return you to the rear of the day-use parking area, thus marking the end of the hike.

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