An Insider's Guide to Stearns, KY: A Gateway Town to Big South Fork National Recreation Area

Sandwiched between a national forest and a national recreation area, Stearns, Kentucky boasts a lifetime’s worth of exploration for the adventurous soul. You’ll find backcountry trails that follow pristine streams, sandstone rock arches rising out of the forest, and stunning views of the roaring Big South Fork River. Sitting on the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest and the Big South Fork National Recreation Area—with well over 100,000 acres of land and water—Stearns is an outdoor playground for anyone who likes to spend time in nature.

Here’s our insider’s guide to adventures near Stearns.

WHAT TO DO

Natural Arch Scenic Area 

Spanning nearly 100 feet and coming in around 45 feet high, the impressive arch at the Natural Arch Scenic Area can be viewed from three different trails ranging in distance from 0.5 miles to 5 miles. It’s surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest, and there are picnic sites and shelters and playgrounds to keep kids busy.

Big South Fork Scenic Railway

Blue South Fork Scenic Railway
Visit the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp, an outdoor museum sharing the history of the mining and logging community. Anthony

Take a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway and explore the history of logging and coal in the mountains of Southern Kentucky. You’ll have plenty of scenic mountain vistas as you plunge 600 feet into the Big South Fork Gorge on your way to the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp. This outdoor museum tells the history of the isolated coal mining community through photographs, old structures, and an audio guide made by actual residents. The train depot has craft and gift shops, and your ticket also grants you admission to the nearby McCreary County Museum.

McCreary County Museum 

After checking out Blue Heron, visit the old Stearns Coal and Lumber Company corporate headquarters (built in 1907) to see artifacts, objects, documents, and photographs from the town’s mining and logging days. Let the history of Appalachian life come alive as you venture back to the pioneer days, and walk through exhibits dedicated to Appalachian music, coal mining, and even moonshine!

Big South Fork National Recreation Area

Big South Fork National Recreation Area
Visit one of Big South Fork’s many arches. Tina Karle

The Big South Fork National Recreation Area protects the Big South Fork River and its tributaries, which means there’s a ton of backcountry wilderness waiting to be explored. Whether you like to camp, hike, paddle, fish, or bike, there’s no wrong way to see the area.

The mountain biking in Big South Fork is rugged, with options for long loops up to 35 miles. The arches are one of the most popular attractions at the park and the hundreds of miles of cliff bluffs have some stellar climbing opportunities.

Hiking is another popular activity at Big South Fork, and there is plenty of it here.

Hiking
The 7.5-mile Blue Heron Loop Trail has great views of the roaring Big South Fork River. 
Tim Adams

The 6.5-mile Blue Heron Loop Trail rewards you with great views of the rapids on the Big South Fork River from rocky overlooks and you’ll have the chance to stroll through the Blue Heron Mining Community. Hike about 1.6 miles to Catawba Overlook to see the unique Catawba rhododendrons, or make a day of it and hike a mile or two past the overlook to see two rushing waterfalls: Dick Gap Falls and Big Spring Falls.

For the full wilderness experience, try one of the park’s many backcountry hiking routes. Most of the loop will take 2-3 days, but jump on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, the 19-mile Kentucky Trail, or the John Muir Trail for a longer trip. Pass pristine streams shaded by lush green vegetation, explore steep ridgelines with panoramic vistas, and check out sandstone bluffs and cool rock formations. It’s possible to access any of these longer trails from different trailheads, so you can put together a hiking itinerary with the perfect distance for you.

Paddling

Paddling
Make sure you know how to navigate rapids if you want to explore the Big South Fork River. Boyd Shearer

The Big South Fork is a whitewater kayaker’s delight, with relaxing flatwater sections punctuated by numerous rapids. A fun run is to paddle 19 miles from Station Camp to Blue Heron and spend the night near the river at a backcountry site. Make sure you know how to navigate rapids, as you’ll run through Devil’s Drop, a class III-IV drop as well as a few other class II rapids.

For a calmer run with time to fish, float the river when it’s lower. There is plentiful bass and catfish along most of the river, so pack your fishing rod and permit.

For a family-friendly flatwater trip, float the eight miles from Yamacraw to the Alum Ford Boat Ramp, or start from Blue Heron or Worley for a longer float with some small rapids. Novice paddlers can still experience the river through guiding companies like the Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort, where you can tube or canoe calmer sections of the river.

WHERE TO EAT

Dine at a real trail depot at the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Steakhouse. After having a steak with a delicious country side, grab a slice of homemade peanut butter pie. They feature wines from a local winery and also have a selection of liquor or beer.

Another option is Kristina’s Kitchen, open during the day and serving premium vegetarian food with coffee and protein shakes. Head to the Dairy Bar for a true 1950s dining experience, complete with burgers, ice cream cones, and vintage decor. The local pizza joint, Papa’s Pizza, is a treat for hungry hikers and is sure to satisfy.

WHERE TO STAY

Barthell Coal Camp
Relax on a porch and take in the lush mountain surroundings at Barthell Coal Camp. Al

Stearns and the nearby Whitley City have a few motels, like the Red Roof Inn or the Parkland Motel. If you’re looking for a true "mining town" experience, though, sleep peacefully at the charming company houses of Barthell Coal Camp, surrounded by lush tree-covered mountains. Each house has been re-created with original floor plans from the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company houses.

Stearns Cabin Rental has one bedroom cabins for rent, and the Blue Heron Campground in the Big Fork National Recreation Area is developed and provides hookups for RVs. Alum Ford Campground provides primitive sites and access to the Sheltowee Trace Trail as well as Cumberland Lake.

Originally written by RootsRated for Kentucky Tourism.