Bad Branch Preserve

Bad Branch PreserveMany rare and unusual plant and wildlife species thrive in the Bad Branch Preserve. Although the preserve is protected, environmental degradation such as water pollution, flooding, and erosion caused by mountaintop removal and surface mining threaten its intricate ecosystem. Rising temperatures and other climate changes caused by global warming can also upset its delicate ecological balance.

Daniel Boone would feel right at home in this Cumberland Mountain wilderness, where a river rages down the side of Pine Mountain, taking less than 3 miles (5km) to drop 1,000 feet (300m) in elevation. The sandstone cliffs of Bad Branch Gorge rise out of the dark-green forest with lots of crags and caves; sheer rock faces glisten with seeping water, and big boulders muscle up to the creek bank. One particularly gorgeous 60-foot (18m) cascade is beloved of photographers trying to capture the “perfect” wilderness waterfall. Bad Branch is officially one of Kentucky’s Wild Rivers, and clearly deserves the title.

But get past the thunder and majesty of the falls and you’ll find a delicate patchwork of habitats. A rare fish called the Arrow Darter populates highly aerated pools of clear water just below the falls. The endangered long-tailed shrew skitters around the hemlock forest, and snakes (some of them venomous, so beware) slither around the talus caves formed by piled-up boulders. Somewhere up in those magnificent cliffs lives a pair of nesting ravens, Kentucky’s last two survivors of this once-common species.

Although this 2,400-acre (971-hectare) tract saw some logging in the 1940s, the diversity of plants growing here—especially the number of flowers—shows that it wasn’t extensive. Some of those shaggy hemlocks may have been around long enough to have seen Daniel Boone himself explore these woods. Bring a field guidebook with you when you walk through the forest, because it’s anything but a monoculture—along with the hemlocks stand sweet birch, yellow birch, basswood, tulip poplar, American beech, and buckeye trees (squirrels love the beechnuts and glossy brown buckeye nuts). But that’s not all; smaller trees in the understory include flowering dogwood and umbrella magnolia, perfuming the air in spring along with sweet pepperbush and dense thickets of rosebay rhododendron. Several rare plants here, like matriciary grapefern, Fraser’s sedge, and American burnet, are generally found farther north, and only in old-growth forests.

If you’re an ambitious hiker, there’s a steep, strenuous 7.5-mile (12km) trail to the top of Pine Mountain (actually a 21-mile-long/34km ridge), where the massive outcropping of High Rock provides an awesome panorama of the Cumberland Valley; you may be able to see into nearby Virginia or even farther south to Tennessee. Only a hardy handful make it to the top, though; the 2-mile (3km) trail to the falls is vigorous enough.

You have to drive a ways to get to this sort of wilderness, so make the most of it, taking the two-lane Daniel Boone Parkway through the densely green Boone National Forest. Officially it was renamed in 2003 after Congressman Hal Rogers, who wangled funding so it wouldn’t be a toll road anymore, but locals defiantly use the old name anyway.