Rock Creek Research Natural Area

By Jeremy Patton

Rock Creek is located in Daniel Boone National Forest, Laurel County, Kentucky.

Designated as Rock Creek Research Natural Area (RNA) in 1939, the gorge has few access points and offers no trails. It is as wild as Kentucky gets. For those reasons, it is one of my favorite areas in Laurel County.

The gorge is isolated and dangerous. It would be a terrible place to get lost or injured. Please do not go there unless you are an experienced hiker.

From the junction of KY-192 and KY-1193, turn left onto KY-1193 and drive for about half a mile. Bear right onto KY-3497. Continue for about two miles then turn right onto Forest Road 131, also known as Slick Rock Road. Continue for about half a mile then park on the side of the road. From there, you should be able to find a relatively safe way to descend into Rock Creek Gorge.

Rock Creek South Branch Map

Within less than 0.25 miles, Rock Creek dips sharply in elevation, creating a series of cascades and waterfalls.

Rock Creek Falls #1 on 1/10/16

Rock Creek Falls #1 on 1/10/16

Rock Creek Falls #2

Rock Creek Falls #3

Rock Creek Falls #4 on 1/10/16

Rock Creek Falls #4 on 1/10/16

As I explored on 1/10/16, I worried that I might reach a drop-off that would force me to turn back. Thankfully, I was able to climb down to the lower level of the gorge without too much trouble. Once I got there, however, progress slowed to a crawl. Relentless rhododendron nagged my every step and the rugged terrain forced me to zig-zag back and forth across the creek. It took me hours to travel an additional 0.25 miles.

Rock Creek Gorge 1-10-16

My plan was to follow the approximately 1.5-mile waterway to its confluence with the Rockcastle River. I soon realized that it would be impossible to reach the river and return to my vehicle before nightfall, so I searched for a passage out of the gorge. I noticed that officials had recently marked various trees with red paint (I assume that the marks are part of a system for treating parasites). I knew that they could not have completed their work before dark unless they had climbed down elsewhere. My map also indicated some unmarked trails above the bluff. Sure enough, I discovered a passage that ascended by way of natural switchbacks. The switchbacks led to several tiers with interesting geologic formations. I will return to examine them closer when I have more daylight.

Rock Formation Inside Rock Creek Gorge 1-10-16

According to a friend, the difficult terrain of Rock Creek Gorge protected its timber from loggers. Most forests in Kentucky have been logged several times over, so virgin timber is quite rare. I enjoyed examining many of these centuries-old elders and wished that they could speak about their experiences.

Big Tree Inside Rock Creek Gorge 1-10-16

Tree Within Rock Creek Gorge, South Branch 1-10-16

Thank you Jimmy Hoskins for informing me about Forest Road 131.

Multi-Tier Waterfall in Rock Creek Gorge 1-10-16

Rock Creek Tributary Falls North #1

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3/20/17 – Today I walked along a forest road that meandered above the north cliffs of Rock Creek. The turn-off from KY-3487 was called James Pointer Cemetery Road (I still have not found the cemetery). It changed from gravel, to dirt then vanished atop a narrow ridge above a steep ravine. From there I heard water falling.

Some unusual clouds 3/20/17

I descended and found a short, but beautiful waterfall that I call Rock Creek Tributary Falls North #2B. I added the “B” after peering over my shoulder and watching the stream snake through a pass then leap from the cliffs; I could tell that the drop was high. I have marked Rock Creek Tributary Falls #2 on the following map:

Rock Creek Tributary Falls North #2B on 3-20-17

I inched toward the cliff-edge and managed to catch a view. Its initial plunge was narrow then fanned into a curtain before crashing onto the rocks. The waterfall was magnificent, but it pained me to turn around without finding a safe way down to its base.

Crest of Rock Creek Tributary Falls North #2

Before summer makes the gorge utterly miserable, I hope to enter via the ascension route I used on 1/11/16, follow the base of the cliffs then climb up to the falls. It will be difficult, but worth it.

Formations near the falls

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3/24/17 – Today I followed the north wall to the Rockcastle River. I plan to write a separate article about that experience next week.

The mouth of Rock Creek

Near the end of my hike, I crossed Rock Creek near its confluence with the Rockcastle River then started climbing up to FR 131 to return to my vehicle. I heard a roar upstream and realized that the source was the creek, not a tributary.

Excited, I scrambled across boulders and downed trees until the waterfall came into view. It had several levels and was higher than I anticipated. As I approached, it also grew wider. It was magnificent.

Mouth of Rock Creek Falls (AKA Rock Creek Falls #5) on 3/24/17

Behind the boulders

I have left large segments of the creek unexplored because the terrain and undergrowth made it very hard to get around. Finding the Mouth of Rock Creek Falls reminded me that future treks might be worthwhile.

Added 1/11/16 – Updated 3/24/17