Running Route Review: The Rockcastle River Narrows East Loop


Back in May I got my butt kicked by the Yamacraw trail ultra-marathon in the Big South Fork. It was the first race in my seven years of running that I DNF’d (‘did not finish’ in running speak). Granted, it was, five times over, the longest race that I had ever attempted. Around mile 18 of 32 my left hip flexors gave out and I preceded to drag myself at a glacial pace through the Daniel Boone National Forest wilderness for the next seven miles. Despite a really bleak and lonely hour and a half (in which I imagined banjo and harmonica repeating the theme from Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’— an experience not unlike this clip) I found the overall experience to be positive. Not only did the beauty of the Big South Fork viewed through an endorphin flood give my spirit a much-needed reboot, but the provocation of a sound defeat was inspiring rather than discouraging. It was just enough to push me into the trail-running world that I had long flirted with from afar and to give me a solid goal to see traveling some distance for trails as a legitimate part of my training.

All that to say, I’ve made trail running a focal point of my free time recently. My favorite trail of late is Holly Bay/Rockcastle River Narrows loop in Laurel County. At 90 miles from Lexington, you may wonder why you should go there over the Red River Gorge. The reason is it’s relatively fast, easy running compared to the notoriously rugged, albeit gratifying, slogging you can expect from the Gorge. There’s a couple of waterfalls early and tons of rhododendron groves and exotic rock formations. The trail has just enough rocks and roots to keep you sharp, but not so much that you have to be staring at your feet the whole run, or that you lose your momentum.

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Getting There:

The route is a lollipop-shaped loop that follows the Sheltowee for 6 or 7 miles before turning left and following the beautiful Rockcastle River toward Bee Rock campground. The section of the Sheltowee Trace can be best accessed from Lexington by taking London exit 38 and following KY 192 to the parking lot where it forks with KY 1193. Take the trail across the road from the parking lot and enjoy the ride—the trail is easy to follow for the first 4 or 5 miles save the potential for some downed trees that might cause a brief diversion. The 401 Rockcastle River Narrows trail can be easy to miss; there will be a point immediately after you cross the small stream called Yuel Branch at 3.5 miles that you will see a trail ascending to the left. The loop from there is 6 miles after which you will rejoin with the Sheltowee just past Van Hook Falls and return to the parking lot.

If you want to add additional miles to the run and see some spectacular scenery, cross Cane Creek on your right just past the Winding Stair Gap trailhead right around the 7 mile mark (note: there is no developed crossing and it is quite easy to lose the trail at this point.) Turn right onto the 401A trail, denoted by blue ribbons, and follow the water to the Bee Rock campground. At Old Sublimity Bridge, read the plaque about the fascinating (and somewhat depressing) legend of Bee Rock. From there, do a 3-mile tough out-and-back on the Bee Rock trail. Be sure to enjoy the Vista at the top! Return the way you came, back up the Rockcastle Narrows connector trail and across Cane Creek. Turn right and proceed for a mile to rejoin the Sheltowee just north of Van Hook. Study this map hard and make sure to bring adequate nutrition and hydration.

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After the run, drive over to Corbin to enjoy this restaurant, a novelty stop at the Harland Sanders’ Cafe, or a farm-to-table restaurant and taproom that is uncommonly trendy for this neck-of-the-woods.

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