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Three Good Float Trips for Great Fall Colors

October 28, 2016
By

BY Lee McClellan

The near drought conditions of the fall season seem to have lengthened the peak of the changing of the leaves. We still have a couple of good weekends left of the beautiful fall colors.

The incredible beauty of the Russell Fork in Pike County makes a fantastic fall weekend getaway of scenery, changing leaves and paddling this overlooked wonder of a stream. Pool 9 on the Kentucky River and the Cumberland River above the Falls also make worthwhile floating destinations before winter’s chill ends the paddling season until next spring.

The incredible beauty of the Russell Fork in Pike County makes a fantastic fall weekend getaway of scenery, changing leaves and paddling this overlooked wonder of a stream. Pool 9 on the Kentucky River and the Cumberland River above the Falls also make worthwhile floating destinations before winter’s chill ends the paddling season until next spring.


Paddling a stream during the peak of fall colors is the best way to enjoy this annual spectacle of nature. The brown, orange, red and yellow leaves soar above your head and line the tops of rocky, river bluffs. You see few others on the water at this time of year, lending peaceful solitude to your paddle.

With current at the lowest point of the year, long paddles become arduous. Here are three great, manageable floats that offer an easy paddle to enjoy the last great weather before winter’s freeze.

Kentucky River, Pool 9: This float is less than 10 miles away from Lexington as the crow flies. The roughly 6-mile trip starts at Fort Boonesboro State Park and ends at Clay’s Ferry Boat Ramp (use requires a small fee) just beyond the I-75 Bridge. This scenic stretch marks the beginning of the Kentucky River Palisades.

Early in this float, you pass by the rusting remains of a sunken sternwheeler named The Brooklyn. Drought conditions in the late 1980s dropped the river so low that a rock ledge on the bottom punctured a hole in the bottom of The Brooklyn as the owners attempted to turn her into a floating restaurant. She sank where last moored.
After a scenic stretch where the river flows into a more entrenched area with changing leaves lining the banks and bluffs, the river bends to the left and the U.S. 25 Bridge comes into view. Boone Creek enters on river right. A paddle up into Boone Creek reveals a near wilderness area with towering cliffs lining the creek. It is incredibly scenic, especially in fall. Anglers can catch largemouth bass with white soft plastic jerkbaits worked under root wads and undercut banks in Boone Creek.

After Boone Creek, you’ll paddle under the U.S. 25 Bridge followed by the I-75 Bridge. The take-out at Clay’s Ferry Ramp is just past this bridge on river right. Three Trees Canoe and Kayak offers rentals and shuttles for this float at www.threetreeskayak.com.
Cumberland River above the Falls: This section is one of Kentucky’s most scenic floats and is called North Fork of Cumberland River in some guidebooks. The 5-mile float from Thunderstruck Access to just above Cumberland Falls flows into a gorgeous gorge with cliffs looming above the paddler, festooned with blotches of orange, red and yellow from changing leaves.

The low water conditions of fall make this paddle particularly attractive. The put-in is a short distance from Cumberland Falls State Resort Park via KY 90 and KY 700 then Singleton Road to the river. Just after launching, paddlers encounter Pitch Rapids. These rapids liven the paddling at normal fall levels. The first drop is best on river left, then look for a flatter chute on the left for the second drop.

The flowing, rocky water downstream of Pitch Rapids should be probed with a black 4-inch finesse worm rigged on a 3/16-ounce leadhead for smallmouth bass. Black is a strong color on the Cumberland for fall smallmouth bass. Paddlers will also notice more exposed bluffs from Pitch Rapids to the end of this float.

After floating over some small drops and shoals, paddlers soon hit Slick Shoals followed by the hard left of Blue Bend. The huge gravel bar deposited by Bunches Creek on river right makes a great spot to work the finesse worm or a medium-running silver and black crankbait for smallmouth bass.

After Blue Bend, the stone arches of the KY 90 Bridge (called Gatlin Bridge) come into view. Paddlers encounter several small shoals before a river-wide ledge just upstream of the bridge. Work your way right during this drop and stay right to get to the take-out at the visitors parking lot for Cumberland Falls, just downstream of Gatlin Bridge on river right. Paddlers can always enjoy a post-paddle picnic while looking at Cumberland Falls, one of the wonders of Kentucky. Contact Sheltowee Trace Outfitters at www.ky-rafting.com/ for boat rentals and shuttles.

Russell Fork: This fun roughly 3-mile float from the edge of Breaks Interstate Park in Pike County down to Elkhorn City delights paddlers with incredible scenery and moderately challenging rapids. This paddle is for those who want some adventure to go along with the scenery and paddling.

The put-in for this float is at the Ratliff Access (also known as Potter Ford) off KY 80 just inside the Breaks Interstate Park south of Elkhorn City. Anglers should probe the deep water just down from the put-in for smallmouth bass and trout. A silver in-line spinner attracts both of these species in the clear/ turquoise water of the Russell Fork. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources planned to stock trout in this stretch of the Russell Fork this past week.

Just downstream of Ratliff Hole, the Russell Fork bends hard left and flows under a high railroad trestle. Boaters will hear the dull rumble of the Railroad Trestle Rapid. The intrepid in kayaks can run the rapid down the center of the left chute. Canoeists and the less intrepid should bypass this rapid on the right via a shallow chute.
After a deep hole, the roar of the Meatgrinder Rapid fills the ears of paddlers. Experienced kayakers can run this rapid on the center left, but canoeists and less experienced paddlers should portage this rapid on the right.

Several more rapids will lightly challenge paddlers as the Russell Fork flows into Elkhorn City. The take-out is at the Elkhorn City Waterfront Park off Russell Street, just downstream of the second KY 80 Bridge in downtown Elkhorn City.

Paddlers visiting the Russell Fork must plan a side trip to see the stunning vistas of the Russell Fork Gorge in Breaks Interstate Park. With fall colors at peak intensity, the views in this park are as exquisite as any found in the Appalachian Mountains. For more information, log on to www.breakspark.com.

Enjoy these wonderful paddling opportunities to tide you over until the warmth of next spring.

Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

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