When the Waters Rise

Depending on the region of Kentucky in which you leave, the concept of a flood differs entirely. To the western Kentuckian accustomed to acres upon acres of flat cropland near the Ohio River, rising waters inundate the soil. And while damaging, there is little surprising when rainfall and upstream gauges indicate what is to come. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the hollow valleys in eastern Kentucky where a flash flood can wash out all a family knows in a matter of second. There is no warning. Central Kentucky lies somewhere in between. Regardless of how the floodwaters impact you or your region, when the waters rise they can cause tremendous damage. To livelihoods, to buildings, to towns, and to the land itself.

I have hiked Asbury Trails a few times so far in 2021. There was torrential rain on February 28, 2021, which led to significant flooding along the Kentucky River. I mean, significant. In the fall of 2020, the kids and I tossed rocks into the river from a rocky beach at the base of the Wilmore water intake. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen much of that little beach.

The water intake pumps were constructed in 1973 by Asbury University (nee College) before being transferred to Wilmore in 1977. In the picture below, you can see the intake pump near the center of the photograph. If you are familiar with these trails, you might notice immediately that the walking bridge is not in this focus as it is entirely submerged. Yeah.

Waterlogged Asbury Trails on March 5, 2021. Author’s collection.

For a closer look at the water intake – and for comparison for how things should look, I offer the following photograph from March 27, 2021:

Wilmore Water Intake at the Kentucky River, March 27, 2021. Author’s collection.

The red line indicates the high water mark that I personally observed earlier in March. From a different before-after perspective, the photograph immediately below is from early February 2021. The rock and leaf covered creekbed runs through the center of Asbury Trails. The second photograph shows the destruction caused from the late February rains. Remember that in both pictures, I am standing on a bridge that was completely submerged during the days of the rising waters.

Pre-flood from the Asbury Trails bridge, 5 February 2021. Author’s collection.
Post-flood, from the Asbury Trails bridge, 27 March 2021. Author’s collection.

You can also see a new rut being created as the land evolves and the fresh rainwaters of March 2021 find their way to the Kentucky River. One final photograph of the land’s evolution is below showing the soil erosion adjacent to the trail as it runs alongside the river toward the spring, cave, and waterfall. Across the river, additional erosion was also visible.

Erosion visible on 27 March 2021 along the Kentucky River following late February/early March floods. Author’s collection.

Jessamine Creek Gorge Trail

Overstreet Creek Bridge on the Jessamine Creek Gorge Trail. Author’s collection.

For several years I have heard about the beautiful Jessamine Creek Gorge that cuts through central Jessamine County on its way to the Kentucky River. Part of the Kentucky River Palisades region, rocks exposed along this tributary are also magnificent.

Strong rains had fallen during midweek through Thursday, so a Friday morning hike seemed like the optimal time to explore this resource so close to Lexington. Adding to the enjoyment was the late winter date as some have commented that the trail becomes both overcrowded and overgrown later in the season. I dealt with neither, however, and thus had a splendid experience. The flora later in the season is also said to spectacular, so it may be another example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Jessamine Creek Trail Entrance. Author’s collection.

Before saying more, I ought to reiterate this word of caution from the Jessamine County Trails Association:

Jessamine Creek Gorge is an ecologically sensitive area.  Please observe local ordinances and park rules. Stay on the marked trail. No trespassing onto neighboring properties. Don’t leave trash in the preserve.  There is a trash can at the parking lot. Park in the parking lot. Do not park anywhere along the road other than the parking lot. Ignoring the rules may result in the preserve being closed to visitors by Jessamine County Fiscal Court.

The trail itself is a little politically sensitive so following these rules is über-critical. Like staying on marked trails: yes, there’s an amazing 76-foot waterfall on Overstreet Creek. No, you can’t see it from the trail. Deal with it. There’s plenty more beauty to enjoy.

Jessamine’s Etymology

Jessamine County was carved from Fayette County in 1798. It was named after a flower that grew along the banks of the creek which already bore the name from an Indian tongue. Other accounts suggest that the county was named after the daughter of a settler, Jessamine, was scalped near the site. The naming of Jessamine County is unique under either story as it traditionally considered the only Kentucky county with a feminine name.

Under either account, the creek and the county around it are beautiful. These words appeared in the Lexington Leader on May 31, 1897: “Jessamine Creek is one of the most beautiful streams in Kentucky. It is not the unusually beautiful scenery along the banks of the creek, or its soft, clear limestone water which makes it an object of so much interest; but the stories of the many sad tragedies which have been enacted along its banks and in its waters.”

Dam Jessamine Creek?

In an attempt to control massive flooding along the Kentucky River, a proposal during the 1940s and 1950s would have seen a 148-foot tall dam constructed along the Kentucky River near the mouth of Jessamine Creek. According to a publication by the Army Corp of Engineers, Engineering the Kentucky River: The Commonwealth’s Waterway, such a construction project would have “submerged 21,500 acres of the Kentucky valley and ended navigation of the river upstream of Lock No. 7.”

Preservationists and others decried the project and it thus never received Congressional funding and never was constructed. Instead, levees and floodwalls were utilized to protect the Capital City (which was the main purpose for the proposal). Although the Jessamine Creek Dam project was first initiated in the early 1940s, it was finally killed in 1962. The timeline mirrored Frankfort’s Craw neighborhood.

A Beautiful Hike

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to these hikes, I’d argue that a short video is worth a thousand pictures. Enjoy and please share your experiences of hiking at Jessamine Creek Gorge in the comments!

Quiet trails near Wilmore

Wildflowers along the trail. Author’s collection.

Beyond Wilmore lies a quiet country road from which you can find the Asbury Trails which are owned by Asbury University. These trails overlook the Palisades and descend to the Kentucky River. Because of their proximity to Lexington, they are trails which I tend to frequent.

Asbury Trails are so close to Lexington, yet a world apart. As Lexington has grown, it is more and more difficult to find accessible natural locations where you can rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit. Raven Run and McConnell Springs are both good locations in Fayette County, but there are many more great hiking locations in central Kentucky especially along the banks and bluffs on either side of the Kentucky River.

The Kentucky River Palisades rise some 400 feet on either side of the Kentucky River in what geologists call an entrenched meander. According to the trails brochure, “about ten million years ago the Bluegrass was a flat, low lying area. The Kentucky river slowly wound across a wide plan. Then eastern America experienced a broad uplift, raising this area 400 feet [and the] river began cutting into the uplifted plateau.” Silt build up at bends in the river also led to the formation of landings, many of which became crossings for buffalo and later settlers (and even later, bridges) over or through the water.

At the river, the Asbury Trails reach one such location. The small, rocky beach is adjacent to the city of Wilmore’s water intake tower which draws up 2 million gallons per day for the city’s water usage.

The Kentucky River at Asbury Trails. Author’s collection.

According to the Jessamine County Kentucky River Task Force, “toll roads were privately built for profit (if any) in conjunction with specific ferries. The Fulkerson Ferry was chartered at this site in 1789 and was in use when a toll road was built in the mid-1800’s for travel between Lexington, Harrodsburg, and the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County. Prior to its use as a stage crossing, it was a major buffalo crossing at the shallow sand bar here.” On the Mercer County side of the river,

Stage coach houses were built on both sides of the river to accommodate travelers and horses. Known stage lines using this crossing were The Smith Stage Coach Line and the Lexington-Harrodsburg Line.

Waterfall along the Asbury Trails. Author’s collection.

The trails consist of a half-mile Hillside Trail which follows along the top of the bluff ending in a meadow after passing through woods and across the ravine. The Old Stage Road Trail, three-quarter miles in length, descends 350 feet from the bluff along one side of the ravine toward the river. A bridge at the end of the trail cuts over to the old crossing and the intake tower. A gravel road descends on the opposite side of the ravine to complete the loop.

At the end of the Old Stage Road Trail is the beginning of a quarter-mile Great Wall Trail which gives the best vista of the rock formations that make up the Palisades. (The trail actually continues more than the 0.25 miles, but the “unofficial” trail extends beyond Asbury’s property line.)

These short trails are beautiful and worth visiting.

A short montage of photographs from a recent winter visit to Asbury Trails.


Asbury Trails, Official Site
Jessamine County Trails Association
Kentucky River Guidebook

Bernheim Forest

Until last October, I’d never visited Bernheim Forest. Waiting so long was a mistake. For the uninitiated, Bernheim – officially Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest – includes 16,137 acres of land in Clermont, Kentucky. It is located about 25 miles south of Louisville on land acquired by Isaac W. Bernheim in 1929.

The History of Bernheim Forest

Isaac and his wife, Amanda, had dreamed of creating an herbarium and arboretum. Amanda died in 1922, but Isaac carried out their shared vision. Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States. He arrived in this country with less than four dollars in his pocket and the dream of opportunity. The year was 1867, but he did not immediately find the success he had dreamt for. His uncle was not able to provide him with the work he had planned in New York. Isaac headed west as a peddler throughout Pennsylvania before landing in Paducah, Kentucky in 1868. There, he entered the wholesale liquor business as a bookkeeper.

New York in 1867. Library of Congress.

In Paducah, Isaac Bernheim saved enough money to send home to Germany funds necessary for the emigration of his brother. Together, they opened Bernheim Brothers in 1872. Ultimately, a successor company relocated to Louisville in 1888. The company continued to grow and prosper; it did not shudder during Prohibition. With one of only ten licenses to produce bourbon for “medicinal purposes, Bernheim Brothers remained opened during The Great Experiment of 1920 to 1933.

During this season, Bernheim’s wife passed away and the land for the Forest was purchased. Frederick Law Olmstead began to design the park in 1931 on land that had been strip-mined of iron ore. The park opened in 1950.

To all I send the invitation to come from city, village, hamlet and farm, to re-create their lives in the enjoyment of nature and the many blessings she gives…

I. W. Bernheim

Giants in the Forest

Forest Giant Little Nis at Bernheim Forest. Photo by Peter Brackney.

When I visited with my wife and three kids, we mainly arrived to see the Forest Giants. The Giants were constructed by a Danish artist, Thomas Dambo, using locally sourced recycled wood. The Giants are a family: Mama Loumari and her two children, Little Nis and Little Elinsa. Mama Loumari is depicted as pregnant with a third baby Giant in utero.

The Giants were introduced to Bernheim Forest in celebration of the 90th anniversary of Bernheim’s original land acquisition. You can view all of them in a relatively short walk/hike leaving much of Bernheim Forest unexplored. In total, there are some 40 miles of trails.

Since March 26, 2020, Bernheim has been closed due to the Coronavirus. Once it reopens, it will again be a fantastic place to socially distance. To learn more about Bernheim Forest, its reopening, and how you can support this important part of Kentucky’s greenspace, visit its website www.bernheim.org.

Changes at Tom Dorman

I first visited Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve (SNP) in 2009, discovering the nearby retreat on a day when Raven Run in Fayette County was closed. Since I first visited over a decade ago, the SNP has grown to over 900 acres to become “one of the largest natural areas in the region.” Exposed on its trails are wonderful vistas of the Kentucky River Palisades as well as many rare species, caves, and rocky cliffs.

The cliffs of the palisades some 220 feet over the Kentucky River with mosaic coloring dominate. The cliffs were cut through the limestone rock by the river between 400,000 and 1 million years ago.

Hiking along the trails at Tom Dorman SNP in 2018. Author’s collection.

An old stage coach route through the forest serves as the basis for the main trail which is a “moderately strenuous two-mile loop.” There is a half-mile spur which provides views of the river gorge and another short loop goes down to the banks of the river.

Changes Coming

But for those of us who enjoy visiting Tom Dorman, there are a few changes to note. A new parking lot is accessible directly off US 27 making Tom Dorman SNP much more accessible (and likely busier). Effective March 1, 2020, the old parking lot will be permanently closed. See the image below.

From the map, it is unclear how long the trail is from the new parking lot to the old two-mile loop. It appears, though, that the trail mileage at Tom Dorman SNP has dramatically increased. It’s time to go on another hike!

A friend of mine snapped this picture yesterday at Tom Dorman down by the Kentucky River.
Bryan Campbell.