The Sheltowee Trace Trail
I finished my hike of the Sheltowee Trace! I gave up going for the FKT maybe 4 or 5 days in but did still finish in 11 days and 4 hours. Somewhat of a quick pace for a 323 mile trail. So now what! Well I have a story to tell and something I’ve thought a lot about is I want to help the next person going out there with the same intention as me.
First I’d like to give a couple shout outs.
Billy Sherlin helped me out on multiple occasions. He runs hiker shuttles for a very reasonable fee and lives near the trail, for instance he drove me a short ways to a restaurant once, and then the much much larger task of driving me from one terminus of the trail to the other where my car was parked over 300 miles. The Sheltowee Trace Association does offer shuttle support but ask that you get in touch with them 5 days in advance. Personally I hardly know where I’ll be hours in advance let alone days! Billy was there, and more than willing to help me out. I can’t thank him enough. If you are looking for a ride get in touch with him or the Trace Association. The alternative is what I call the ultimate rejection, standing by the road with your thumb out, visibly seeing the disgust on peoples faces as they wiz by you. Instead you can send Billy a message, he’s more than happy to shuttle and is even pet friendly. You can get in touch with Billy here:
(859) 398 – 9907
City Gone Country Inn is a bed and breakfast in McKee, a trail town just off of the Sheltowee. After a bad couple of days, giving up my record attempt, and in very much need of some rest, relaxation, and a shower I needed a day off. I still made maybe 12 miles to town, and even with a dead phone Rick and Teresa still managed to find me. Waiting at the trailhead eventually finding me in town trying to charge my phone at the local park, they picked me up, brought me to dinner, a large grocery store outside of town for a real resupply, and back to their home to clean up. I felt like Michael Shummacher rolling into a pit stop. They had everything I needed. The bed and breakfast is on a very large property, I believe 100 acres if you so wish to explore. Rick drove me around in his ATV to see his goats, cows, chickens, and the most beautiful view I saw in Kentucky on top of their very own mountain. I had the whole house to myself though I believe it sleeps 19 complete with snacks, food in the fridge, laundry, shower, television, wifi, and everything I could have ever wanted. It was my most comfortable stay on any of my long walks beating out any hotel by a mile. They are incredibly nice people and even though it was Easter went far out of their way to help me and show me around. You can find them here:
And of course the Sheltowee Trace Association, and its community. The volunteers, and locals do a phenomenal job with maintaining, promoting, and organizing hikes as well as providing information! Coming from a background on the Florida Trail I know the struggle of not being, say the Appalachian Trail, with a seemingly endless supply of everything. I was constantly amazed with the bridges built along the trail, how clean and well maintained everything was, the trail was very well marked the entire way, and there were even a few shelters! I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out but given a 323 mile trail(which I hear is in the process of being extended) is no easy feat. Organizing chapters, crews, and work parties is a massive effort and they seem to have done it extremely well. Coming into a lesser known trail I had worried about markings or resources but was met with more than I’ve seen on quite a few other trails! The Association offers shuttles on their website, guidebooks, maps, trip reports from previous hikers, current trail conditions, and even notes on things that may have changed. As well as a bustling community on facebook full of experienced hikers, STA members, crew, and veterans all willing to help, offer information, or cheer you on. I think all of this is very important for those out of state looking to come hike the trail like me. It has been more than a positive experience and really adds a lot to the trail knowing there’s so many rooting for you and working behind the scenes to make your experience a good one. While you’re preparing for this trail consider becoming a member of the STA!
So! Lets get to some information
Weather & Start Date
I started the trail April 16th and found that was a PERFECT time to be out there. It was frankly just when I was available, while I had originally planned to hike the trail in March. I feel mid April is that happy medium, some days it was hot but the nights were always cool, in 11 days I only experienced two days of rain. And most importantly I think any sooner and I would have frozen using the sub 5lb kit I had. Going fast often means carrying less. Mid April suited that objective wonderfully. I used a 40 degree bag, wind pants, beanie, synthetic jacket, and rain jacket. Temps ranged from upper 30s into the high 70s, I was never cold but felt I was right there on the edge as if I had planned this out perfectly. Starting any later and I imagine it gets hot very fast. On the trail there are a couple unavoidable dry sections which extra ambient heat would have made a lot worse. I think 13 miles was the longest without a water source. Possibly the fall would be a prettier time to be hiking with all of the changing of the colors but in April I got to see spring in action! In the north all of the trees were still barren, with little flowers just starting to come out of the ground, and by the time I got to the southern terminus everything was in full bloom, all of the trees were lush, and I even thought to myself once that it felt like I was hiking through some jurassic age jungle. Fall may also present another issue you won’t find in April, streams, creeks, and springs may be dry. This could be a question to ask elsewhere but I was very happy for the snow melt and to have water sources all over. I personally only had a total of 1 liter carrying capacity so this was a huge win. Water is heavy, and April made it so I didn’t often need to carry much of it.
Shelter & Bugs
I used a tarp and ground sheet as my primary shelter. No bivy, and no bug protection, this is mostly because I’m a stubborn Floridian and down here we have some serious mosquitoes. However! Not a single darn time did I even see a single mosquito! Again maybe since I was hiking in April this played a big part, but often I was near standing water, lakes, rivers and no bugs ever gave me trouble. So leaving the tent or the bivy at home was a great choice for me. Maybe a small headnet as a backup would do you right just in case. Now there is one issue with bugs, and that is ticks. In the first three days I found a total of three ticks on me. In the next 8 days I found quite a few more, I feel because it was warming up as I headed south, and the trail is more overgrown in the south. All of these ticks I found on my legs, none anywhere else on my body. This is thanks to treating all of my clothing with permethrin beforehand, which you can buy in a big yellow bottle at just about any Walmart. Most of the ticks were big and easy to spot before they grabbed on, but I did find at least one very tiny one. This was honestly my biggest fear heading into this trail, I know the north east can be extremely bad, and often I was afraid to sit down. However given my experience now I think that fear is gone, and once again I have my chosen time of year to hike to thank. Any other time of year and for the ticks alone maybe you would want a tent. This said I never found one on me in the morning even though I was totally exposed under my tarp, only during mid day when it was hot, and I was moving, I believe they must have grabbed me from some trail side brush. Something I did extra to combat the fear of ticks was wear a white shirt, it got very dirty but I was happy with the peace of mind knowing anything out of the ordinary would be very easily spotted should I get something on me like an unwanted intruder.
Keeping up with the animals theme I got a lot of messages warning me of bears, snakes, and dogs. I didn’t see a single bear, I only saw 4 snakes all non venomous, but the dogs are another story. As for the bears, even locals I talked to said they have been seeing less and less on their game cameras. Some campsites(not many, I personally only saw one instance) had bear boxes to store consumables in but I didn’t really worry about sleeping with my food as a pillow. I don’t worry about bears generally and don’t think its a huge problem even for Kentucky. If this were a blog post about Yosemite or the Great Smoky Mountains I would be singing a different tune. A rule of thumb for me is avoiding established campsites. If you see trash there that means some animal has probably found food there and may come back to check for more another time. Sleeping in random places off trail where no animal has ever found food I felt perfectly safe. Now as for the real threat. Dogs. I have never in all of my long distance hiking(8,000+ miles with more than a thousand of that on roads) seen so many dogs while roadwalking. This trail has some road sections, the majority being in the north, while the south is more rugged and remote. You will run into some unsavory dogs in the north, off leashes, protecting their homes. I feel in just the first 100 miles heading SOBO I saw and dealt with more than 100 dogs. I cannot recommend enough carrying a small bottle of pepper spray. Wacking a dog on the head with a stick or trekking pole is likely just going to anger it further, unless you are trying to kill it. This is all much harder to actually do in person when the dog may just be coming up to you barking like every other dog, and by the time you realize you need to do something it’s right up on you too close to even hit accurately. There is one long roadwalk in particular where all of your troubles will come from, maybe in a few years the trail will be routed off of it, and into the woods but for now it’s just what you gotta do. For the most part it was very pleasant, very few cars if any, and nice views of the country. This roadwalk was maybe 17-20 miles in length. After that you can throw away the pepper spray as that is the end of your problem.
As for food I know it can be tempting to go for an unsupported record of 7-9 days but you seriously walk right past so many stores it just seems silly to me. Heading southbound you walk right through the very big very small town of Morehead which has a lot of options just 26 miles into the trail, then there is Miguels, a pizza place and hangout for climbers(that may offer showers) less than a mile off trail by Natural Bridge State Park and the Red River Gorge. On that roadwalk mentioned above you pass a very small convenience store halfway through which is good for some Gatorade and a lot of candy with a small selection of chips. The 49er truck stop you walk right by, which has burgers and the like, as well as a fairly common selection of gas station foods as well as the option to shower. Arnold’s Grocery which is by Laurel River Lake, probably a mile off trail, again serving burgers as well as drinks, candy, and generally more than the other convenience store had. And for me the last place I noticed was the Cumberland Falls State Park has a small restaurant you walk by, or a much bigger one by the resort a very short walk away, as well as a store just across from the first restaurant with very limited stuff(more candy!) As you can tell I stopped at all of these. By the time I got past that long roadwalk I gave up the record attempt and decided I was going to get french fries as often as I could. As for a record though you walk right by 4 of these which means you could conceivably carry very little food the entire time and still be totally fine given your threshold for eating mostly junk food is high.
I never had much problem with water though on that long roadwalk water was quite scarce, you will come across some easily accessed streams here or there but it’s something to be wary of. It’s incredibly easy to get dehydrated and electrolytes as well as keeping water consumption up as often as you possibly can is incredibly smart. Most of the water in this state I feel does go past some sort of farm land so filtering it is a good idea. I didn’t and am not sick yet, but can’t recommend my method seeing what I’ve seen. This isn’t the Appalachian Trail, and you won’t be drinking from mountain springs every mile. A lot of the water is from very fine rivers, but considering the potential run off means bring a filter to me. The heat often got to me so even though I was ok with just 1 liter total capacity, 2 liters is the way to go just in case. Better carrying an extra 2 pounds than dehydrated. The only thing that caught me off guard is just north of Morehead there is a 13 mile dry stretch, you are mostly following a ridgeline and there isn’t any water to be found. I didn’t realize this until I was well into that section. Bad news and really slowed me down requiring a very long break in town to regain myself. So make sure to have real electrolytes, fill up as often as you can, and drink as often as you can! I found in my guide most sources weren’t marked and feel I sometimes got lucky. An interesting thing about this trail is how many rivers and streams you cross. Some are on bridges, but most have to be done the old fashioned way, by getting your feet wet. If you’ve walked through one river, don’t stop to dry things out there! Keep going, I found I often crossed the same river many many times over in the course of a mile. This came as a surprise everytime as I would nearly always stop after crossing to take a short break, only to find myself crossing again, and again! Fun, but something to note. I never once had to swim across a river, but at Horse Lick Creek, the water did get all the way up to my waist. That creek in particular there are two marked trails to cross, pick your poison. I think in the past the trail used to cross in different places so you may find yourself if you get off track walking through the higher water 3 times over.
I personally only used the GPS app for my phone, in the app store it can be found if you simply search Sheltowee Trace. For the most part it was excellent! However! You will definitely want more than this. Though it did help every single day with minor decisions the gps track loaded on there is somewhat old, I figured at least from 2016, maybe even 2014. Sometimes I was way off trail according to it, yet still following the blazes in person. This brings up an excellent point. Always trust the blazes! This trail is changing, just around Cave Run Lake for instance there is a huge reroute that maybe adds 5 miles, it is way prettier and follows much more closely to the lake. Had I followed the GPS disregarding the actual trail I would have essentially missed out on something really beautiful as well as cut the official trail. The Sheltowee Trace Association does offer a guidebook for both south and north bounders on their website, as well as maps. I’ve even heard the guides are currently being re done so rejoice! Through the Associations efforts you get an up to date account of the trail. I used the guide for planning but often wished I had it because the GPS just doesn’t provide any information on water sources, if I’ll be roadwalking, sights to see, or anything other than you are here and the trail is there. If the phone application is updated that would be the greatest thing I think the trail could do in regards to accessibility. In this day and age of technology where most long trails now have some sort of app there will surely be more like me who use it exclusively despite the pitfalls of trusting such things. Even if they charged money for it, I would happily buy it, as for now it is a free service. Beggars can’t be choosers. In that sense, consider becoming a member of the Sheltowee Trace Association while you’re at it, a membership goes a long way! You should especially do so if you are hiking this trail. As for navigational problems most of my issues weren’t on trail actually, it was on roadwalks! The trail itself is wonderfully blazed and marked, though I felt at times the roads could use a couple more signs.
I went with a fairly minimal setup, thin nylon dress socks, and shoes with a pretty minimal stackheight, the Altra Superiors. If I were to do it again I would beef it up a bit. Certainly the Lone Peaks which have a little more cushion, and probably Injinj Toe Socks which are a bit thicker and might have saved me from a couple blisters I got between my toes. Though I was happy for thin socks given the sheer amount of times you have to ford rivers but given the rocky terrain, and the roadwalking I was definitely wanting more, and the quick drying was not nearly as important as the ache in my feet after a long day. I would however avoid anything crazy like Hoka shoes or the Altra Olympus, anything with a super high stack, that’s just asking for a rolled or even broken ankle. Something quick drying with a medium not minimal cushion would have been perfect.
Getting to the Trail
I chose to drive up from Florida, you can park your car at the conference center in Morehead KY and if you let the Sheltowee Trace Association know in advance they can give you a ride up to the trail head from there, or you could call Billy Sherlin. This is by far the safest place to park. Alternatively you could park at the northern terminus itself but your car would be left in plain view of a road, and I may not have heard of anyone’s vehicle being vandalized I don’t think you would want to worry about that for a week or two while you’re hiking. As for flying to the trail I think easiest is to book a flight to Lexington and again message either Billy Sherlin or the Trace Association to give you a ride from there. This is all considering you would be starting in the north and finishing in the south. The other way around and I imagine flying into Knoxville or flying out of there would be the way to go. I don’t know where you would park a car at the southern end that would be safest but the trail head is again an option just assuming the risk of doing so is there. This parking lot in the south is far more busy, though the road is not! But the trailhead itself is. There’s a big river right there which kayakers and rafters use, as well as multiple trails that all spring off from roughly that point.
My Time On Trail
Now information is out of the way, how was my hike? It was great! I was thoroughly surprised by this trail. I purposely hadn’t done a ton of research beyond weather, and where I would get food because I wanted a completely fresh experience and perspective. I’m happy I did as I could have spoiled a lot. Though I do love the extensive research it’s nice to break away from that once in a while. My record attempt was more in the sense thinking I could take it just hiking the same way I always do. 30 mile days are not at all unfamiliar so just an extra hour or two each evening isn’t that bad right? Right, but things can always go awry! And they did. With proper planning I think it would have been easier but after a few exhausting days, and low appetite leading to low energy I gave in and slowed down for a few days. Though quickly realizing I still had to be home in time for work, I wound up speeding back up to the pace I was on and then some! Some of my last few days on trail were some of my biggest just to meet a deadline. Ultimately robbing me of what I love most about hiking, the freedom. Typically I quit my job and have nothing really tying me down when thru hiking but this time I had a looming date I needed to finish by, I had to somehow get back to my car, and then drive 15 hours straight home. Exhausting! But hey I did it, and got for the most part exactly what I wanted. To experience a trail outside of what most are doing. I gravitated initially towards the Sheltowee because I wanted to support a trail not many are doing, or at least not many who don’t live in Kentucky! I hadn’t heard much about this one prior to starting, other than Zoner who had attempted an unsupported record a couple years back which put it on my radar. Then, I saw a climbing film, that featured the Red River Gorge, and that was it. I saw all of the crazy geology and the natural rock arches, and knew Kentucky had something special. Similar in a way to what I imagine Utah would be if it was covered in trees and lush green forests. It really interested me, and I was not disappointed! There were so many giant rock walls and boulders on every section of trail, at every river, along every road, it was exactly what I wanted in regards to scenery. The rocks were oftentimes humbling, which I think can be seen in my videos or in my photos. Me this tiny little human absolutely dwarfed by these giants protruding out of the land surrounding me. Now beyond this I also knew the trail wasn’t complete and honestly that was actually a draw. I kind of like roadwalking, it can be a nice break from hiking up and down mountains all day. More often than I’ll admit I question if maybe I should walk the American Discovery Trail, a route spanning across the United States as I understand it, almost entirely on roads. I enjoy seeing the country from a different perspective, and roads certainly give you that. Often times more so than a trail can. From a third party perspective you can see how the locals live, their towns and architecture, you meet more people on roads, and they are easy to travel. While in the woods it is certainly a more rewarding experience, with more opportunity for enjoyment, but it’s just a different experience. I appreciate both for what they are. I would definitely rather be on trail but a road here or there is nice too.
In recent years I’ve become more and more aware of those like me quitting their jobs, or putting their life on hold to go off and do a long trail. Now one thing that gets me though is that everyone seems to go to the same places. The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, or Long Trail. While there are hundreds of trails out there just waiting to be walked other than these! When I was on the Pacific Crest in 2018 that was the thing I liked the least about it. The sheer amount of people. Thousands upon thousands, every single day seeing upwards of 100 other hikers. It was truly something, and I know a lot of folks enjoy the camaraderie and I do too, but it was a little much for me. I like the solitude and really enjoy the fact I’m getting away from all of that on these trails. Not running into the same in a different form. So my sights have been set on trails that aren’t as known. The Sheltowee Trace was very high up on that list and I’m very glad I went for it. This isn’t to say I won’t go hike one of those other ones. I can guarantee you I will! I would love to go back to the Appalachian Trail for a very late season sobo, maybe start in September. Or do the PCT as a sobo, which I gather very few do it that way still. I’m sure in the coming years I’ll become a repeat offender. But coming from Florida and spending so much time on the Florida Trail here as a hiker, and volunteer, I see how some of these trails that aren’t as well known deserve the love equally or probably even more so. Maybe they aren’t quite the same level of wow as hiking through the high sierra on the John Muir Trail. But still provide that solitude I feel may be lost in other places. Still provide that life changing experience, and still provide that look into some fantastic new place you couldn’t even dream of previously. So here I am, I have a large list, it definitely still includes the big ones, but it also includes a lot of small ones. Particularly the Ozark Highlands, and Ouachita in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Among many others. Numbers rising is a good thing, as some of those people will finish their hike, and be looking for another, and another. Certainly they will find the Sheltowee Trace at some point like I have.
I hope this post helps you or maybe inspires you to get out and try something new. Of course I’m open to any questions you may have but if it’s directly trail related consider these options as well.
Don’t forget, a membership to the Sheltowee Trace Association goes a long way and I’m sure they would really appreciate it! If you do get out there to hike the trail, let them know!