Cumberland, Martins Fork - Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to route 987 (1.6 miles)

Cumberland, Martins Fork, Kentucky, US


Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to route 987 (1.6 miles)

Usual Difficulty V (for normal flows)
Length 1.6 Miles
Avg. Gradient 290 fpm
Max Gradient 320 fpm

Catacombs 2

Catacombs 2
Photo by KE

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
hads-SMHK2 3.00 - 5.50 ft V 00h31m 1.31 ft (too low)
usgs-03401000 2000 - 8000 cfs V 00h31m 950 cfs (too low)

River Description

Original Trip Report from Boatertalk, (edited):

Toby mentioned to me about 7 years ago, this creek up in KY that hadn't been run. Martins Fork. He said he had hiked it and it looked good. I scoped it on the map, but forgot about it for a while and then Karl Whipp mentioned it to me again. A month later, Keith, Tony and I scouted it, and reallized it was pretty good, with great water quality, good views, and a short stretch of serious and quality class 5 before "flattening out" to class 3-4. That was a little over a year ago, and just this December, 2008, I finally found sufficient flows to go out on a hunch.

A normal plateau run affected by pine plantations and mining wouldn't hold water, but this run is different. It is on the edge of the cumberlands overlooking the valley ridge and gets alot of rain. It is high elevation for the plateau, and the watershed, which is around 8 square miles, hasn't been massively logged, if at all, and has remained relatively untouched for most of human history. It is also protected by Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. So all that rain gathers in the bowl, and runs flat for around 8 miles before dropping to the valley below. The most abrupt drop occurs in a mile or so. The run drops slower than comparable ones on Walden Ridge, and holds better, runs more. So I caught it today at a good low level. Perfect first time level. I hiked 2.2 miles up an old jeep track to the put in above the gradient. I paddled 1.6 miles that dropped 450 feet, with the steepest mile being 320 feet, and the stacked 4/10 of a mile at the top averaging 540 feet per mile.

First, to the aesthetics. The water quality is better than some smokies runs. It was SO clear. The forest and canyon in general were very unspoiled. Overall, it meets and possibly exceeds the pristine qualities of really clean plateau runs like North Chick and Island Creek. The rock is horizontally bedded sandstone, just like further south. The entirety of the run herein described is withing the boundary of Martins Fork WMA.

The first drop is a slide of 12 feet, then the creek drops into the hardest rapid, The Holding Cell. This is the only one I walked on the whole run. It is class 5+ for sure, but totally good. Photo quality and safety mandatory. The next set was a series of ledgy drops within this continuous bedrock minigorge called The Catacombs. There were three tight drops of class 4+ difficulty, all stringed together. Even at low water this run blends quickly. After this was a quality boulder series with non stop moves of 3-5 foot drops, then the big one, Harlan County Two Step. Here the creek bottles up against the left wall and drops 7 feet into a cauldronous corridor before dropping down to the right off a 15 foot slot/falls into a mandatory meltdown and a little bit of a hole. This is the highlight rapid and really photogenic. This also marks the end of the really steep stuff, but the next half mile is still pretty solid. Right below a trib comes in adding a bit of flow, then boulder gardens kick start the lower. Soon you approach a long blind rapid where undercut overhangs exist on both sides of the creek. You definitely don't want to touch the banks here at The Unforgiven. Tight and fun, this one runs out into some low angle bedrock slides around some midstream monoliths. Next is a great 8-9 foot boof on the right that is just perfect. From here the creek tones down to normal class 3-4. I limboed one log, but didn't have to get out. There are a few slot boofs in the 5 foot range here and there, and a few ledges of the same height. Then right above where I took out was a really long and fast low angle bedrock slide that took 4 or 5 turns before pooling up. This lower "paddle out" was not boring, but a great ending with good stuff to the end.

I would say it is kinda like Little Clear Creek in TN on crack. And it is definitely the hardest and best run in KY(that I know of)! The section above where I put in has never been paddled, and would likely be many miles of beautiful and tiny class 2-3. There is a clean 15 foot waterfall further up in the headwaters, but I am not sure where it is located. Access would be up near the Hensley settlement, and LOTS of rain would be required to float the stream that high up, but it also might be a pretty good little overnight expedition, as when you got to the steep section you would want the water to drop. Good place to spend the night and paddle out in the morning.

Kirk Eddlemon

Check out the VIMEO video:

Martins Fork of the Cumberland from Kirk Eddlemon on Vimeo.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2011-01-25 19:29:39


Stream team editor

Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-0.3Quadrule FallsIVWaterfall Photo
0.0Put in slideIII+Putin Photo
0.1The Holding Cell5.1Hazard Waterfall Photo
0.2The Catacombs5.0Hazard Photo
0.3Approach to cruxIV+Photo
0.4Harlan County Two Step5.1Hazard Waterfall Photo
0.6Unforgiven5.0Hazard Photo
0.7Big BoofIVWaterfall Photo
1.3Suprise SlideIV

Rapid Descriptions

Quadrule Falls (Class IV, Mile -0.3)

Quadrule Falls

Quadrule Falls
Photo taken 10/07/10

A 15 ft falls runnable straight down the middle.

Put in slide (Class III+)

Put in slide

Put in slide
Photo by KE

Clean twelve foot low angle slide.  Get out right below to scout the hardest and most consequential rapid on the run.

The Holding Cell (Class 5.1, Mile 0.1)

Holding Cell

Holding Cell
Photo by KE

Right below the put in slide, the creek drops down this complex and serious drop.  The entrance consists of fighting to get left up onto a shoulder where one boofs 8-10 feet back into the center into a big cauldron with an overhung hydraulic and boily room.  Keep driving downstream and out over a drop that kicks off a rock and lands in the pool below.  There is a gap between the drop and the rock, so safety and a convicted boof with speed are necessary.  Make this crux move left of center away from the sieve on the right.

The Catacombs (Class 5.0, Mile 0.2)

looking back up at Catacombs drop 2

looking back up at Catacombs drop 2
Photo by KE

After a brief stretch of class 4 boogie below the holding cell, The creek drops into a tight bedrock section of three serious and quality drops.  The first is a tight jumble that focuses the paddler against a narrow 4 foot slot agains the right bedrock wall, avoiding the channels to the left that are full of wood.  Then the creek rounds a bend and drops through a bedrock corridor and slides off to the right over a 6 foot clapping drop and right into some bad undercuts.  Drive straight through heading left and avoid the mess to your right.  Then line up for the third walled in drop off a 5 foot ledge left of center against a wall through a hole and down a flume into the pool below.

Approach to crux (Class IV+, Mile 0.3)

End of boogie above Harlan County Two Step

End of boogie above Harlan County Two Step
Photo by KE

Here the creek bombs down several s-turning slot drops, culminating in a 6 foot boof down a center channel.  Quickly eddy right and begin scouting the big daddy of the run.

Harlan County Two Step (Class 5.1, Mile 0.4)

Harlan County Two Step

Harlan County Two Step
Photo by KE

This is the biggest and best rapid on the whole creek, and has classic written all over it.  The creek bundles up energy on a left to right line, berthing a few 3 foot drops before bottling up and driving off a 7 foot boof through a narrow slot into a boiling room where half the water breaks left into a crazy eddy, and the other half breaks right into a narrow slot that raises up and then drops over a 15 foot vertical slot falls that lands in a big pool.  You could catch the eddy, but I would think the less time in that boily place the better.  Be prepared for little boof opportunity on the big final plunge, and expect some downtime and or hole surfing.  It is plenty deep though, and I think the key to the rapid is a solid entrance boof, followed by a stable and momentum conserving landing.  In the pool below, the side trib you crossed on the hike in joins the river, and the creek gains volume.

Unforgiven (Class 5.0, Mile 0.6)

Top of Unforgiven

Top of Unforgiven
Photo by Karl Whipp

Below the big pool, the stream runs through a little bit of class 3-4 boogie before overhanging walls close in and the bedrock reappears.  Get out and scout this one for wood and your line.  The creek begins to run down low angle bedrock at high speed through some overhangs.  Then a downstream right to left ledge/curl throws right into a bad undercut on the left.  Come in late on the left driving right and thread between this and the undercut on the right, then once through, driving left again away from another badly undercut boulder on the right.  Then the creek splits, go with the flow on the right down some more fun bedrock.  This is a fun but serious section.

Big Boof (Class IV, Mile 0.7)

Big Boof

Big Boof
Photo by Karl Whipp

Shortly after Unforgiven, and on a right bend, take the inside right line and drive off a beautiful 8-10 foot boof into a soft landing.  This is the best boof on the run.

Suprise Slide (Class IV, Mile 1.3)

Below Big Boof the creek runs through quality class 3-4 with a handfull of good slots and ledges, and things start to wind down.  Just when you think it is over the creek rounds a bend and speeds down a low angle slide that goes around maybe 4 bends and is up to 100 yards long.  This is a blast, and then the takeout is 300 yards below this last hurrah.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
January 23 2011 (2857 days ago)
Bart BledsoeDetails
Bear Hazard. I ran this on 01-02-11 and found a bear den on river left while scouting the
Catacombs. Also, there were several strainers. Heads up out there.
July 28 2009 (3401 days ago)
Jake boggsDetails
A friend and I hiked around the martins fork today. The gauge read 1030cfs, and it looked like you
could run down it without to much scraping. We couldn't make it to Quadrule Falls, before sunset,
but bush-whacking through the rhododendron groves, massive rock outcroppings and ancient hemlocks
was well worth the trip. This river is so pristine, like walking back in time, and has nice rapids
to boot. Here is a google maps link of the trail and shuttle.
Link to Video:

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