Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kentucky Afield Outdoors: Blue Water Trails – Little South Fork of Cumberland River
FRANKFORT, Ky. – Slices of Kentucky
still retain the patina of times long ago. Powerful economic and cultural
forces of the 20th Century reshaped the landscape of Kentucky, but
there are still areas that look and feel similar to what those who traveled in
horse-drawn buggies witnessed in their daily lives.
The Little South
Fork of Cumberland River region is one of those places. Remnants of hand-laid
stone fences line many of the roads leading to the access points on the Little
South Fork. Many fine homes feature small, irregular windows and stone
chimneys, revealing likely log construction underneath the siding. Suspension
footbridges in excellent condition at shallow crossings of the river evoke
earlier times in the mountains.
Several floats on
the Little South Fork showcase this enchanting, overlooked region of Kentucky.
The Little South Fork from the KY 92 Bridge downstream to Freedom Ford is a
designated Kentucky Wild River, a tribute to the pristine water quality and
incredible scenery of this stream.
In late summer
through fall, the Little South Fork flows exceptionally clear with enough
moving shoals and stream drops to keep the paddling interesting, but not overly
challenging. The copper-hued bluffs and rockcastles of the western edge of the
Cumberland Escarpment make one of the more picturesque landscapes in Kentucky.
Expect few other paddlers on this remote stream.
biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources find
healthy populations of smallmouth bass, rock bass and spotted bass in the
Little South Fork.
The first float
begins at the vanished community of Parmleysville, one of the first settlements
in the upper Cumberland region, established in 1780. The put-in at an old ford
crossing is just down the hill from the historic Bethel Baptist Church on KY
1756. It was the first church for the influential early preacher “Raccoon” John
outpost once had a horse track, mill, school and store. The only artifice of
settlement left is the remnants of a sturdy hand-laid rock wall along the road
at the put-in.
vistas that greet travelers on KY 1756 are as stunning as any in southern
Appalachia. Be sure to veer right at the junction of KY 1756 and Green Ford
Road to reach the Parmleysville access. In the low water conditions common in
late summer through fall, paddlers may need to walk boats through shallow
concludes 6 ½ miles downstream at the bridge on Steele Hollow Road. The Little
South Fork flows small and intimate in this section, but the rock-lined bends
with the aquamarine color of deeper water hold smallmouth bass. The river holds
excellent populations of forage fish such as striped shiners and a
floating/diving minnow lure such as a Rapala attracts smallmouths.
The Little South
Fork flows into two consecutive horseshoe-shaped bends separated by two gentler
meanders. The deep pockets along the boulder-strewn outside bends hold
smallmouth bass. This is the best smallmouth bass water on this float.
sharp bend to the right, the river flows through the small community of Green
Ford. It then makes a long gentle bend to the right before cutting hard back
left. The outside band of this bend holds smallmouth bass. After several more
bends, the Little South Fork makes a 90-degree turn to the right before the
access at Steele Hollow Road Bridge.
To reach this
access, veer right onto Green Ford Road coming from Parmleysville, then left
onto Steele Bottom Road. Park vehicles on the east side of the bridge. The old
ford beside it eases launching and carrying out of boats.
The next float
begins at Steele Hollow Road Bridge and concludes nearly 7 miles downstream at
the small concrete bridge on Baldy Road (known as Baldy-East Coopersville Road
on some maps), off KY 92 east from its junction with KY 1756. The old ford
beside this bridge provides an easy carry down with parking for about three
The Little South
Fork makes nearly a 180-degree bend to the left followed by a gentler bend and
another 180-degree bend to the left. The flowing outside water in these bends
holds smallmouth bass. Rock bass hide in any downed tree tops in these areas as
well. Rock bass love black and silver in-line spinners.
The river then
makes another horseshoe bend to the right. The second bend contains deep water,
perfect habitat for spotted bass. Spotted bass can’t resist the color black, so
3-inch black curly-tailed grubs or 4-inch black finesse worms rigged on
1/8-ounce leadheads draw strikes. They make excellent table fare, especially
from a stream as clean as the Little South Fork.
The river makes
several bends before making a sharp “S” shaped bend. Smallmouth bass lurk in
the flowing water just above and below stream drops in this stretch. After
flowing relatively straight for a time, the Little South Fork makes a hard turn
left and the take-out at Baldy Road Bridge comes into view.
The next float is
for the intrepid who want a near wilderness paddling experience. It begins at
the Baldy Road Bridge and concludes 10 ½ miles downstream at Ritner Ford. Some
guidebooks and websites list the KY 92 Bridge as an access spot, but the gravel
access road down to the river is currently gated and posted.
Paddlers on this
float must launch early. Prepare to take out at dusk and not tarry at any place
too long. The shuttle via KY 92 west to KY 776 to Ritner Road also eats time.
launching, the river bends to the right and after a straight stretch, makes a
hard bend right and collects the waters of tiny Burkes Creek. The deep water in
this bend holds spotted bass.
The river then
flows into two hairpin bends to the right, separated by a straight stretch. The
deep greenish water in these bends holds spotted bass as well. The transitional
water from deep to flowing should be worked with the floating/diving minnow for
The Little South
Fork cut deeper into the Earth in the section from KY 92 to its confluence with
the Big South Fork, making a gorgeous gorge providing some of the most scenic
paddling in Kentucky. This is also the Kentucky Wild River designated section
of the Little South Fork.
After some bends
and collecting the waters of Baker Branch and Corder Creek along the way,
paddlers may catch glimpses of the sepia-toned cliffs that line the river on
both sides for the last several miles of this float.
Just after a hard
bend right, the suspension footbridge at Ritner Ford greets paddlers. The
parking area at Ritner Ford is rutted and a four wheel drive vehicle is
The last float on
the Little South Fork starts at Ritner Ford and concludes roughly 2 1/2 miles
downstream at Freedom Ford, via KY 776 to Freedom Road. This may be the most
pastoral short float in the upper Cumberland River drainage.
The drive to
Ritner Ford passes through Denney’s Gap with Washing Cliff at your level to the
left, but soon towers in the distance as you descend to the bottom of the river
valley. The shuttle to Freedom Ford holds the same experience for drivers as
they pass by Balls Cliff and Sand Cliff and distant Tabletop Cliff. This sliver
of Wayne County captivates.
The Little South
Fork makes a hard bend soon in the float and the deep water holds spotted bass.
The stream bends left after flowing over a shallow shoal strewn with small
boulders. The transitional water from shallow to deep is a good spot to try the
4-inch black finesse worm for smallmouth or spotted bass.
A gorgeous bluff
soon meets the eye as the river bends left and enters a long stretch of
mid-depth. The stream then bends back hard right and into a deep hole that
holds spotted bass. After another shallow stretch, the Little South Fork flows
into a long, deep hole lined with car-sized boulders, just upstream of the
shoal that makes Freedom Ford.
The take-out is on
the left. If you reach a suspension footbridge, you’ve gone too far.
A float on the
Little South Fork would be an excellent choice to see fall colors and can be
combined with a weekend of boating on nearby Lake Cumberland.
The Blue Water
Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear’s Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log
on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Water Trails webpage at fw.ky.gov for a detailed map.
Wayne County Tourism: