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The Bad Branch State Nature Preserve comprises more than 2,500 acres of forested slopes surrounding several deep, rugged gorges on the south face of Pine Mountain in southeastern Letcher County. The Nature Conservancy co-manages this preserve with the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission (KSNPC) and retains ownership of 1,031 acres.
Staying true to its name, the Bad Branch State Nature Preserve takes unpredictable twists and turns as it cascades down the south face of Pine Mountain. At one point, the stream drops by more than 1,000 feet in less than three miles.
Along the way, the surrounding landscape hosts stream pools and riffles, boulder-strewn creek edges, wet rock faces, talus areas and pine barrens – a variety of distinct habitat types making it an exceptional example of Kentucky’s natural beauty and biological biodiversity. Eventually, the water carves out Bad Branch Gorge, with numerous overhangs, rock shelters and sandstone cliffs rising well above the surrounding forest.
A hallmark of the nature preserve includes a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, which can be heard long before being approached. Visitors taking the strenuous hike to Bad Branch Falls pass through large hemlock stands, rare flowers and plants, and dense thickets of rhododendron.
With portions owned and managed by both the Conservancy and the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, the 2,639-acre nature preserve protects the scenic beauty of the gorge and one of the largest concentrations of rare and uncommon species known in the state. The Conservancy’s portion of the nature preserve contains the upper gorge of Bad Branch and a smaller area containing the upper headwaters of Pine Branch.
Approximately 448 acres of the Conservancy’s property hosts a hemlock-dominated forest with a mixture of yellow birch, Fraser magnolia and tulip poplar. Much of this forest was selectively logged during the early 1940’s; however several large groves still remains virtually untouched.
Location: Southeastern Kentucky located in the heart of Pine Mountain, about 9 miles southeast of Whitesburg in Letcher County.
What’s At Stake: More than thirty species of rare flora and fauna. The forest community is predominately a hemlock-mixed mesophytic forest, which grows in combination with tulip poplar, sweet birch, yellow birch, basswood, buckeye and American beech. Understory trees include umbrella magnolia, sweet pepperbush, flowering dogwood, and dense thickets of rosebay rhododendron.
The cold mountain stream and the narrow, shaded gorges help to maintain conditions required to support a large assemblage of species more typical of northern climates or higher elevations. Among these rare species are small enchanter’s nightshade, Fraser’s sedge, painted trillium, longtail shrew and the federally-rare blackside dace. Black bears also pass through this area and Kentucky’s rare nesting pair of common ravens can be found along the preserve’s sandstone cliffs. One state endemic fish species, the Cumberland Arrow Darter, finds a home in the fast flowing water below the spectacular 60-foot waterfall.
Threats: Infestation of the non-native insect pest, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. See a slide show of treatment for the pest.
Milestones: 435 acres were acquired by the Conservancy in 1985 and sold to KSNPC, beginning a very successful partnership. Bad Branch was added to Kentucky State Wild River System in 1986. In 1990, a $500,000 gift from the Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. Fund enabled the Conservancy to purchase an additional 1,031 acres in the upper watershed. In 1997 KSNPC acquired and dedicated another 820 acres. Another 900 adjacent acres have been protected through registry and management agreements with adjacent landowners.
Action: The Conservancy and KSNPC work in partnership to maintain the area's ecological integrity intact. This includes implementing a soil injection treatment to more than 20,000 hemlock trees to combat the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid non-native insect pest with support from Bayer CropScience and state and federal partners.
Partners: Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Bad Branch State Nature Preserve is open to the public, from sunrise to sunset, for all forms of passive recreation such as hiking and nature study. Trails systems are well developed, ranging from moderate (to the falls) to strenuous (in the upper watershed).
Bad Branch is open to the public, from sunrise to sunset, for all forms of passive recreation, such as hiking and nature study. Trails systems are well developed, ranging from moderate (to the falls) to strenuous (in the upper watershed). For further details on the trails.
Take I-64 E / I-75 S toward Knoxville / Ashland. Follow signs, taking slight left onto I-64 E. (signs for Winchester / Ashland). Travel 2.4 miles. Take exit 98 toward Mountain Pkwy / Campton / Prestonsburg. Travel 16.3 miles. Merge onto Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway E. Travel 42.3 miles. Take exit 43 toward KY-15 / Campton / Hazard. Merge onto Mountain Parkway Spur. Continue onto KY-15 S. Travel 47.8 miles. Turn right onto KY-15 S/ Johnny Cox All-American Dr. Travel 2.2 miles. Turn right onto KY-15 S. Travel 29.5 miles. Turn right to stay on KY-15 S. Travel 2.3 miles. Turn right onto US-119 S. Travel 7.0 miles. Turn left onto KY-932 E. Travel 1.7 miles. Bad Branch Nature Preserve Parking Lot will be on the left.
Take I-65 N toward I-64 / I-71 / Jeffersonville / Indianapolis. Take exit 137 to merge onto I-71 N toward I-64 E/ Cincinnati / Lexington. Take the exit onto I-64 E toward Lexington. Travel 75.2 miles. Take a slight left to stay on I-64 E (signs for Winchester / Ashland). Travel 16.3 miles. Take exit 98 toward Mountain Parkway / Campton / Prestonsburg. Merge onto Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway E. Travel 42.3 miles. Take exit 43 toward KY-15 / Campton / Hazard. Merge onto Mountain Parkway Spur. Continue onto KY-15 S. Travel 47.8 miles. Turn right onto KY-15 S / Johnny Cox All-American Dr. Travel 2.2 miles. Turn right onto KY-15 S. Travel 29.5 miles. Turn right to stay on KY-15 S. Travel 2.3 miles. Turn right onto US-119 S. Travel 7.0 miles. Turn left onto KY-932 E. Travel 1.7 miles. Bad Branch Nature Preserve Parking Lot will be on the left.
From South Central Kentucky
Take KY-80 E to the Hal Rogers Parkway. Merge onto Hal Rogers Parkway. Travel 56.2 miles. Take exit 56 for KY-451. Turn right onto KY-451 S. Travel 4.2 miles. Turn right onto Kentucky 2451. Continue onto KY-451 S / S Main St. Continue to follow S Main St. Continue onto KY-15 S. Travel 29.5 miles. Turn right to stay on KY-15 S. Travel 2.3 miles. Turn right onto US-119 S. Travel 7.0 miles. Turn left onto KY-932 E. Bad Branch Nature Preserve Parking Lot will be on the left.