This Kentucky Trail Town embodies the majestic beauty and rich heritage of The Kentucky Wildlands. Nestled in public lands, Stearns is both an outdoor playground and a living-history excursion into the era when coal, lumber and railroads were king.
Stearns is your gateway to three national outdoor-recreation treasurers: the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. The historic town is surrounded by scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs along pristine streams flowing into the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.
Those public lands feature vast trail systems, making Stearns the access point to adventure for hikers, bikers, horseback riders and paddlers. Whether on land or water, trails vary widely for all skills levels, and all reward travelers with breathtaking views. Many trails lead to one-of-a-kind natural wonders, such as the sandstone Natural Arch, which spans 100 feet, and Yahoo Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Kentucky. Hiking trails range from short jaunts for families with toddlers or seniors to strenuous excursions for backcountry campers. Dedicated equestrian and mountain-bike trails wind around Stearns, and there are countless country roads to explore. For paddlers, the Big South Fork (Class I-IV) offers calm stretches for beginners and challenging white waters for those who are highly skilled and well outfitted.
For history buffs, Stearns offers a rare glimpse into Appalachia’s heritage of providing natural resources to fuel the nation’s economy. Originally established as a company town in the early 1900s, Stearns has painstakingly preserved structures and stories from the decades when it was the hub of logging and mining in a 200-square-mile area, networked by the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway. The McCreary County Museum introduces visitors to the legacy, and open-air museums bring the history to life. For example, the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp recreates life in a company coal town using ghost structures and recordings of former residents.
To combine nature and heritage, punch your ticket on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, which plunges 600 feet into the Big South Fork gorge along seven miles of historic track once owned by the famed K&T Railway. This journey back in time winds along open vistas and roaring rivers to reach the Barthell Coal Camp, where you can explore a reconstructed 1910 mining camp, company store, miner's houses and schoolhouse.
With so much to see and do, you should plan to stay awhile. For lodging, embrace the outdoors through cabin rentals or campgrounds, which range from primitive to RV, or experience history by staying in a company house at Barthell Coal Camp. To complete your visit, be sure to enjoy the unique local restaurants, such as the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Steakhouse (located at the rail depot), Kristina’s Kitchen (featuring premium vegetarian dishes) and the Dairy Bar (a 1950s diner).