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Riding the Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Kentucky

The 14-mile ride on this scenic highway includes gorgeous views and the fascinating Blue Heron Mining Camp.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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The open-air train car’s large picture windows allowed a gentle breeze to pass through and temper the summer heat. The journey along the old Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad moved slowly, just how I like it when traveling a scenic railway. It would take a little less than an hour to travel from Stearns, Kentucky to the Blue Heron Mining Camp – where an entirely different adventure would begin.

For years, the grandmother had been working on the complete genealogy of the family. But even with online resources like Ancestry – I bought her an annual membership – it was still necessary to sometimes travel to find more information. That is what brought us to Oneida, Tennessee – and my first big adventure in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Diesel Locomotive 106 pulls the four train cars along the K&Y Railroad.

Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad

In 1902, Justus Stearns purchased 30,000 acres of virgin timberland in southeastern Kentucky. The population was booming, and the need for lumber was increasing. But soon after the timbering began, he discovered another much-need commodity: coal.

The Stearns Coal & Lumber Company was established and built the town of Stearns from the ground up. Everything in the town – from the residences to the offices – was company property. The 25-mile Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad was built to haul lumber and coal out of the mountains into town.

By the 1950s, Stearns Coal & Lumber Company began shutting down mines and scaling back lumbering. In 1976, the company was sold to Blue Diamond Coal Company who ceased all lumbering and only operated a few mines. In 1987, everything was closed permanently, and the railroad and mines were abandoned.

READ MORE: The Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum in Townsend, TN

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Live music often entertains the visitors as they await the boarding call.

Big South Fork Scenic Railway

The McCreary County Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve the history of the coal town and mining locations in Kentucky. The old train depot was renovated and opened as the home of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

The scenic railway offers several types of excursions throughout the year. The Summer Run is the most frequent – a two-hour roundtrip adventure from the depot in Stearns to the Blue Heron Mining Camp. The rest of the year, excursions include nightly rides, scenic rides during the peak of fall colors, and unique rides for Christmas.

100 Henderson Street, Stearns, KY | 606-657-9491 | https://bsfsry.com

Two of the train cars have glass windows that can be closed when it rains or its cold, but are left open the other times.

Train Ride

Live music was playing in the lobby of the train depot when I arrived. Natural light flooded through skylights onto gorgeous hardwood floors. Visitors meandered about, waiting for the boarding call to the train.

Soon enough, a conductor rang a bell and shouted, “All aboard!” I stepped into the long line of people eager to board the train and begin the adventure. The train cars had large picture windows left open on most days – the train leaves rain or shine but closes the windows on rainy days. The leather-wrapped benches were surprisingly comfortable and made the ride even more enjoyable.

An old diesel locomotive – the only leftover from a fleet of nearly twenty-five that once operated on the K&Y Railroad – sat at the head of the train. After a rumble of power and a slight jerk, we were off for a slow adventure on the railroad.

The 14-mile roundtrip ride on the railroad to the Blue Heron Mining Camp takes about thirty minutes each way. The route passes through Daniel Boone National Forest through cuts in the mountain, a short tunnel, and passes over a quiet mountain river. About halfway, we passed a sign to the Barthell Coal Camp – opened in 1910 and recently restored for visitors as a private attraction.

The train pulled into the depot at the Blue Heron Mining Camp, and the peaceful ride had come to an end. A new adventure was about to begin. The conductor adamantly explained, “You have an hour and a half to explore the mining camp. When you hear the train whistle, you have fifteen minutes to get onboard. Don’t miss the train!”

The recreated hopper building at Blue Heron Mining Camp.

Blue Heron Mining Camp

Officially known as Mining Camp 18, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company abandoned the facility in 1962. The buildings were either demolished or fell into a severe state of disrepair. In the 1980s, a local movement recreated the mining facility with new “ghost” buildings and updated facilities.

Today, the Blue Heron Mining Camp is operated by the National Park Service as part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Visitors can drive to the mining camp, but the best way to get there is a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

After getting off the train, visitors have an hour and a half to explore the facilities. A concession stand offers simple foods, and there are picnic tables. Restrooms are located behind the concessions. A winding, paved path leads past several of the “ghost” buildings – shells of the former buildings on their original locations – with interpretive signs.

Visitors can walk into the entrance of Mine Shaft #18 – and it’s a neat experience – but my favorite place to explore at the mining camp was the tipple bridge stretching across the camp and river to an old mine shaft on the other side.

READ MORE: Explore the Fascinating Blue Heron Mining Camp at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Tips for Riding the Big South Fork Scenic Railway

Here are a few tips to make the most of your adventure on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway:

  • On weekends and holidays, I recommend buying your ticket in advance, although walk-ups are always welcome.
  • Two train cars are “open-air” with a roof and sides, but no windows. The other two train cars are enclosed with glass windows that can be opened.
  • None of the train cars have air conditioning, but they all have heating in the colder months.
  • All seats on the train are first come, first seated.
  • Get the optional Coal Miner’s Lunch – an add-on to the basic ticket price – and enjoy some food while on the excursion.

2 Responses

  1. I cannot see any of your pictures! the site must be outdated. I LIKE TRAIN RIDES and plan to take this as soon as the VIRUS business is over.

    1. Indeed, you found one of my old articles from before I rebranded and changed domains last year. I had hundreds to update! Thanks for pointing this out; I just put this on the short list. I LOVED riding that train, and once this virus mess is done I might be sitting behind you on the train!

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