Exploring the Fascinating Blue Heron Mining Camp in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky

Learn about visiting one of the most fascinating coal mining camps open to the public in Kentucky.

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Written by Jason Barnette
on June 19, 2013
| Last updated on November 11, 2020
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COVID is surging again across the United States. I continue to share articles to inspire travel – but please don’t travel at this time. Bookmark the articles, check local businesses and attractions to confirm hours and operation, and be safe.

I stood in the middle of the trestle bridge – looking at the Big South Fork far below – and couldn’t help but feel a tingle of excitement. Most coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains had been abandoned long ago, and Blue Heron Mine was no different. But what made this particular site stand out is that the National Park Service restored the mining camp and created one of the most fascinating ways to explore how coal was mined.

Leatherwood Ford near Oneida is a great place to spend a day enjoying the peacefulness of the Big South Fork.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Located across the Cumberland Plateau, the 125,000-acres of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offers outdoor recreation, scenic drives, and a peaceful escape from nearby cities in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Established in 1974, the National Park Service unit preserves the geological structures and wilderness unique to the area. Bandy Creek Campground was the first developed destination in the park to open. In 1989, the NPS took ownership of the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

Today, the park features dozens of front country and backcountry campsites, hiking and horseback riding trails, scenic overlooks, and miles of gorgeous drives.

4564 Leatherwood Road, Oneida, TN | 423-569-9778 | www.nps.gov/biso

Visitors are welcome to explore beneath the Tipple Building at the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

Blue Heron Mining Camp

In 1937, the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company opened Mine #18 deep in southeast Kentucky mountains. A vast complex of buildings was erected at the mine’s site near the Big South Fork River. Coal was transported along the Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad by steam locomotive to nearby Stearns for processing and shipping.

By the 1950s, Stearns Coal and Lumber Company began shuttering mines and scaling back the lumbering operations. Mine #18 – locally called Blue Heron – was finally shut down in 1962. When the coal company was sold to Blue Diamond Coal Company in 1976, Blue Heron was forgotten and left to the elements.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Camping at Land Between the Lakes

The ghost structures are nothing more than metal frames, a roof, and a few interpretive displays, but they are an essential part of the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

Ghost Structures

When the National Park Service purchased the old mining camp and incorporated it into the Big South Fork NRRA, they immediately began an extensive restoration. Many of the support buildings had either been removed when the mine was abandoned or had fallen from decay.

The NPS built a series of “ghost structures” – shells of buildings that include nothing more than a simple metal framework and front façade. Each ghost structure tells a different part of the story of living and working at the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

From the Train Depot, a paved trail winds along several ghost structures as it climbs to the entrance to Mine #18. The structures include the bathhouse, an exhibit on marriage and family, and entertainment. Each structure featured an interpretive panel to learn more about the people who made Blue Heron their livelihood.

The extremely rectangular entrance to Coal Mine #18.

Coal Mine #18

Near the highest point along the paved path through Blue Heron Mining Camp is the entrance to Mine #18. A concrete façade marked “Blue Heron Mine” marks the entrance; inside, a concrete floor and ceiling lead into a rectangular cut in the earth.

Stepping inside the entrance, the temperature immediately drops several degrees. It’s always chilly beneath the surface. A metal gate about 30’ inside the entrance blocks further exploration – not that anyone would want to explore further inside an abandoned mine shaft.

The long trestle bridge at the Blue Heron Mining Camp crosses the Big South Fork.

Tipple and Bridge

The most impressive piece of the Blue Heron Mining Camp preserved by the National Park Service is the tipple building and bridge. While Mine #18 was located on one side of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, another mine shaft was dug on the other side. A fantastic arching metal bridge spans the distance across the river – a couple hundred feet above the ground – to the other side’s abandoned shaft.

The bridge was built to run a coal cart on the railroad back and forth across the river. When the site was opened in the Big South Fork NRRA, the bridge’s top was covered with a wooden walkway and safety rails. Visitors are allowed to walk across the entire length of the bridge – and if you’re like me, you’ll stop once or twice to admire the gorgeous view in the middle.

The tipple building was where the coal from both mine shafts was sorted by size and deposited into train cars below. It’s a fascinating – and somewhat rare – view inside the old coal mining industry.

READ MORE: Travel Guide to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Blue Heron Loop Trail

Are you up for an amazing day trip adventure at Blue Heron Mining Camp? The 7-mile Blue Heron Loop Trail is a moderately difficult hiking trail looping around the mountain peak just above the mining camp. The trail has two primary points of access: the parking lot at the Blue Heron Mining Camp and a parking lot near the mountain’s summit at the end of Gorge Overlook Road.

The trail begins with a short climb past the ghost structures from the mining camp parking lot before leaving the camp behind. The trail winds a bank high above the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The only strenuous climb is about 2.5 miles from the beginning, where the trail snakes back and forth to reach the mountain’s crest.

Devil’s Jump Overlook is a fantastic place to enjoy a peaceful view of the Big South Fork. Far below, Devil’s Fork Rapids stands out as frothy white water rushes across large boulders in the river.

Blue Heron Overlook

There are several scenic overlooks in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. One of those is the Blue Heron Overlook at the summit of the mountain high above the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

Getting to the scenic overlook can be an easy drive or strenuous hike. Gorge Overlook Road connects with Blue Heron Road – the only way of driving the mining camp – and ends at a parking lot just below the scenic overlook. A short, quarter-mile hike on the Blue Heron Overlook Trail leads to the scenic overlook.

The other way of getting there is hiking from the Blue Heron Mining Camp. The mining camp is about a 0.5-mile moderately strenuous hike along the Blue Heron Loop Trail, ascending about 500’ in elevation, to the spur trail leading to the overlook.

The overlook features a large wooden deck wrapped around the exposed summit of the short mountain top. It’s a great place to catch the sunset across the Big South Fork with a view looking southwest throughout the year.

A covered picnic shelter near the concession stand.

Concession Stand

At the far end of the parking lot, the concession stand offers a nice menu of what I call sports venue foods – hamburgers, hotdogs, and bags of chips. It’s not exactly a delicious meal with rave reviews on Yelp, but it’s still something to tide you over until dinner.

The restrooms are located behind the concession stand, and there is a covered picnic shelter nearby.

The trestle bridge was gorgeous.

Tips for Visiting the Blue Heron Mining Camp

Here are a few tips to make the most of your visit to the Blue Heron Mining Camp:

  • As an outdoor exhibit, Blue Heron Mining Camp is open twenty-four hours a day. However, the safest time to visit is during daylight hours.
  • If you drive to the mining camp, keep an eye out for a few interpretive signs along the entrance road.
  • Swimming in the Big South Fork at the Blue Heron Mining Camp is not prohibited, but it’s also not advised.
  • There is plenty of parking that rarely fills up, but there are more parking spaces along the entrance road just in case.
  • Keep an eye out for the Big South Fork Scenic Railway; a train will ride across the entrance road tracks.
Passengers arriving at the Blue Heron Mining Camp via the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

Getting to the Blue Heron Mining Camp

There are two ways to get to the Blue Heron Mining Camp: car and train.

If driving a personal vehicle, the route from U.S. Highway 27 to the mining camp is about 11 miles long and takes around 20 minutes to drive. Study the route ahead of time because cellular service is spotty, and GPS devices may not work.

The most exciting way to visit the Blue Heron Mining Camp is to ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. A train departs from the depot in Stearns, Kentucky, most days of the week. The 14-mile roundtrip journey takes about thirty minutes in each direction. Visitors who arrive by train are given an hour and a half to explore the mining camp.

READ MORE: Riding the Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Stearns, Kentucky

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