Finding Gems in Southern Coal Country

As I dipped my head into Bad Branch waterfall, the words of Martin Luther echoed through my mind: “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.” The cold water on my head was incredibly refreshing after a rather strenuous hike, but that act – actually stepping out of my comfort zone and doing it – and the fact that this particular day felt like a new beginning in many ways made the water on my head feel much more symbolic than a refreshing dip.

We started the morning a few miles down the road at Natural Tunnel State Park in Virginia. We were staying at a campground in the park, so it was by far our shortest commute to a trailhead to date. The Natural Tunnel is at the base of a gorge, so the trail is straight down via switchbacks and over 170 stairs. Going down was a snap! The tunnel was formed by a river eroding the limestone and is absolutely incredible. It houses active train tracks, which makes it even more impressive, I think, to know that 1) this small creek made a tunnel large enough for a train and 2) humans were able to find and use this tunnel while still keeping it breathtakingly beautiful.

I do not think either of us really knew what to expect because it is impossible to adequately convey the beauty of the gorge and tunnel in photos. We were lucky that we got there early enough in the morning that we had the entire viewing platform to ourselves for the 15–20 minutes we were there simply soaking in all 360° around us. I think Will and I could have stayed there all day (we really wanted to see a train come through!), however, we travel with an impatient toddler and dog, so we explored a little down the creek and then started the trek back up. Going down is always easier, but we sucked it up and forged our way up the hill in one push. Daisy made it to the top looking like she could keep going, but the rest of us were happy to be back at the truck.

Will and Little Bird had scoped out a beautiful drive on their adventures the day before, so from the Natural Tunnel, we set off for Kentucky. Somehow, we have managed to prolong autumn, catching fall colors near their prime in many of the places we have visited. This drive was no exception. We wound our way up to the top of Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky, where we ate lunch overlooking the valley below. From there, we made our way to Bad Branch Nature Preserve.

When we pulled into the parking lot, we were underwhelmed to say the least. It was pretty much a gravel patch along the road with a single sign indicating that the waterfall ahead is dangerous. We pressed on because we had read some great reviews about both the hike and the waterfall.

The hike to the falls was one of the more challenging hikes we have done. Between the rocks and leaves covering the trail, footing was important. We could hear the falls long before we could see them, but as we scrambled over the final rocks to the overlook above the falls, the strenuous hike was more than worth it.

We carefully edged our way over boulders to get to the base of the falls where we rested and took in the view. I am not one to forego my hiking poles in favor of actually getting my hands and rearend dirty, but I left one pole at the top to be more agile (yes, we remembered to get it on the way back up). Will immediately stated that he was going to make his way under the falls to cool off. I sat with Bird and Daisy thinking he was a little crazy. Sticking my head in freezing water is not something I typically do, so when he asked if I wanted to go when he got back to us, I laughed at him. And then I thought a little longer. And then I did it.

The past few months have been trying in many regards, but all of the stress and strain has been compounded by my mental health. For some time since Little Bird’s birth, I have been struggling with bouts of anxiety and depression. However, this day felt like a turning point. I had gotten a coveted good night’s sleep the night before, and I woke up with an energy and excitement for the day I had not experienced recently, and IT FELT GOOD. I think this is what prompted me to take that dip in the waterfall.

Stepping out of the waterfall, with my hair dripping wet, truly felt like a new beginning. I looked back to Will, Bird, and Daisy all watching me and felt an overwhelming joy. That joy and the words of Martin Luther carried me back to the truck in a way that felt transforming and renewing.

When we left the Natural Tunnel, we doubted that anything we saw the remainder of the day would compare in any way. We were wrong. Between the tunnel, the vistas from the mountain top overlook, to the waterfall, we experienced the beauty of this world in more ways than we could have imagined. If we are ever back in this area, these places will be high on our list to return to.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10

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