Riding the Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Kentucky

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
June 17, 2013
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
June 17th, 2013
Share story

A gentle breeze blows through the open air cars as the diesel-electric locomotive slowly made its way along the Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad. It’s slow going through the lush forest with views of a stream nearby. A little less than an hour after leaving the station in Stearns, Kentucky we arrive at our destination: the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

The Big South Fork Scenic Railway is a private tourist attraction in the small Kentucky town of Stearns. Stearns was once the headquarters for the railroad through the area that was vital for moving coal across the country. Today the small town has the McCreary County Museum, a few gift shops and eateries, and the train station.

The locomotive and cars at the train station on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, a 14-mile scenic trip along the old Stearns Coal & Lumber Company railroad tracks to the Blue Heron Mining Camp, in Stearns, KY on Monday, May 27, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

The diesel-electric locomotive at the train depot in Stearns. Visitors can buy tickets to ride in the cab with the engineer.

Live music was playing in the lobby for about half an hour as the guests meandered around the train station. Tickets range from $15.50 for children to $25.25 for adults (click here to view fares for all the train adventures). Soon enough a conductor was shouting the familiar phrase heard by thousands of commuters decades ago, now reserved for special moments in period films: “All aboard!”

The train cars have large windows left open on most days (the train leaves rain or shine) so passengers can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the adventure. The 14-mile round trip adventure takes about three hours to return to the station. Along the way the train passes through narrow canyons carved out long ago when the rail was first laid, a short tunnel, and then high above a quiet mountain stream.

View along the tracks on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, a 14-mile scenic trip along the old Stearns Coal & Lumber Company railroad tracks to the Blue Heron Mining Camp, in Stearns, KY on Monday, May 27, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

The view from the back of the train during the return to the depot in Stearns.

About an hour after the train leaves the station it crosses over a long bridge and pulled into the Blue Heron Mining Camp. This National Park Service property is part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area that stretches across Kentucky and Tennessee. Visitors are allowed to disembark the train and given an hour to explore the former coal mining camp.

The mining camp stretches out across the side of the mountain and across a massive bridge over the river. It’s almost impossible to see everything with just an hour, but visitors can always drive back to the mining camp on their own time. Instead, take a self-guided tour through the history of the camp to see most of the camp and return to the Train Depot.

View standing underneath the hopper at the Blue Heron Mining Camp in Stearns, KY on Monday, May 27, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette The Blue Heron Mining Camp is located about 10 miles outside Stearns. Also known as Mine 18, it was operated by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company from 1937 - 1962. Today the camp is open to the public and managed by the National Park Service as part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

The massive Tipple building is where the coal was sorted and deposited into the train cars.

Walk underneath the massive Tipple and across the parking lot to find a large concession stand with burgers and hotdogs. The covered shelter is a good place to duck out of the rain if necessary. Just behind the concession stand is an old school house and the beginning a trail.

The trail climbs up the side of the mountain at a gradual pace to the bridge high overhead. Visitors can look down into the massive Tipple from the bridge and then walk across about 1/3 of the bridge (the other end was a coal mine). Returning to the trail a mine entrance is on the right. Several structures along the trail from this point are built to resemble their historical counterparts along with cutouts and history about the camp.

View looking across the bridge at the Blue Heron Mining Camp in Stearns, KY on Monday, May 27, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette The Blue Heron Mining Camp is located about 10 miles outside Stearns. Also known as Mine 18, it was operated by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company from 1937 - 1962. Today the camp is open to the public and managed by the National Park Service as part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Not for the weak of heart; the view from the top of the historic O&W Bridge at the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

The trail leads back to the Train Depot. The leisure walk takes about 40 minutes so including time at the concession stand you should arrive just in time for the departure. The return on the train is just as exciting as the initial journey, if not more so; the train moves in reverse so those at the rear car will have the best view now.

Three hours after leaving the train returns to the depot in Stearns, but the adventure isn’t necessarily over yet. Ticket holders are treated to free admission at the McCreary County Museum; the museum is located inside a building that once served as the headquarters for the railway, general store, post office, and bank.

If you would like to view more photos from Stearns, Kentucky, please visit my photography site at photography.southeasterntraveler.com/Kentucky/Stearns/

If you would like to view more photos from the Big South Fork NRRA, please visit my photography site at photography.southeasterntraveler.com/National-Parks/Big-South-Fork-NRA/

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