Hiking The Beautiful Tioga Falls, Emmert Falls & Saunders Springs Loop
With so many waterfalls along the eastern side of Kentucky, it’s easy to forget the rest of the state when you’re chasing waterfalls. This summer, head to the Tioga Falls & Fort Knox region! Tioga Falls is one of the largest waterfalls outside of Louisville, in the Western portion of Kentucky. Standing tall and proud at 130 feet with 5 cascades down the side of a hill in Westpoint, it’s one of our favorite day trips from Louisville!
What most people don’t know though is there are a few other waterfalls, swimming locations, and great nature preserves in the area. In this post, we’ll explore Tioga Falls, Bridges To The Past, Otter Creek Recreation Area, Buttermilk Falls, Emmert Falls, and Saunders Springs. You can spend an entire weekend doing what we’ve affectionately dubbed the Tioga Falls Loop!
Starting with the most well-known trail in the area is the 1.9-mile loop for Tioga Falls. Located in Westpoint Kentucky, it’s about 9 miles north of Fort Knox. When people look up the biggest waterfall in Louisville, it’s typically what pops up!
How To Get To the Tioga Falls Parking Lot
If you’re traveling on I-65 South, or North of Shephersdville going north on I-65, you’ll need to get off on I-265 West. If you’re traveling north on I-65 from the South past Shepherdsville – you’ll need to get off on KY-44 going East. Whichever way you come from – you’ll want to get off on 31W going South towards Fort Knox. Then take a left on Louisville Nashville Turnpike (right before the River of Life Gospel Church) and continue to the parking area.
P.S. For another great Louisville waterfall- get our guide for Fairmount Falls here! Fairmount Falls is actually taller than Tioga Falls and much less traveled. The park only allows three cars of visitors a day and you have to reserve your spot. If you’re coming from Louisville to chase waterfalls, it’s definitely a great place to start!
The Tioga Falls TrailHead
When you get to the parking lot – keep in mind that the Tioga Falls trail has since gotten a detour from the original trail. This area is maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers and there is some work being done on a building further away from the parking area. If you go to the little information pavilion, you’ll notice the entrance for the Tioga Falls trail.
Once you start this trail – you’ll walk for about 5 minutes before being diverted back to Railroad Trestle Road. (See the first picture for the Tioga Falls Trail Detour sign. After you start walking on Railroad Trestle Road, you’ll pass a church on the right, and eventually the Army Corps of Engineers building that’s being refinished. Keep walking past this building and you’ll start to see a trail that leads up to the left into the forest. (There is a sign there as well!)
Alternatively, you can walk down the road from the parking lot, to begin with. You’ll still take the trail to the left past the Army Corps of Engineers building. After turning left, you’ll go for a short but strenuous uphill hike before reaching a railroad crossing. (Stop a take a look around here! The views are really pretty and especially at dusk or in the fall!)
What To Expect on Tioga Falls Trail
Once you start hiking past the railroad tracks, the actual trail can be strenuous at times and is not handicap accessible. There are elevation changes and one particularly steep hill but after that, the hike is pretty easy. Once you get to the falls – be prepared to get a little wet as you cross over streams at the bottom and climb to the true base of the falls (where Tioga Creek starts)! You’ll find many people slinging up hammocks and hanging out in this area. It’s also popular for kids to take off their shoes and scamper around the area. We highly suggest bringing water shoes in the summer and waterproof hiking boots in the winter!!
Remember: You cannot climb up the falls!! It’s protected!
The falls themselves are a 130-foot cascade down the hillside with multiple split points. You’ll notice at the very top that there is a place where the waterfall splits before rejoining on the next crest. The main waterfall includes only the 5 crests to your left when you reach the end of the trail. Even though those are the official falls, the water continues to flow all the way down a few more crests to the start of the Tioga Creek.
After you’re done looking at the falls, you can also walk down the creek a little before heading back up the Tioga Falls trail. We’ll forewarn you: be prepared for heavy crowds if you go on a pretty weekend!!
Bridges To The Past Trail
Starting from the same parking lot as Tioga Falls, Bridges To The Past Trail takes you on an easy 2.3-mile paved trail. This trail was one of our favorites for the day even though we don’t usually like paved trails! Getting to see the historical bridges from the 1800s. It was famously used for stagecoaches to cross for the military during the civil war!
Along the two-mile trail, you’ll see the ruins of an old mill to the right and a cave about a mile up on the left. Both landmarks are only steps away from the main trail and clearly marked with park signs.
What we loved about the Bridges to the past trail is how beautiful and full of flowers it was before the spring bloom had really even started. If you’re planning on doing this trail sometime, we highly recommend that you come in the spring after a rainstorm. At that point, the water will be flowing more heavily throughout the stream and under the bridges for a more picturesque view. (When we went it was more dry but still beautiful!)
**This trail closes sometimes for military training and it’s well posted. Trespassing during these times will result in heavy fines!
Otter Creek Recreation Area
Home to two incredible trails, the Otter Creek Recreation Area is a spectacular set of trails you can’t miss. To enter the preserve is $3 a person and permits are available online here. This area is known for its lush wildlife and bald eagle sightings!
- Otter Creek Trail: This is the best trail in the park! Known for three different destinations along the trail, you can’t miss this one if you’re coming for the day. Major points of interest on this trail are the Blue Hole, Eagle’s Nest Overlook and Morgan’s Cave!
Duration: 8.6 Miles
Difficulty: 5 (0-10 scale)
- Valley Overlook Trail: Crossing over Otter Creek Trail around the 1.5 mile mark, and contining to the Valley Overlook around mile 3. This trail doesn’t overlook the river – but the Valley Overlook would be a great place to take in Kentucky’s fall foliage!
Duration: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: 5 (0-10 scale)
The biggest draw for the Otter Creek Recreation area is that you can go swimming in multiple locations! Not only are there spots in the creeks that are deep enough for a splash, but the sandy beaches on short sections of the Ohio River are almost entirely secluded. There will be very few people hiking the full trail to get to the beach if you’re looking for a little time in the sun!
Emmert Falls & BUttermilk Falls
If you’ve ever heard of this area simply known as ‘Buttermilk Falls’, don’t worry! You’re still in the right place. This collection of waterfalls has two names! After visiting the gorgeous Otter Creek Recreation Area, this trail is a continuation of more of the stunning forest area along the Ohio River.
How To Get To The Emmert Falls & Buttermilk Falls Trailhead
When you start driving to this trailhead- you may think you’re in the wrong place. After a 19 minute drive from Otter Creek Recreation Area, your directions will have you drive through the tiny town of Brandenburg. As you turn right down River Road, you’ll pass the Confederate Veterans Monument. Keep going until you see a small parking lot up the road on the right.
This parking lot is the start of the 1-mile paved trail walking you through a collection of small waterfalls collectively known as Buttermilk Falls!
As you hike this trail, the first mile is a relatively easy paved trail great for anyone in a wheelchair! There are also plenty of picnic tables to stop at to enjoy a leisurely afternoon in the park.
To continue on to Emmert Falls, follow the signs for Emmert Falls that lead up to the right away from the picnic area.
**Hiking Note: If you’re only interested in seeing Emmert Falls, and skipping the picnic area and bridges – about 1.2 miles in there is a spur trail. This trail is a little more difficult, but it takes you up to the right past the Buttermilk falls picnic area!
The Emmert Falls Pavilion will be the first thing you see – and past that Emmert Falls. At about 20-feet tall – this gently cascading waterfall and the accompanying pavilion are a surprising find! We didn’t realize when we started the trail that there would be such a peaceful spot. We highly recommend stopping and enjoying a quiet moment here!
Saunder’s Sprngs Nature Preserve
Located on the Fort Knox Military Reservation is Saunder’s Spring Nature Preserve. This preserve is adjacent to the Tioga Falls military reservation and only about 16 minutes back and forth!
What makes Saunder’s Springs so special is the surprising tranquility of the entire preserve. Hikers will see tons of deer, turtles, squirrels, owls, etc. in the 26-acre park. If you’ve hiked anywhere near Louisville – you know that it’s not entirely common! The hustle and bustle of the city have the tendency to push out wildlife.
Hiking Trails at Saunders Springs
While we love doing the long trail to see the most of the park – you can break it up into smaller sections. (Some are handicap accessible!) There are 8 trails listed on the park’s website: The Wilderness Trail, the Canyon Trail, Eagle Trail, Scout Trail, Stream Trail, Fern Trail, Tranquility Trail, and The Lake Trail. While it may seem hard to accomplish them all, the Saunder’s Springs Reservoir Loop will take you to see most of the park. You’ll cross bridges, see great views of a gorge, and walk around the lake. (Our dog Thunder loves to swim in this lake!)
Trail: Saunder’s Springs Nature Preserve Loop
Duration: 6.2 miles
After you’re done thoroughly enjoying the trails, we highly recommend stopping for a picnic! The pavilion area in the park has plenty of awesome spaces to sit down by the creeks, lay out a blanket and spend a relaxing afternoon. You can also walk and see the three colonial cabins preserved on site. The Raine, Stovall, and Atcher cabins are from the 1800s!
P.S. If you’ve ever watched the movie Bridesmaids, do you remember that scene where on the plane where Kristin Wiig starts freaking out about seeing a colonial woman churning butter on the wing of their plane? That’s all we could think about when we saw the cabins for some reason and it still makes us laugh!
The Best REstaurants Around Tioga Falls
If you’re staying in Louisville, check out all of our favorite Louisville restaurant posts! You may not know this about us yet but we love to try new places and consider ourselves Louisville foodies.
- The Best Tacos in Louisville
- 23 Best Seafood Restaurants in Louisville
- The Best Keto Friendly & Healthy Restaurants in Louisville
For more around the Radcliff, Etown & Fort Knox area, there are a few great local restaurants!
- Flywheel Brewing – The newest kid on the block with delicious craft brews.
Address: 218 S Mulberry Street #103, Elizabethtown, Kentucky 42701
- Vibe Coffee – Right in the historic downtown Elizabethtown (Etown) square.
Address: 34 Public Square, Elizabethtown, KY 42701
- El Molino Mexican Restaurant – Great patio and good margaritas.
Address: 440 S Dixie Blvd, Radcliff, KY 40160
- Song’s Kitchen – A great Korean restaurnt with healthy options.
Address: 661 Knox Blvd, Radcliff, KY 40160
Where To Stay Around Tioga Falls
If you don’t live near any of these locations, you can always head towards Louisville and stay in one of the amazing hotels here. Louisville is only about 45 minutes to an hour from Tioga Falls and most of the other destinations. To find a Louisville hotel, enter your travel dates in the Booking.com widget below for the best rates!
Nearby Camping Sites
If you’re from out of town and don’t want to add more driving to your trip – you can stay in a few campsites that are centrally located near Tioga Falls and the surrounding hikes!
- Otter Creek Recreation Area – Multiple different types of campsites availble including RVs, tent camping and equestrian camping. For tent camping there is a $12 nightly rate.
- Camp Carlson Army Recreational Area – Only availble for active duty military, retired military, National Guard, Reserves and DoD Civilians! This 65 acre campground has a 25-acre lake for fishing, cabins and tent camping sites for $8.
Because there aren’t many camping sites – we highly recommend getting a reservation early for the more popular times of the year. (The fall is when we could see that it would be most popular!)
The Best Time To Hike Tioga Falls & Surrounding Trails
If you’re not into planning, your spontaneous trip will be best after a heavy rainstorm! The flow of all waterfalls is most spectacular after it rains. If you’re looking at the best time of year to go – we have a few different favorites. The spring for Kentucky flowers, the summer to go swimming, and the fall for the autumn foliage. (Buttermilk Falls and Emmert Falls would be particularly beautiful in the fall!!) Even in the winter, waterfalls can be beautiful and Tioga Falls is no exception. This loop has something to offer all year round!
The entire trip driving time is less than one hour when you reach your initial destination. Once you include the hikes, however, you’ll probably need at least a few days to do them all! Some of these trails are longer and more strenuous, like the 8.6-mile Otter Creek Loop. You’ll want to rest up between so make sure you book your campsite early!
Looking for more hiking destinations around Kentucky? Here are a few of our favorite guides:
- 12 Prettiest Day Trips from Louisville (Hiking at 7 locations!)
- Top 10 Summer Hikes in Kentucky
- 50 Fun Things To Do in Lexington, Kentucky (Hiking, distilleries, UK Basketball and more!)
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Until next time friends,
Tioga Falls seems like the ultimate summer hiking destination. So many beautiful pictures too! Loved reading this, need to start making plans for next summer and this guide will come in handy
This sounds epic! What a fun adventure. And, there photos are so beautiful
This is such a thorough post! As someone who gets lost even with GPS and a map, I really appreciate the intricate directions you’ve given.
I always appreciate having the best places to eat mentioned! Even when you spend the day in nature 🙂
I have never been to Kentucky and I am a sucker for waterfalls. I subscribed to your summer Kentucky bucket list. Thinking next summer’s road trip may have to take me through there!
Evan and ShelbyMonica Champagne
You will love it! we live here and it’s the undiscovered gem of this country!
Go Wander Wild
I loved reading about your experience in Kentucky. Your descriptions really made it come alive for me. Happy travels!