Kayaking Rocky Fork Creek - Home to the
3 Sisters Rock Formation & Great Beauty
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
The highlight of kayaking Rocky Fork Creek in Bainbridge is passing through a small cave-like rock formation on the water known as the Three Sisters and paddling beneath tall cliffs that seem so out of place in Ohio. The solitude and scenery of Highlands Nature Sanctuary, where the rock formation and cliffs are located, is some of the best in the state, and worth visiting even if you don’t kayak. However, if you are able, there may be no better way to experience this rural and Appalachian part of the state (and its unique geological features) than from the water.
Rocky Fork Creek starts as several small forks below Hillsboro that flow into Rocky Fork Lake. Exiting the lake as one large stream, it then flows east for roughly 15 miles before joining Paint Creek. West of Rocky Fork Lake, the creek is too narrow and shallow to kayak, but east of the lake, it is good to go.
Kayaking Rocky Fork Creek comes with several challenges. For starters, there are no outfitters who service the stream, so you’ll need to bring your own watercraft. Secondly, the launch and pull-out points are makeshift at best, so you have to be prepared to work for both.
Some people choose to start their trip at McCoppin’s Mill, located near the lake, but this requires portaging around two dams and crossing over at least one busy road. Other people choose to start at Barrett’s Mill, below the second dam. However, upon researching this kayak trip, one soon learns that a former parking lot used by kayakers at Barrett’s Mill is now on private property and has no trespassing signs posted.
With this in mind, in the summer of 2022, I discovered an option that allowed me to kayak the creek solo and that, in reality, passed through the best part of the stream anyway. It took a little effort, but it was well worth it.
I decided to kayak from Browning Road to U.S. Route 50—a distance of less than three miles, which took about two hours and required no portaging. Because I was by myself, I first drove to Browning Road to drop off my kayak. There’s a dirt parking area next to the bridge on the road and a small path that leads to the water. I dragged my kayak down the path and hid it in the brush as best I could. I then drove my truck to the bridge at U.S. Route 50 and parked it at an unofficial (but public) area on the northeast side of the bridge.
Right across the street from this parking area is Cave Road—a sparsely traveled gravel road that leads to the Highlands Nature Sanctuary and then curves around to meet up with Browning Road. This makes it an ideal path for returning to the kayak. The three-mile hike passes the Appalachian Forest Museum and lodge, as well as several caves that are located next to the road on private property. The only thing I was concerned about while walking on the road was stray dogs, but this turned out not to be a problem. It was a nice hike and I never did see another human being.
The Browning Road bridge is a good place to enter the water. It’s not too deep, but not too shallow either, and the water is flowing at a steady pace to get you started. You’ll immediately find yourself surrounded by wooded shorelines as the river gently winds toward the sanctuary. As you get closer, large boulders begin to appear along the sides of the stream, until, finally, a deep, rocky gorge begins to surround you, sometimes reaching 100 feet high on both sides! It is here that the fun really begins.
Sometimes, the rapids in the gorge are strong enough to pull you right along the sides of the cliff walls at a fun speed. Other times, the water is still, which gives you time to explore the unique rock formations and hidden crevasses in the area. There are places where you can literally hide inside of the rock formations along the stream.
This part of Rocky Fork Creek has the highest concentration of caves of any place in Ohio. However, almost all of them are off limits and protected because of the important bat populations that live in them. The Three Sisters rock formation is not a cave. It’s made from slump rock that fell from the cliffs to create a sort of tunnel on the water. When approaching the formation from the west by kayak, it appears as if you’re about to run into a stone wall, and the water looks like it somehow goes under the wall! However, just as you get close enough to see the light, the current rushes you right through an opening to the other side.
There is another similar effect later on down the stream. At one point, the river is flowing to the east when the stream comes, abruptly, to a cliff wall that appears to be the end of the line. However, the river then takes a 90 degree turn to the right and begins to flow south along the cliff wall (see below bottom). There’s an area to park your kayak and explore.
One of the most mesmerizing parts of the trip is toward the end of the gorge. On clear days, the sunlight reflects off of the surface of the water in the gorge and back onto the tops of the cliffs. This creates a visual experience (see video below) that looks similar to flames dancing in a fire or a kaleidoscope in motion.
After the Three Sisters (named by early Native Americans living in the region when Europeans arrived) and a series of cliff walls, the stream eventually re-enters a wooded corridor, but not before passing over the strongest set of rapids on the journey, which are class 2 and 3 at the most, so be careful.
By the time you reach the bridge at U.S. Route 50, the terrain is flat again and the stream begins to calm and fan out as it moves closer to its confluence with Paint Creek. This makes it easy to exit the river at the bridge.
For those who would like to kayak longer, simply continue east to Paint Creek. If you stay on Paint Creek long enough (about 8 miles), you’ll flow past the Seip Mound Earthworks, which, at one time, was one of the most important Native American sites in North America. Paint Creek, and Rocky Fork Creek, were both important waterways for these ancient Ohioans.
A kayak trip on Rocky Fork Creek is one of numerous recreational and leisurely activities to enjoy in this peaceful and scenic part of Ohio. There are hiking trails, unique cabins and camping options, two state parks (where more kayaking opportunities are available), awesome small towns (with Bainbridge standing out), some hidden treasure diners and shops and much more.
If you’d like to see the Three Sisters without kayaking, you’ll need to pay a small fee at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary museum, located at 7660 Cave Rd. This will get you access to 17 miles of hiking trails in the area, plus a visit to the museum. The sanctuary is owned by the non-profit Arc of Appalachia and encompasses more than 3,000 acres. The sanctuary is known for its superb hiking trails, overnight nature retreats, wealth of botanical diversity and spectacular spring wildflower displays, which they consider some of the best in the eastern United States. They also have unique lodging options, such as domes and cabins located on the cliff tops. The whole place is worth researching at arcofappalachia.org.
Whether by kayak or on foot, exploring Rocky Fork Creek is a close-to-home, rewarding adventure.