Photos by Brett Bentley
In January, the mountains of Kentucky are far greener than one would expect. At the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains, Pine Mountain retains its color in the thickets of rhododendron, swaths of numerous pine species and eastern hemlock, cascades of fern, and smudges of bright moss on outcrops of sandstone. Spanning the border of Kentucky and Virginia, the Pine Mountain Trail contains all these various shades of green, and more.
On this particular winter day, the air is actually warm, hovering in the mid-50s, when Brett Bentley leads a tour up the Highland section of the trail toward High Rock, with its commanding view of two states’ worth of mountains, as well as the Cumberland River valley. Starting from a trailhead on U.S. 119, the trail quickly gains elevation, climbing a flight of wooden steps to a gravel road, and passing a radio tower before coming to a metal gate, on which is welded the shape of a flamingo. In less than half a mile, the trail descends into deep woods to a wooden camping shelter named, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Flamingo Shelter. In another third of a mile, the trail reaches another staircase and a sign-in box and, soon after that, a view of Eagle Arch, clearly visible on the cliff below the trail now that the leafy cover is down.
Beyond that, the trail ascends and descends, following the bright green blazes painted on a wide variety of trees, comprising what is known as a mesophytic forest that extends over the 110-mile-long ridge known as Pine Mountain. Bear and coyote scat dots the trail, and expansive views extend from Blueberry Cliff to AmeriCorps Cliff (named in honor of the volunteer group that put in so much effort clearing storm damage at this point in the trail), each standing at nearly 2,800 feet above sea level.
The current trail, Bentley explains, comprises 45 miles of a still-being-constructed tread that eventually will become part of what is known as the Great Eastern Trail (GET), a joint project of the Great Eastern Trail Association and the American Hiking Society that will piece together existing and newly constructed trails to build a path extending from northern Alabama to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Eventually, the Pine Mountain section will extend about 115 miles through Kentucky and Virginia—from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park to the Breaks Interstate Park. The part of the trail Bentley leads us on today passes points of interest with colorful names such as Lemon Squeezer, Slip and Slide Rock, and Lost John Gap, and also historical sites, including the Old Meade Homeplace and Indian Grave Gap. Mayking Knob, on this stretch of trail, is the highest point at 3,200 feet.
One need stop only a moment to take in the enormity of this isolated landform. Here, you can actually get a sense of silence, even with the occasional bird song and hum of wind in the pines. The value lies, at least in part, in the mountain’s peacefulness. “Pine Mountain is important to me,” explains Bentley, “because it affords me the opportunity to get into the wilderness, to relax, to be active, and to photograph quintessential Appalachian Mountain vistas.”
What sets Pine Mountain apart from the surrounding area, scarred by the legacy of coal mining, is its ruggedness. The mountain, formed by a geologic upthrust that left it standing among some of the world’s richest coal deposits, is itself devoid of coal, or at least enough coal to make mining profitable. Secondly, the steep slopes and cavernous ravines make logging too difficult to attempt, leaving much of the mountain covered with trees up to 400 years old. This makes for an area dense in diversity—not just of trees, wildflowers, ferns, mosses and lichens, but also of animals. Black bear, elk, flying squirrels, foxes and bobcats call Pine Mountain home, as well as a variety of snakes, raptors and turtles. That home stretches from the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River in Virginia to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area in Tennessee, making for an enormous wildlife corridor.
In fact, the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail is in a partnership with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust to protect and maintain this long, forested corridor and connect other protected areas to maintain a contiguous migratory passageway for animals—and plants—stretching from Tennessee through Kentucky to Virginia. In this unprecedented ecological project, the trust also partners with the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to identify lands for protection, negotiate the purchase of adjoining lands from property owners, and craft and implement a stewardship plan. As the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail website claims, “This is the largest landscape-level project ever undertaken in Kentucky.”
The Great Eastern Trail is no less ambitious. Like the Appalachian Trail, the GET is to be built entirely by volunteer effort and eventually will stretch some 1,800 miles across nine states. Thomas Johnson, president of the Great Eastern Trail Association, says that the stretch of trail along Pine Mountain is a key link in the entire GET system. “Without it, we would have no trail,” Johnson says. “It is among the finest parts of the GET.”
Close to home, these projects would preserve an ecological legacy on a mountain that is not a federally designated wilderness area. Pine Mountain, in the course of its 110 miles, is crossed by only six roads and grows wild with Pogonia, a type of orchid, and frostweed, which, when winter comes, exudes water from its stem that freezes into ribbons of frost that defy reality. The Bad Branch Nature Preserve, on the south face of Pine Mountain, is of particular interest.
“When I took an interest in landscape photography, one of the first places I went was the Bad Branch Nature Preserve,” says Bentley. “It is an amazing place, and it led me to do more research on Pine Mountain.” The 435 acres of the preserve, dedicated in 1985, can be accessed directly from the Highland section of the Pine Mountain Trail. From the ridge, a trail drops into the Bad Branch Gorge, a forested ravine that features a 60-foot waterfall pouring over a sandstone cliff. The 2,639-acre preserve—which has been expanded to include the Presley House Branch watershed—is not only a refuge for one of Kentucky’s largest concentrations of rare species, but also is home to the state’s only nesting pair of Corvus corax—the raven.
Bad Branch is itself one of nine designated Kentucky Wild Rivers, a program established by the Kentucky Wild Rivers Act of 1972. Though the area around Bad Branch was logged in the 1940s, the cold, clear water of Bad Branch passes through old-growth hemlocks as it drops more than 1,000 feet in only 3 miles before emptying into the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River. The Nature Conservancy partners with the state nature preserves agency to maintain the ecology of Bad Branch and works to protect numerous species: trees such as tulip poplar, sweet birch, yellow birch, basswood, buckeye and American beech; and understory trees, including umbrella magnolia, sweet pepperbush, flowering dogwood and rosebay rhododendron.
The rare plants are sometimes exceedingly rare. According to the Nature Conservancy’s website: “The cold mountain stream and narrow, shaded gorges help to maintain the necessary conditions to support a large assemblage of species more typical of northern climates or higher elevations. Among these rare species are small enchanter’s nightshade, Fraser’s sedge, painted trillium,
longtail shrew and the federally rare blackside dace … One state endemic fish species, the Arrow darter, finds a home in the fast-flowing water.”
But both Bad Branch and Pine Mountain, as well as many other places in Kentucky, including the Red River Gorge, also suffer from invasive species. Here, it is the wooly adelgid, an insect that is slowly but surely destroying the hemlock stands of the South. Native to East Asia, it feeds by sucking sap from hemlocks. Affected trees are evident by the white, cotton-like egg sacs that cling to the underside of the branches. As many as 300 eggs are laid in the sacs.
Part of the job of protecting Bad Branch and, by extension, Pine Mountain, falls on the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. “In my opinion, I think both are invaluable to the future of southeastern Kentucky and are of great value to the state as well,” says Kyle L. Napier, the organization’s southeastern regional nature preserves manager. “We have treated around 27,000 trees on Pine Mountain since 2008. Bad Branch has had a total of around 14,000 trees treated. Of course, due to manpower and funding, it is not feasible to treat all areas, so trails and streams have been our top priorities. Many trees have undergone a second treatment during 2012-2013. I personally don’t know how all this is going to turn out in the long run, but currently the treatments are working at about a 99 percent success rate. However, this is not the silver bullet because the chemical only lasts something like three to five years in the trees.
“The protection of Pine Mountain as a whole,” Napier continues, “would allow our state to have a true wilderness area. This may prove to be very valuable as a major tourist attraction that should be protected from any intrusive recreational activities. In other words, why diminish or destroy the very natural resource that has the best chance of attracting people to the area in the first place?”
If Pine Mountain is fully protected, and with help from the various organizations working to complete its trail system, its potential as a tourist attraction may ultimately save it—and possibly bring new life to Kentucky’s Appalachia region. It’s notable that the completed trail will link several Kentucky parks, themselves attractions: Pine Mountain State Park, Kingdom Come State Park and the Breaks Interstate Park.
At the southern end of the proposed trail lies Pine Mountain’s namesake state park. Chained Rock, Honeymoon Falls, and a host of cabins and rooms at the big lodge make this an ideal place to camp out while exploring the area.
At the northern end of the trail is the Breaks Interstate Park. This joint park, administered by both Kentucky and Virginia, features the 1,000-foot gorge carved out by the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River. The gorge is named the Breaks because it is a break, a natural pass, in Pine Mountain and is, according to park officials, the biggest canyon east of the Mississippi—the “Grand Canyon of the South.” The 4,600-acre park has, as of now, relatively few trails, but the Pine Mountain Trail offers access to the sights of the Breaks, including the 600-foot sandstone Towers, Pinnacle Rock, the River Trail and several overlooks of the Russell Fork.
From the Russell Fork Trailhead in the Breaks Interstate Park, the second major stretch of the Pine Mountain Trail, the other currently open to foot traffic, begins. The Birch Knob section travels nearly 26 miles over Pine Mountain to U.S. 23 at Pound Gap, passing Birch Knob at the halfway point, the highest point on this section, whose viewing platform is accessible by a large metal staircase. This section traverses everything from high, dry ridgeline to upland bogs that represent the remnants of abandoned homesteads from the 19th century. Black bears are reportedly common on this part of the mountain.
The Birch Knob section, which features an overlook of Elkhorn City, a cave, the Natural Bridge Ledge, Goldfish Pond and a new camping shelter, complete with bear pole, has seen a lot of volunteer work. University of Pikeville medical students helped construct and maintain the trail last summer. In one gap, volunteers even found breastworks of fieldstone, likely built by Confederate troops. Storm damage has been cleared in large part from this section of trail, but there is more work to be done.
Where the Birch Knob Trail ends at U.S. 23, the Highland section continues on to U.S. 119, but past that point is where the big work lies. South of 119, no trail has been constructed, though hikers can continue along the Little Shepherd Trail, a one-lane paved road, for approximately 14 miles to Kingdom Come State Park. At 2,700 feet, this state park lies high on Pine Mountain and encompasses 1,283 acres of wilderness. The sights are numerous: Raven Rock is perhaps the most famed, being a 290-foot sandstone outcrop jutting from the mountain at a 45-degree angle, as well as Log Rock, a natural sandstone bridge. The Little Shepherd Trail continues another 24 miles to U.S. 421 at the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
The future of Pine Mountain, as well as its value to Kentuckians, is as clear as the view on a cloudless day from High Rock itself. If the turkey our hiking party flushed into flight was any indication, the legacy bound in this 100-plus-mile ridge will carry on as a wilderness far into the future.
If you go …
Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail
Forty-two miles of the trail—designated in two sections: Birch Knob and Highland—are currently open, stretching from the Breaks Interstate Park to U.S. 119 near Whitesburg. When completed, the trail will span traverse approximately 115 miles from Pike County crossing the counties of Letcher, Harlan and Bell to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.