Pining for the mountain: Pine Mountain is the go-to spot for Eastern Kentucky adventurists.
In the heart of coal country, straddling the border of Virginia and Kentucky, lays the outdoor playground of Pine Mountain. The 120-mile ridge was once a barrier to western expansion of the early American settlements – only the Cumberland River dissects the entire ridge. The area now provides some of the most scenic natural expanses in the East.
The ridge traverses three states. Because of the way it was formed, the ridge creates two distinctly different habitats on either side of its zenith.
“Everything to the east of the Pine Mountain Ridge is very wrinkled and low hills; everything to the west is more rolling, higher peaks,” says Elkhorn City, Ky., resident Steve Ruth.
Ruth should know. He grew up with Pine Mountain in his backyard and credits the area’s natural resources for keeping him around. Since 1994, Ruth has run www.russellfork.info, posting real-time information about the Russell Fork River and contributes to the Kentucky Tourism Adventure Blog.
“The primary thing that really keeps me here now is the Russell Fork River. I’m a kayaker, and I have one of the best rivers in the world in my backyard.”
The Russell Fork runs through Breaks Interstate Park at the northern end of Pine Mountain and is well known as one of the premier creek boating rivers in the U.S. Rafting is limited, but kayakers are drawn to the narrow river due to its fast and technical whitewater. Though the river can be run year-round as a Class VI+, the thrills get magnified in the fall. During four weeks in October, the Army Corps of Engineers lowers the Flanagan Dam from summer levels to winter levels. The water flows down the Pound River into the Russell Fork, transforming it from an already formidable creeking run into a Class V monster that draws paddlers from around the world.
“Folks come from literally all over the world. I’ve met folks from New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, other parts of South America, even folks coming in from South Africa.”
Despite its reputation for whitewater, the Russell Fork also provides opportunities for the more casual water enthusiast. Sandwiching the Class IV-V gorge section of the river are less intimidating Class II-III sections of whitewater with fantastic views perfect for beginner and intermediate paddlers. Because of the cold water that trickles out of the dam, the Pound and Russell Fork rivers have also developed into prime trout fisheries.
“The primary vibe has been boating culture, but we have a pretty strong fishing culture,” said Ruth. “Virginia stocks brown trout, Kentucky stocks rainbows, so there are a lot of trout in the river and we also have trophy smallmouth. The Virginia side of the fish and wildlife claim that they actually have trout reproducing. It’s a pretty popular river for fishing also.”
Feel like being an even more casual observer? Ruth suggests a short hike to one of the biggest rapids on the Russell Fork, deemed El Horrendo.
“El Horrendo, which is a Class V, totals about a 35-40 foot drop, but not all at once. The way the terrain works there it’s almost in a little amphitheater,” he said. “It’s a place where a lot of folks hang out and watch. There is actually a railroad that goes through the canyon and folks will hike the railroad to get to that spot and watch the carnage.”
Besides the river, the other main draw of the area is the stunning views along the abundant trails of Pine Mountain, including sections of the Pine Mountain Trail. While still under construction, eventually the Pine Mountain Trail will traverse the entire 120-mile ridge from Breaks Interstate Park in the north to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in the South. Birch Knob, the most northern section of the Pine Mountain Trail, is complete.
“There are great loop opportunities in the [Birch Knob] section. Once you get onto the ridge, you can get on the main trail and head south. Once you commit to that, you are pretty much committed to a 20-mile, multi-day hike. It’s 23 miles of trail from Elkhorn City to Jenkins and Pound Gap, right on the Virginia-Kentucky state line.”
For shorter day hikes, head to Breaks Interstate Park.
“The system of trails within the Breaks Park proper is a great system of trails, nothing longer than a day hike but really well maintained trails,” he said. “It is up and down; there is no flat. Even once you get up on the main ridge of the mountain, still the ridge is up and down, but you’ve got great views. You look one way, you’re looking out across Kentucky; you look the other way, you’re looking out across Virginia.”
Damascus, Va., holds the title of Trail Town, USA, but Elkhorn City, Ky., sits at a crossroads itself. The northern part of the Pine Mountain Trail is complete and runs through town outskirts. This trail will eventually run the length of the ridge and also become an important link in the Great Eastern Trail. The Great Eastern Trail is planned to parallel the A.T. and run from Alabama to New York.
Along with these foot paths, U.S. Bicycle Route 76 also runs through Elkhorn City. Originally part of the Bikecentennial ride across America from East to West to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the route stretches over 4,000 miles from Yorktown, Va., to Reedsport, Ore. Still used by ambitious cyclists each year, Elkhorn City sees between 500 and 1000 bikers come through a summer.
Read about a few climbing areas, that until recently, were not open to the public.