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Exploring Eastern Kentucky
Thomas R. Fletcher
"You can come here and do just about anything you want--within reason," guide Garry Chaney says, as we puff our way up a steep trail in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. That explains part of the region’s growing popularity. There is a feeling of freedom in the vast outdoors of Eastern Kentucky, covered in large part by the Daniel Boone National Forest, of which the Red River Gorge Geological Area is part.
The climb was tough, following the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail for a ways then scrambling the final distance using both hands and feet, up the rock face of the "Indian Staircase." The view was worth the exertion. Here we could see the deep gorge and astounding rock formations characteristic of the Red River Gorge Geological Area, a National Natural Landmark.
Eastern Kentucky–low, perhaps, on the vacation-destination radar of traveling America–awaits discovery. The steep hills have served to insulate and isolate, creating a special landscape and culture. Dotted with State Resort Parks, the Red River Gorge, and Daniel Boone National Forest–there’s plenty to attract the outdoor enthusiast: hiking, canoeing, fishing, kayaking, rock climbing, backpacking and camping. Walk through a section of forest with trees 600 years old, see the mixed mesophytic forest as Daniel Boone and other early American explorers would have seen (Lilly Cornett Woods–a unique remnant of virgin eastern forest). Hike a trail across Kentucky’s longest mountain, from the Virginia border to the Tennessee border, 110 miles through Kentucky’s only linear state park (Pine Mountain Trail). It’s all available in one of our nation’s most beautiful regions. The area draws college students and young urban professionals from several surrounding states. They come seeking a great outdoor experience in an area large enough to get away from it all and truly enjoy nature.
The town of Slade, Kentucky has become a center for outdoor adventure, with Natural Bridge State Resort Park, The Red River Gorge Geological, and the Daniel Boone National Forest, offering a plethora of options. Named for a natural stone arch 78 feet long and 65 feet high, Natural Bridge Resort State Park has much to offer: a lodge, cabins, two campgrounds, the Hemlock Dining Room--a 175-seat restaurant, swimming pool and other activities to keep one active. The natural bridge is well worth the 30 minute hike from the lodge to see it. Formed over eons as the softer, underlying sandstone eroded away, the arch is a larger version of many that can be found in the adjacent Red River Gorge Geological Area. For those who don’t wish to make the hike, the sky lift will get you there in style and ease (for just a few dollars). The park has a total of nine hiking trails, ranging in length from one-half to eight and a half miles in length. In addition to the park facilities, there are a number of cabin rentals in area. The quiet refuge of a rugged wooden cabin perched high on a mountain seems like a natural accommodation base for exploring the rugged terrain.
Formed from the eroded Cumberland Plateau the Red River Gorge Geological Area was congressionally designated a National Natural Landmark in 1975. According to brochures, the area contains anywhere from 100 to 175 natural stone arches (depending upon which brochure you read), more than any US location other than Arches National Park in Utah. The beauty of the gorge, its high sandstone cliffs and arches is also its danger. Each year visitors are injured or killed from a fall-–often due to carelessness or alcohol use. Within the 28,000-acre geological area is the 12, 646-acre Clifty Wilderness, congressionally designated in 1985. At the bottom of the gorge is the gorge’s creative force, the Red River. Relatively small in size, the Red River was Kentucky’s first National Wild and Scenic River. Though it can get a little low in the summer, the river is great for exploring by canoe or kayak. Area outfitters provide complete packages, including guides, equipment, and shuttles.
For those who want to try their hand at rock climbing, the nearby Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure Park offers the via ferrata method of climbing. One can show up, with no previous climbing experience and be scampering around the cliffs like a squirrel in a short while. The via ferrata offers a series of hand and foot holds on the cliff with a safety cable keeping the climber firmly attached to the rock face. Torrent Falls’ system wraps around a natural amphitheater, a horseshoe-shaped cove of red rock, offering four climb segments: beginners/family, moderate, advanced, and expert.
Kentucky State Parks offer a very reasonable family vacation value. In addition to Natural Bridge, I also visited Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park. This park is a true escape deep in the heart of the steep mountains (you have to want to get there). Buckhorn Lake was created as part of a US Army Corps of Engineers project on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River that became operational in 1961. The Kentucky Department of Parks leases the land from the Corps of Engineers for recreational purposes. The lake offers excellent fishing opportunities and boat rentals are available. The park offers a lodge, a restaurant, tennis courts, miniature golf course, volley ball, basketball, a marina, and hiking trails.
Located between Whitesburg and Hazard in Letcher County, Lilly Cornett Woods is a special place. "Probably the only surviving virgin tract of any size in the Cumberland Mountains," said Robert Watts, woods manager, as we hiked through a natural cathedral of towering trees unlike anything I’ve seen in the east. The 554-acre site contains 252 acres of old growth and more than 60 tree species. The plot is managed by Eastern Kentucky University and is a National Natural Landmark. The height and girth of the trees are amazing to behold. Near the crest of the hill, where the largest and oldest trees are, my mesmerized upward gaze was suddenly slammed back to the ground.
"Copperhead. Don’t move," manager/guide Robert called out. I froze and my eyes immediately began scouring the leaf litter around my feet. "There’s more of ‘em," I heard Robert say, just as I spotted a tangled mass of intertwined copperheads–that looked like one body with three heads. Off to the right of the three doing the twisted snake tango, was another large, cold, coiled mass–four in all. Needless to say, after that encounter I spent more time looking around my feet than gawking up into the towering tree tops.
The beautiful rugged mountains belie the austere lifestyle often borne by area residents. The mountains have historically been barriers–keeping others out, trapping those within. A taste of the harsh lifestyle can be witnessed in the town of Benham’s Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and Portal 31. The museum offers insight into the lives of those coal miners and their families, showing how they lived, and the dangers faced by those digging deep into the dark recesses under the Appalachians to extract the coal beneath. The museum is housed in what was the old company store (company owned store where miners and their families had to do their shopping–there was no other place), and contains four floors of exhibit space. The third floor of the museum is dedicated to Kentucky’s most famous coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn. The museum is managed by the Southeast Education Foundation. The most poignant exhibit I saw was one of notes written by miners trapped in a mine accident, deep in the dark abyss of the earth, facing certain death, notes scribbled on whatever scrap of paper was available.
"Dear wife and children: My time has come to die. I trust in Jesus. Teach the children to believe in Jesus...May God bless you all...until we meet to part no more.
PS My boys, never work in the mines."
While in Benham, check out the Benham School House Inn. Built as a school for coal camp children in 1926, the building was renovated and opened as a 32-room inn in the 1990's.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS