Kentucky Mountain Road Trip

We recently took a road trip in our home state, spending the nights in the lodges of several Kentucky State Parks along the way.

Looking up at stone arch, Natural Bridge, KY
Looking up at stone arch, Natural Bridge, KY

Our first stop was Natural Bridge where we met two of our friends. We hiked up to the natural stone arch, which was hard on our old knees, but well worth the effort. While we were trekking along the path in the valleys where sunlight cannot penetrate the canopy of ancient trees, I recalled the line from Patty Lovelace’s song You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,   “Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning, and the sun goes down about three in the day.” That evening the four of us had dinner in the Hemlock Lodge dining room with a view of the small lake and pool below.

Warning sign at Chimney Top Rock, Red River Gorge, KY
Warning sign at Chimney Top Rock, Red River Gorge, KY

The next day we drove over to Red River Gorge where we parked then walked the path that led to Chimney Top Rock.  Sadly there is a recent history of young people falling to their deaths when they try to leap across the narrow gap from one rock formation to the other.  Alcohol, poor judgment and wet slippery surfaces contribute to these tragedies.

View from balcony, Buckhorn Lake State Park, KY
View from balcony, Buckhorn Lake State Park, KY

We said goodbye to our friends in the parking lot, and headed in separate directions; they drove north and we headed east on Mountain Parkway toward Buckhorn Lake located in Perry County in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Buckhorn Lodge overlooks the beautiful man-made lake with a backdrop of blue-gray mountains. The view from our private balcony was awesome. We sat there in the evening watching the mist rise up from the valleys below and roll over the green mountains and rugged cliffs in the distance.   My husband Joe’s roots go deep in Appalachia. He was born in Perry County (NOTE: Anyone born in Kentucky will tell you the county where they originated, not the town.) and spent his childhood summers there with his grandparents and his many cousins. So his spirit is always rejuvenated by the beauty and ruggedness of the mountains of Kentucky.

Mother Goose House, Hazard, KY
Mother Goose House, Hazard, KY

We spent the day driving around, visiting familiar places that held memories for him.  We stopped in  Walkertown, just outside Hazard,  to get photos of the Mother Goose House. (You can click here to read the history of this unique structure.)  We stopped at a train trestle near the spot where Joe and his cousins jumped off into the North Fork of the Kentucky River below. His grandmother Polly’s house, which used to be across the road, has been long gone and now the two weeping willows that marked the spot are also gone.  Just a hillside of weeds and Kudzu are left.

We wound our way down country roads, up and down and around mountains, past the hollers where many Kentuckians still make their homes. We drove through Perry, Breathitt, Bell, Leslie, and Harlan Counties. We stopped in towns with names like Blackey,  Vicco,  Isom, Littcarr, Scuddy, Definace, and Happy.  Many were ghosts of what they once were, thriving coal camps. Vicco actually is an acronym for Virginia Iron Coal & Coke.

Our next stop was Kingdom Come State Park.  Joe wanted to check it out because he remembered his mother saying her family used to picnic there and he had never been there.  We never found Kingdom Come, even though I thought I had a good handle on its location based on the paper map of Kentucky I was studying.  It should have been somewhere in the vicinity of State Roads 1103 and 160 and US 119.  We took Route 7 off 15 just south of Hazard and then turned right onto 1103. This was a windy hilly barely-two-lane road that seemed to never end. My iPhone lost its cotton pickin mind when I tried to use the navigation app to find the elusive park.  Searching for service and trying to get her (cell phones that talk are always female) bearings each time the hills parted, allowing a signal to penetrate the foliage, drained her battery completely. And of course the car charger was in our other vehicle.

Our stint on 1103 seemed like an eternity and we began to refer to the area as “Deliverance Country”. We realized that we weren’t the only ones who had this notion when we passed an official looking  sign that read “Banjo Player’s Road.”   Since I cannot find this road name on Google Maps no matter how detailed I go, I am assuming the road sign was someone’s idea of a joke.

We passed craggy tree-covered slopes and sheer granite cliffs, rolling creeks and deep valleys  between ancient mountains.  We passed beautiful homes set on the sides of hills with gated driveways and doublewides with dirty pickup trucks and a scattering of assorted rusted metal objects in the yards were just a stone’s throw away from the mansions.   Rundown 60s ranches and old clapboard shacks on stilts could be seen deep in the hollers. Many of the homes we passed had freshly tilled garden plots along the flat creek beds with tiny green shoots poking out of the dark rich earth.  Such an eclectic mix of dwelling places on the same road made me wonder about the people who live here.

View of mountain-top removal in Applachia to extract coal
View of mountain-top removal in Appalachia

We drove through the town of Cumberland and headed west on 119 still watching for the brown information signs that indicate a park entrance.  Finally we gave up on Kingdom Come and headed toward Pineville.   Along this road we saw a few coal trucks barreling down the highway. We passed one strip-mine, but the coal industry’s newest and most efficient way of getting the coal out of Kentucky is mountaintop removal.  This process scars the land and destroys whole eco systems. And the biggest lie is that it creates “coal jobs.”  The removal of the earth and extraction of coal is all done with heavy machinery which uses much less manpower than previous methods of mining.  It is nothing like the back breaking work done in the bowels of the earth by Joe’s grandfather, who died young of black lung disease, and all the thousands of men like him.

In Pineville we turned south on US 25E toward Cumberland Gap National Park.  We stopped at the Visitor’s Center and checked out the displays showing the history of the Gap, starting with the Indian’s trail through the rugged mountains and forests to the land they referred to as Kain-tuk-eee.  This same route was taken by Daniel Boone and those who followed and became the gateway to the wilderness beyond the mountains.  Today you can walk a path to a lookout point in the park where you can see US 25E and the tunnel that cuts through the mountains, shortening the passage through the Gap, connecting Middlesboro, KY to Harrogate, TN and on a clear day you can see three states spread out below; Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.  Even though it was overcast and drizzling we walked to the lookout. Once there we were unable to see much due to the clouds rolling over the mountains and valleys below.  But we had been here before, so we did know what we were missing.

View of 3 states from lookout point Cumberland Gap National Park
View of 3 states at Cumberland Gap National Park
Plaque at Chained Rock, Pine Mountain , KY
Plaque at Chained Rock, Pine Mountain State Park, KY
Chain attached to rock overlooking town of Pineville, KY
Chain attached to rock overlooking town of Pineville, KY

Our next stop was   Pine Mountain State Park.  By the time we checked in at the Herndon J. Evans Lodge the rain was steady and hard, and hiking was out. So I’ll write what I recall about one of our earlier visits to Pine Mountain when we stayed in one of the rustic cabins near the trailheads. On that trip we did some hiking along several  of the many mountain trails; Fern Garden Trail and Honeymoon Falls Trail run together in my memory.  On one trail we stopped to rest near a mountain stream and saw a flock of wild turkeys gobbling and pecking on the forest floor as they made their way through the undergrowth. Honyemoon Falls were pretty cool, even though they weren’t much more than a small cascade of water falling to a pool below. And of course we took the trail to see Chained Rock, which we read about on the historical marker.

Back to the present: We had dinner in the lodge dining room with a fantastic mountain view and retired to our room to sit on the soggy balcony overlooking the misty forests. The next day we headed west and then north, towards home, stopping for breakfast at the first Cracker Barrel we came to. We had two sunny days and two rainy days on this trip, but despite the clouds we truly enjoyed our time in South Eastern Kentucky.   And as always we look forward to our next trip to the beautiful Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky.


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