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Pine Mtn Trail
Little Shepherd Trail
Kingdom Come State Park
Lilly Cornett Woods
Kingdom Come Plateau
Cumberland Valley
Breaks Interstate Park
Pine Mountain State Park
Blanton State Forest
Bad Branch
Big South Fork National Recreation Area Kentucky State Forest Pine Mountain Settlement School Kentenia State Forest

Pine Mountain is the wildest expedition you can take in Kentucky. The mountain itself is unique. It's a 110 mile long ridge plus a high plateau to the north. Even though Pine Mountain is surrounded by the world's richest coal deposits, the ridge and plateau were formed by a geologic upthrust from deep within the earth when the continents collided, and do not contain enough coal to be profitably mined. And even though surrounding areas were heavily timbered between 1880 - 1920, the slopes of Pine Mountain were too steep, and the tight hollows of the plateau were too difficult to access. As a result, Pine Mountain and the plateau contain thousands of acres of some of America's oldest untouched forest. Trees here are 400 years old, meaning they were growing before the Puritans arrived on the Mayflower. They're huge, the closest thing to the Redwoods east of California. This is the greatest Mixed Mesophytic Forest in North America. It contains more species diversity than anywhere else on the continent, even the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. And that species diversity includes more than trees, ferns, wildflowers, mosses and lichen. It also includes Black Bear, Elk, Wildcat, Fox, Wolves, Owls, Hawks, Raccoon, Possum, Deer, and numerous species of Snake, Turtle, Frog, Toad, Salamander and Lizard.

Pine Mountain is really a whole region. It should be a national park. If it were, it would be one of the largest. Instead, it's a mosaic of two national forests, three state forests, three state parks, two wildlife management areas, a university managed research forest, two nature preserves, three wilderness areas, a scenic highway, a state trail, a national recreation area and an environmental education center. You can lose yourself in this maze. To do Pine Mountain justice on a single trip would require at least two weeks, and then you would only have time to sample each of its attractions. There's a lifetime of hiking and/or backpacking to do here. The photo at right shows Bad Branch Falls in 2639 acre Bad Branch State Nature Preserve.

You need to decide what part of Pine Mountain to explore. You can rent cabins, car camp or stay at fine rustic lodges at The Breaks Interstate Park or Pine Mountain State Park. You can car camp at Kingdom Come State Park or Big South Fork National Recreation Area. There are restaurants at the lodges at The Breaks and Pine Mountain State Parks. You can day hike anywhere on the mountain, but the best trails are in Pine Mountain and Kingdom Come State Parks and Blanton State Forest. There's lodging available at the Benham School House Inn in Benham (in the valley south of Kingdom Come State Park), Pine Mountain Settlement School on route 221 on the North Slope, and several motels in Harlan. You can also hike two miles in to Charit Creek Lodge over in the Big South Fork.

Pine Mountain rises from the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River in the East (in The Breaks Interstate Park) and runs to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area in the West. It's slightly tilted, so that it's highest in the East and gradually loses elevation toward the West. It drops off much further on its Southern side, because the Cumberland Valley is deep and wide. The mountainous plateau to the Northern side reduces the drop, but you're still looking way down on the peaks and ridges. There's white water rafting on both ends of Pine Mountain, on the Russell Fork and the Big South Fork. Driving on I-75 between Lexington and Knoxville, just as you cross the state line, you climb a high mountain. It takes three miles to the top and another three back down. That's the western flank of Pine Mountain. People mistakenly think that's Jellico Mountain, but Jellico Mountain is a separate peak off to the west. Between the Russell Fork and the Big South Fork, the only water gap in Pine Mountain is the Cumberland River cut through at Pineville, the original pioneer route into Kentucky.

Unlike most places, where the animals have learned to avoid humans, here their territory is so vast they have no fear. So you'll see them. They're curious, and they'll come to check you out. There are so many Elk and Bear Kentucky has reopened annual hunting seasons. You'll need to watch your food and be careful driving around bends or coming over the crests of hills. These are big animals, especially Elk, and they can seriously damage a vehicle. If your primary purpose in coming is to see Bear, spend your time at Kingdom Come State Park, the heart of Kentiucky's bear population. As you enter the park, you'll receive a pamphlet on how to deal with them. Remember this is their home territory. They live here and you're the visitor. If your primary interest is in seeing Elk, they're more common on the lower slopes, on the northern flanks, and in the clearings. There really isn't much forage in the deep forest, so Elk prefer the edges, especially clearings. A Raccoon has no salivary glands, so must wash every bite of food down with a drink. This means they live near a stream, pond or lake. Red Tailed Hawks fly faster and outspeed their prey, so they like high trees on the edge of large open spaces, either rock faces or meadows. Owls are quicker and outmaneuver their prey, so they tend to live in large trees deeper in the forest. Small piles of fur and bones on the ground indicate an owl's nest high above. Deer like to bed down in underbrush or thickets, where they can see but not be seen. Snakes and Lizards like open rock faces, where they can warm themselves in the Sun in the afternoon, since they're coldblooded. Pine Mountain does have poisonous snakes, but the two most beautifully patterned snakes on the mountain are the Milk and Corn Snakes, neither of which are poisonous. Milk Snakes have little fear of humans and like to come inside in late Fall and Winter for warmth, so if you're staying in a cabin or tent you may very well have one for a visitor. Don't kill it. Just escort it to the door. It will go peacefully. They're very intelligent and very beneficial.

To the North of Pine Mountain coming through Letcher and Harlan Counties is the Kingdom Come Plateau, seen at left looking down from along the Little Shepherd Trail on the mountain crest. From the mountain it looks like someone took a giant hoe and cut deep narrow furrows every which way. The peaks seen here are about 1000 feet lower than Pine Mountain itself. These tight, narrow, winding stream valleys are lined with roads, mostly unpaved (see below), but there are very few trails. When you set off on foot, you're in de facto wilderness. Both the Native Americans and early settlers used the streambeds and valley floors for main transportation routes, and used the hills for hunting and fishing and foraging for firewood, berries, mushrooms, nuts, ginseng, sassafrass, and whatever else they wanted. There were never enough of them living here at one time to establish trails. This means you have to take a good compass and topo map, or GPS unit, but it also means you can camp anywhere you like without worrying about privacy. Don't expect a phone or internet signal anywhere on the North side of the mountain. You're on your own.

Travel is always a challenge here. Even paved roads are narrow and winding, and most are not paved. They're gravel or mud or sometimes just creekbeds. A Jeep, compact SUV or high clearance pickup is advisable. Most of the time you won't see anyone else, but occasionally you'll meet someone coming the other way and have to squeeze by. This will mean each of you pulling the outside wheels off the road or creek bed. If you're driving a wide vehicle you'll be in trouble. Backing up until you come to a wide enough spot could take a few miles. Roads climbing the mountain inch along narrow ledges with no guard rails so there's no room to pull the outside wheels off. Subarus, Wranglers, Santa Fes and Toyota pickups work well. If you get in trouble, don't expect to call AAA. There are no phone signals here.
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