Breaks Interstate Park, VA/KY

We arrived to Breaks Interstate rather late in the day on Monday, August 8 (around 5PM after stops for groceries, fuel, and to change drivers), and set up everything except the screened-in porch. 

Elk statue in Elkhorn, KY

Kerry & Gloria, with sweet little Lindy-Lee, were already here, and we sat down with them for a wind-down after the long drive. 

Did a bit more set-up, had dinner, and hit the hay early.

Had a visitor, first on the side of Roomba, then (below) on the awning roof.

On Tuesday, we got up early and enjoyed 70 degrees on a breezy morning. We sat a bit too long, basking in the cool before getting on our bikes at the hottest time of the day, to ride through the Park’s camping loops. Frankly, we were wondering if there was a better set up for us, as the bath house here in loop A is very old and quite tattered. They’re trying to keep it clean, but after a time, infrastructure simply needs replacing. That is the case here, so if anyone reading this is considering reserving a site, look to loops B, C, or D, which all have more modern bathhouses. Due to a variety of factors including not particularly wanting to set up next to diesel bus RVs, we elected to stick where we landed, in site #38.

But we carried on with our cycling, back toward the main parts of the Park, where there is a water park (closed except on weekends) a lodge and conference center with a restaurant (all open and where a person can find wifi), and a visitor center (closed except on weekends). Just before we passed the equestrian center, we noticed next to the road a couple of escapees from the paddocks and as we went past the office, alerted the folks that two horses were loose. They knew, and were on their way to fetch them back.

We paused at the conference center for a restroom break and I put some sunscreen on, and we walked out onto the restaurant’s porch where visible is part of the enormous gorge on which the Park is situated. 

Here’s the geologic run-down on what helps make this area the amazing place it is:

300+ million years ago, the North African and American continents collided during the Alleghanian Orogeny (mountain-building event) resulting in the formation of the Appalachian Mountains. The landscape here is the result of 250 million years of erosion after the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea.

We were standing at the northeastern terminus of Pine Mountain overlooking Russell Fork Gorge—The Breaks. Pine Mountain extends for 125 miles southwest and The Breaks is one of only three water gaps in this northwestern-most linear ridge of the Appalachians. Russell Fork preferentially eroded broken and fractured rocks along the Russell Fork Fault, which here intersects the Pine Mountain Fault, the leading fault of the Pine Mountain Overthrust Block, thus appearing to “break” through Pine Mountain.
The Virginia and Kentucky coalfields lie south and north, respectively. The Virginia-Kentucky border follows the crest of Pine Mountain, but to the northeast from the point at which we stood is simply a line 45 degrees from due north to the West Virginia border. The dominant rock type there is durable sandstone, which forms the spectacular cliffs of the gorge. Gentler slopes are underlaid by softer siltstone, shale, and coal seams.
Native Americans used the gorge and adjacent gaps for passage for 10,000 years to access hunting, foraging, nut gathering, and weir-trap fishing lands. No permanent settlements existed due to the rough terrain. Daniel Boone and his hunting party passed through this area in 1767, the first time he set foot in what would later be the state of Kentucky.
Settlers lived by subsistence farming, preferring arable flat lands such as Potter Flats (visible in some of the photos you’ll see in a bit) located in the river bend visible below the overlook; but also farming steep slopes where possible. Corn was the crop of choice, both for human and animal consumption, and to make potent moonshine. Beginning in the late 1800s, timbering and coal mining supplanted farming, and continues today.

That gives some geologic reference points for some of the photos you’ll see. There are many, many hikes to be taken, one that switchbacks off the ridge and goes all the way down to the river. It’s short (1.5 miles) but steep, and not a loop, so it would require a return hike up the switchback trail. The maps available to Park users are detailed and accurate, near as we can tell. We only took a couple of short hikes in our cycling shoes to capture some of the photos. 

It was a fun ride, with quite a few stops along the way for short walks to incredible overlooks. Here’s more of what some of the interpretive signage taught us:

The name “Breaks” was derived from the break in Pine Mountain created by the Russell fork of the Big Sandy River as it carved a 1000ft. Deep gorge on its way to join the Ohio River.

By taking the path on the left (Two Towers Path) to the Clinchfield Overlook, you will see this work of nature – often called “The Grand Canyon of the South.” Elevation here is 1978 ft.

Clinchfield Overlook
The railroad below has a long and tangled history dating back to wagon road surveys as early as 1831. A north-south route across the Appalachian Mountains for commerce and travel was long sought, but location here was always negated by rugged topography. By the 1880s, however, recognition of the region’s abundant coal resources convinced railroad and coal barons that a line was feasible, if not necessary, to develop those deposits.

Many railroad companies demonstrated interest in The Breaks, but General John T. Wilder of the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad was first to lay title to property in this area. That company collapsed in 1890, and those rights eventually passed to the South & Western Railway, headed by George Lafayette Carter, and finally to the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad—the “Clinchfield Line.” The route through The Breaks was completed in 1915, but only after litigation with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, claiming prior rights through the gorge in 1902. Those two lines connected at Elkhorn City, Kentucky. Ironically, after many mergers and buyouts, the inheritor of the Chesapeake & Ohio acquired use of the line—CSX Transportation, whose coal trains traverse the gorge to this day.

At the time of completion, “The Clinchfield” was the costliest American line, per foot, yet built—in no small part due to construction obstacles in The Breaks. Upstream, the 921-foot Towers Tunnel passes under the saddle between the Towers and the Chimney, avoiding the great entrenched meander bend of Russell Fork. Downstream, the 1,523 ft. Stateline Tunnel parallels Russell Fork; the gorge wall of the tunnel is only a few feet thick. Further downstream, the track sweeps majestically around Potter Flats and then crosses the river over Pool Point Bridge, which was the longest steel-span bridge in the world for a short time after construction.

We took a quick walk (30 yards or so) to see Pinnacle Rock, leaving our bikes in the woods, but didn’t see much. 

Difficult to discern here but the light center of the photo shows the view through the rocks to an opening beyond, then more rock. Pretty cool in person.

The paved road we followed went steeply downhill from the Two Towers and Clinchfield overlooks, losing over 200 ft in elevation over a very short period. We arrived at the famous Stateline Overlook—famous because it’s amazing, singular and right next to the road so users of all abilities can see over the expanse of mountains.

If you are unable to read the sign, here’s what it says: From this vantage point you are standing in Virginia and looking into both Kentucky and Virginia. In a north-westerly direction, you are looking directly into Potters Flats. Pine Mountain begins here and runs in a south-westerly direction for approx. 125 miles. The road you are seeing is Kentucky state Rt. 80, which runs by the Breaks Interstate Park entrance. The main boundary line for the two states follows the crest of Pine Mountain to the southwest (your left as you read this sign) the state line is indicated on the map below in orange. Elevation here at the overlook is 1769 ft. The river elevation where the orange (border between VA & KY) line crosses is 840 ft.

The left-most cut is the railroad, still in use. In the middle is Russell Fork, and on the right is KY Rt. 80.

Only slightly uphill from the Stateline Overlook was a road called “Natural Trail” that was a truly lovely ride, rolling and shady, little-used by vehicles, and emptied us back out on the main Park road next to the equestrian center. It was a short climb back to loop A and our Roomba.

We settled for a while after putting up the screen tent, took showers, and then invited Gloria and Kerry down to sit in front of our electric fans in the screen house, and enjoy some adult beverages with us. We’d agreed earlier that this was going to be our steak-grilling night, and everyone contributed a little something to the whole, and it was a grand meal. Sat chatting for another hour and then went our separate ways to bed around 9:30P. 

On our final full day in Breaks Interstate, we elected to have a relaxing day, and sat around reading books while Kerry & Gloria took car expeditions into the region, touching base once or twice along the way. Another friend from TN, Jim, arrived to tent camp and visit, and had a delightful dinner of shepherd’s pie and salad, some beverages, and lots of storytelling. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the lodge restaurant in the morning prior to our departure Thursday AM, headed to Grindstone Campground, slightly farther east and slightly closer to home for the wind-down of our August trip. Kerry and Gloria will accompany us there, where we will link up with additional RV-ing friends, Lorrie and Gary.