By Nick Mullins
Journeying thirty miles south of Lexington on I-75, the low, undulating hills of Kentucky farmland transform into forested mountains rising to the meet the sky. Tucked against the edge of the Cumberland Plateau sits Berea, a small town that began as a settlement of abolitionists seeking to teach their message that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the Earth.” Berea is now known for the college of the same name founded in 1855 that provides a tuition-free liberal arts education to students of limited means, and for the town’s thriving arts and crafts industry.
Of the many extraordinary things Berea is known for, few realize too that Berea is home to Kentucky’s largest privately managed forest — more than 8,400 acres owned by the college and maintained by the wonderful folks in their forestry department. What’s more, the forest contains a variety of natural landmarks, many of which are accessible to the public through nearly 12 miles of trail networks, including 9 miles that traverse Indian Fort Mountain.
At 8 a.m., I’m the first one in the parking lot of the Indian Fort Theatre, which serves as the primary trailhead to the Indian Fort Mountain trail system and the scenic “Pinnacles.” The night brought with it a fresh snow that covers the trees. Small clumps fall to the ground as a slight breeze shuffles the leafless canopy of limbs and branches. My lungs are invigorated as I take a deep breath of the clean, crisp air and the foggy breath I exhale signals the beginning of my trip into solitude.
Tracks of squirrel and rabbit cross the path in front of me. The first half-mile of the trail begins with a gentle grade and a small creek crossing before climbing steeply up several switchbacks that cause my heart to pump harder and harder.
I pause to take my outer jacket off and listen to the near silence of the snow, interrupted only by a small creaking from the canopy above. I continue upward to the first split in the trail, one of the first choices that heighten the sense of adventure on the mountain. After only a short hesitation, I choose to go right, making the East Pinnacle my first destination.
The trail wraps around the mountainside and makes for a pleasant walk before climbing further to the next split. Small pines droop over the trail under the weight of ice and new snow, some bobbing up and down as I brush past them.
Halfway along the ridge, fox tracks join the trail and keep me company, stopping only once from their stride to perhaps observe a sound before continuing on. I emerge from the darkness of the pines onto the rocks that form the East Pinnacle. Cold wind from the valley rushes up to meet me as I stand exposed on the bluff. I look down upon the homes dotting a patchwork of farms below, watching thin blue lines of smoke rise from their chimneys.
The silent cold of winter sharply contrasts with the sounds of Mountain Day from years past, when dozens of Berea College students gather on the East Pinnacle to hear the college’s choir sing as the sun rises from beneath the distant mountains. I close my eyes to see the brilliant reds and yellows of fall and the bright smiles of people clapping and dancing to fiddle music after the choir has finished singing up the sun.
I trek the half-mile back to the last split in the trail, this time taking the Lookout Trail where another steep climb quickens my breath with a variety of switchbacks. Reaching the top of Robe Mountain I consider my choices of trails and destinations. The Eagle’s Nest or the Buzzard’s Roost? Perhaps the Devil’s Kitchen to see the icy cliffs and unique rock formations? Or I could make my way to the Indian Fort Overlook or the West Pinnacle to watch the town of Berea waking from beneath the blanket of snow. I choose just to make a choice, each trail beckoning me, each bend adding eager curiosity to my hastening steps crunching through the fresh snow.
A former coal miner, Nick Mullins attends Berea College and is a volunteer distributor of The Appalachian Voice. Together with his wife and their two children, the Mullins family spends their summers speaking out against mountaintop removal coal mining through the Breaking Clean Tour. Nick is also known for his blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner.
Difficulty: Ranges from easy to difficult
Mileage: Trails total 9 miles with a variety of options and distances
Cost: Free and open to the public
Contact: (859) 985-3587