Story by Daniel Hawkins
Within the coalfields, straddling the border of Southwestern Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, lies a little-known natural wonder of the Appalachian Mountains.
Known as the Grand Canyon of the South, Breaks Interstate Park is home to one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi. Over millions of years, the Russell Fork River cut a five-mile-long gorge through the Pine Mountains of Appalachia, creating a magnificent natural spectacle. With depths reaching 1,000 feet from the scenic overlooks to the river below, the gorge has attracted visitors from all over the world.
The “Breaks,” as it is called by local residents, provides visitors with breathtaking views from seven overlooks and offers an abundance of activities during spring, summer and fall. During these busier months, the park’s large amphitheatre plays host to a variety of weekly events and outdoor enthusiasts enjoy activities ranging from camping and horseback riding to mountain biking and swimming.
As the splendorous colors of fall foliage turn to brown and the abscission of leaves reveals many shades of grey bark, visitation to Breaks Interstate Park slows drastically. The few who do brave the cooler temperatures find winter is one of the best times of the year to enjoy the many wonders this seemingly dormant park has to offer.
I for one enjoy hiking the park in winter as much as any other season, and one of my favorite hikes begins on the Overlook Trail. Roughly a mile long, the trail stretches between the Clinchfield and State Line overlooks, skirting along the edge of the canyon; I can clearly hear the Russell Fork River make its rocky decent hundreds of feet below me. As I pass by the many unguarded overlooks that give the trail its name, I occasionally take a weak-kneed step out to their edge to catch amazing views of the gorge.
Once I’ve reached the State Line Overlook I link up with the Ridge Trail for a short hike through a grove of mountain ivy before intersecting with Laurel Branch Trail. Here a small crystal clear stream snakes through giant rock formations known as “The Notches.” I easily become lost in the peaceful solitude of nature as the moss covered stone walls separate me from the rest of the world.
I journey onward through thickets of mountain laurel and groves of hemlock which add a touch of green to the otherwise gray and brown hues of an Appalachian winter. My breath begins to fog as I deepen my decent below the northern side of the mountain. The crispness of the air feels refreshing and soon I can hear the water of a creek flowing rapidly. I link up with Grassy Creek Trail, perhaps one of my favorites within the park. As the trail leads me alongside the creek, I am continuously amazed with the beauty of a stream left mostly untouched by man—a rarity within the coalfields I call home.
I finally reach the river and rather than continue on River Trail I will turn around and make the ascent back to the warmth of the cabin I rented within the park. Tomorrow I may continue the journey from the Prospector Trail, but for this evening I plan on relaxing by a warm fire. Hopefully the snow that has been forecast will blanket the area, turning an already picturesque landscape into an enchanting winter wonderland.
Overlook Trail—.75 miles, difficult. Exposed cliff edges require additional caution. For amazing views of the gorge this trail is an absolute must.
Ridge Trail—.5 miles, easy then becomes difficult. Mountain Ivy and Laurel thickets make this an excellent trail for bird watchers.
Laurel Branch Trail—1.25 miles, easy then becoming difficult in the last .5 miles. Experience the natural beauty of the Appalachian mountains along with some amazing rock formations.
Grassy Creek Trail—.5 miles, moderate. Enjoy the sounds of rushing water as Grassy Creek tumbles down this seemingly secluded hollow.
The Lodge & Rhododendron Restaurant—81-room hotel with 30 rooms overlooking the gorge. $60 to $90 per night.
Luxury Cabins—Two- and three-bedrooms with gas fireplaces and views of Laurel Lake. $125 to $255 per night.
Cottages—Two-room units with views of the gorge, complete with full kitchen. $90 to $125 per night.
Campground—130 available RV and tent sites. Open from April 1 through October 31. Full hookups available.
For more information or to make reservations visit www.breakspark.com or call (276) 865-4413.