By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
I imagined the view from a top Pine Mountain long before I ever stepped foot on its namesake trail last month.
I first read about this rocky ridgeline of the southern Cumberland Highlands in the pages of a John Fox Jr. novel, “The Little Shepard of Kingdom Come.”
My imagination became so enamored with these mountains based on Fox’s vivid description of the area in the opening paragraph of the book that it became a favorite before I even finished the first page. Maybe it was because my first days in the mountains of eastern Kentucky were during an April of “mist and rain” broken up by a sporadic “miracle of blue sky.”
In the years since I have moved here, I’ve made lots trips to the Cumberland Highlands but I have never camped or walked a far distance along Pine Mountain itself. The ridge spans 125 miles along the Appalachians through Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, and is an important geological feature that played an important role in native and early American history.
Several years ago I read about the recently created Pine Mountain Trail and I added it to my list of trails to hike as soon as possible. Late last winter, my husband Carl and I, along with a couple of friends and my Dad decided we would spend a few days traversing the approximately 15-mile Highland Section of the trail in early April.
The entire trail is more than 42-mile long connecting Breaks Interstate Park and Cumberland National Park, and is link in the a vast network of trails that create the long-distance Great Eastern Trail.
Our hike was intended to serve as a fact-finding and mapping mission for my forthcoming update of “Hiking Kentucky: A Guidebook to Kentucky’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.” The Pine Mountain Trail will be a new addition to the book, whose two previous editions were written by Michael H. Brown.
The trail turned out to be more than we expected and more than our group could handle in a single visit. The views were indeed incredible, but the trail itself required a little more strenuous activity than some of my hiking buddies were prepared for with heavy, overnight packs. Mother Nature also granted us a dose of those April rains and mists the mountain is famous for.
Instead of walking the distance from the trailheads just of U.S. 119 in Whitesburg to the the Kentucky-Virginia border on U.S. 23, over three days, we spent a single night camped just below the ridge line and cut our hike short, walking down the western side to the town of Mayking instead.
Our first day out began as a brilliantly sunny yet hot April Sunday, but it quickly turned rainy and rumbles of thunder provided an intimidating warning from a distance as we tiptoed across the exposed steep ridge line.
This was complicated by the fact that campsites I had planned on staying in turned out to be too small for a tent camping group of five and the distance to our intended (and recommended sites) was too far for my novice, retired-age friends.
But like so often happens along a trail, a bit of magic happened. Just when I was starting to worry we’d be trudging along in a thunderstorm, we came across metal ladder lashed onto the side of the ridge, which lead down sheltered camp dotted with rock houses.
A dirt road wound down the mountain away from the site. There we were safe from the howling winds above us and the roadbed provided ample, semi-level sites to sleep. One large rock house created a nice gathering place where we built a small campfire and shared meal of macaroni and cheese before the rains started.
During the night a band of Coyotes announced their presence and success at capturing a meal and in the early morning rains fell heavily on our tent. As we emerged from our shelters at dawn, heavy mists enveloped us and a check of the weather indicated more storms to come.
We decided to follow the one lane road down the mountain, hoping it would eventually come out near the hamlet of Mayking, where we could hitch a ride or call for one back to the vehicle parked at Wiley’s Last Resort off U.S. 119. After a 2-mile, muddy walk down hill through hillsides of blooming wildflowers, we indeed came out at the head of mountain holler neighborhood and called for a ride.
Those of us who couldn’t be shuttled, waited out the steady April rain on the porch of the Baptist Church, invited out of the downpour by the kindhearted souls at the mouth of the holler we walked out of onto the two-lane road.
Don’t get me wrong: Pine Mountain is an excellent backpacking trail, but it requires a thorough pre-plan for the less experienced hikers. I’d describe it as a moderately strenuous hike, albeit with a lot of hundred-foot plus climbs and descents as you climb up too and follow the ridgeline. (I would consider beginning at the High Rocks Trail in the Bad Branch State Nature Preserve to take in Bad Branch Falls and save a few miles.)
More experienced, fit hikers should have no trouble reaching designated camping sites and shelters, with good weather. Plan to spend at least one night, however, because the views are simply too spectacular to rush past. The small section we hiked gave us sweeping 360-degree vistas.
The Pine Mountain Trail was a memorable weekend hike that reminded me why I love backpacking so much. Each trail presents unexpected challenges and treats, while providing a gentle reminder of the simplest humans needs.
To learn more about the Pine Mountain Trail, visit www.PineMountainTrail.com