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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Rip and Go: Birch Knob

Complete the newest section of the Great Eastern Trail with big-mile days on this big-view mountain.

by: Stuart Peck

TRAILHEAD 37.296315, -82.339611*; 164 miles east of Lexington off Patty Loveless Dr.
SHUTTLE CAR No established shuttle service; leave one car at the Highland Section trailhead (off VA 23). SHELTER Free; first-come, first-serve; sleeps 12
GEAR UP J&H Lanmark, 189 Moore Dr., Lexington, KY; (859) 278-0730,
SEASON Spring for wildflowers (including the largest population of yellow wild indigo in KY); fall for turning birch leaves
PERMITS None; sign-in at trailhead kiosk
(606) 589-2479
TRIP DATA        
Kentucky: Pine Mountain State Resort Park

Hike a section of this 125-mile-long, north-south ridge that stymied pioneers seeking to head west in the 1700s. You’ll snag primo Appalachian views and venture through black bear territory on this three-day trip along the Pine Mountain Trail on the 33-mile Birch Knob section, which zigzags along the Kentucky-Virginia border. From the Birch Knob trailhead (1), follow green and yellow blazes southwest through pink rhododendron (blooming in March). Ascend 1,500 feet up the jungle-like mountainside, gaining the 2,600-foot ridgeline (2) at mile 3.4. Trace it southwest, looking for fist-size, yellow-and-black box turtles hiding on the fern-covered forest floor. Pick your way across the roller-coaster terrain, and set up camp atop the Elkhorn City Overlook (3) near the small stream (water not consistent; call ahead to check) at mile 4.3. From your perch, 300 feet above Russell Fork’s whitewater, survey the green-blanketed Appalachian foothills that Daniel Boone explored nearly 250 years ago. Next day, continue 2.1 miles on the main path to where the trail fades (4), and bushwhack .2 mile southwest through thick rhododendron (scan for faded yellow blazes) to a gravel road. Turn left and follow the track 1.1 miles to Goldfish Pond (5), a 1-acre, spring-fed pool nestled amid ferns. Trace its northern edge and ascend through maple, oak, and pine, traversing a flaky sandstone outcropping (6), the first of four over the next 2 miles. At mile 14.6, descend to Blowing Rock Gap (7), a flat passageway connecting Virginia and Kentucky that moonshiners used in the late 1800s, and pass an old homestead site. At mile 15.9, overnight in the two-story Birch Knob Shelter (8) (no amenities, reservations, or fees) or pitch your tent across the trail near the fire ring and natural spring (top up; water is scarce from here). Day three, continue .6 mile to the platform of the Birch Knob Observation Tower (9), the highest point on the trail at 3,167 feet, where you can see the emerald, carpeted hills of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Continue southwest, passing a hillside littered with mysterious stone piles (possibly graves). Gain another Appalachian panorama from the limestone Quarry Overlook (10) at mile 26.8 before trekking 1.5 miles to a grove of 150-foot-tall poplars. Ascend a hilltop where deer graze amid black-eyed Susans (blooming June), and travel the final 4 miles on a gravel road to your shuttle car (11)

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