As I clamber up the rocky spine of the Appalachian’s western edge, I find my breath stolen by more than just the effort. Mountains spread before me, shrugging their sharp shoulders into the sky. The first new leaves are just beginning to show this May, and the hillsides are alight with wildflowers waving gently across the meadows. Despite the views, there isn’t another hiker in sight.
Turn-by-turn from the Pound Gap Trailhead parking lot
1) Switchback upward through hardwoods on the Pine Mountain Trail, following yellow and green markers (yellow for multi-use sections). Blue blazes indicate water sources.
2) Scramble around boulders and tunnel through thickets of rhododendron to mile 2.2, where a short spur trail leads to the Twin Cliffs overlook. Enjoy the expansive view over the Cumberland Plateau.
3) Make camp at Adena Springs (mile 6.9).
4) Day two will take you past Mars Rock at mile 10.5, where the trail enters Bad Branch State Nature Preserve.
5) The High Rock overlook at mile 10.7 has expansive views of eastern Kentucky and the North Fork Kentucky River Valley.
6) A side trail at mile 11.6 leads to the hemlock-lined gorge of 60-foot Bad Branch Falls, a worthwhile 2-mile detour.
7) Sidle through the narrow gap between boulders at Lemon Squeezer (mile 14.4). You might have to remove your pack to fit.
8) At mile 17, reach the ridgeline’s last mountain viewpoint at Americorp Cliff.
9) Continue past the Flamingo Shelter to the trailhead at US 119 (mile 18.8).
Set up outside the picnic shelter at Adena Springs, where each tent site is surrounded by rhododendrons (peak bloom is in June). Protected from both mountain winds and busy trails, the sites also have easy access to water, with a spring right next to the camp.
This section of the Pine Mountain Trail crosses through the territory of the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi. Kentucky’s native elk were hunted to extinction in the 1880s, but just over a thousand elk were re-introduced between 1997 and 2002. The current herd, started by those introduced elk, has an estimated population of 10,000.
Trailhead 37.1549, -82.6327 Season year-round Permit None, but parties are asked to self-register Shuttle Leave a car at the Pine Mountain Trailhead Distance 18.8 miles point-to-point Time 2 days Difficulty 3/5