Black Mountain (4,145ft) – Highest Point in the Bluegrass State
Matthew, Eric, and Dad
Looking back on Black Mountain four years later (2012), it surprises me a little that the highest point in Kentucky was #21 in terms of completion order of our high points list. At first I’m surprised that it wasn’t #1. After all, Kentucky is our home state and Black Mountain is less than a three hour drive from Berea. But there are a couple of reasons that we didn’t climb Black Mountain until the middle of our highpointing quest. First of all, Black Mountain isn’t exactly on the way to anywhere. It’s way down in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky. And second of all, in 2008 three hours felt like a long drive. We hadn’t yet pushed our boundaries like we later would on road trips such as the 1340 mi weekend trip to the CO, OK, KS, & NE high points, or the 2700 mi trip through MO, AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, or the 2700 mi through SD, ND, MN, MI, WI, IL, or for that matter the 44 hr / 2200 mi drive to the NS, PEI, and NB provincial high points, … etc. If you’re going to drive three hours from Berea, we thought, you might as well go all the way down to the Smoky Mountains.
But the time for Black Mountain finally came during IAP of 2008. At that point we still had a few hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail left, in pieces from Tennessee to Virginia. Back in 2006, when we had hiked the bulk of the AT, we had made the strategic (though somewhat painful) decision to skip a few sections so we could complete Maine before school started in September. Back then, we figured that we could finish up the southern pieces (and New Hampshire) during the winter. So, midway through our senior year at MIT, with the possibility that we might end up on the West Coast for grad school, we decided to take advantage of our classless IAP and finish up the AT.
We were missing two AT sections down south: Roan Mountain (TN) to Damascus (VA), and Lickskillet Holler (VA) to Buena Vista (VA). On January 5th, 2008 we loaded up the green Plymouth Voyager at
home with our backpacking equipment and began the drive down to the start of the first section: Roan Mountain. Back in 2004 we had finished the Davenport Gap –> Roan Mountain section of the AT during Spring Break of our senior year in high school. I remember starting that hike out in a t-shirt and shorts with temps in the 80s. But by the end of that week we were postholing through two feet of slushy snow! I still vividly remember the moment when our dad picked us up: we were wrapped up in our sleeping bags, huddled and shivering next to a big snow bank, our cotton clothes completely saturated, when finally, to our huge relief, we spotted our dad in the big green van coming around the corner. But that is a story for a different trip report, this story is about Black Mountain.
Conveniently, Black Mountain was on the way to Roan Mountain – or at least we made it be on our way. Along the way we passed through Pineville, KY, home the famous Chained Rock. In Pineville you can look up to the top of a nearby mountain and spot a huge rock that seems to be balanced precariously over the city. Attached to the massive boulder is a long chain that seems to be holding the rock in place. According to a plaque, the giant 101 ft chain was carried up by two mule teams in 1933 and “by tradition, is to protect the city of Pineville, Kentucky.” From afar the chain looks pretty important to the rock’s stability but from the nearby it doesn’t seem that the chain would do much if the rock slipped.
A little later we passed through the village of Lynch, which is the highest town in Kentucky. We were deep in Kentucky coal country but the abandoned houses in the small town suggested Lynch had seen better days. We continued climbing until we reached the KY/VA border, and spotted a sign for Black Mountain. I remember years ago in elementary school we wrote letters to the coal companies pleading for them to leave Black Mountain alone. In the mid 1990s the highest point in KY was slated for mountaintop removal. At that time I didn’t have any idea where Black Mountain was located or its significance, but as we looked through the trees at the mountain in the distance it seemed that our efforts had paid off and Black Mountain was still standing.
Even though there was a decent amount of snow on the ground, our dad, a seasoned Minne-snow-ta
driver, was unfazed. He turned the van onto the side road and proceeded over the unplowed gravel. Soon the road steepened up and it was time to trade out the front wheel drive for the hiking boots. We found a little red board buried in the snow and for a moment we were the highest snowboarders in the state. Later we passed by an interesting FAA radar dome; unfortunately there wasn’t much info about what it was for, other than the “NO TRESPASSING” signs.
A few hundred feet later we were on the roof of the Bluegrass State! We threw some snowballs, climbed around on the summit tower, and made sure to take in the view. Over the years we had done a lot of hiking in Kentucky and it was a fulfilling to finally climb to the highest point in our home state. After a little more tomfoolery, ballyhoo, and shenanigans we got back in the van and headed for our next little adventure on the Appalachian Trail.