Hiking a Razor's Edge: the Pine Mountain Trail

Hiking the Virginia-Kentucky border

by Bill and Mary Burnham

At its core, Pine Mountain is a geologic phenomenon called the Cumberland Overthurst Block. The mountain range formed when a piece of the earth's crust buckled and broke.

The southeast chunk of rock (the Virginia piece) moved between six and 11 miles west and slid up and over the northwest rock (the Kentucky piece) at an angle of 30 to 40 degrees. The highest bits of rock on Pine Mountain are sandstone normally found 2,000 feet underground.

Pioneer history on Pine Mountain

And here's the kicker: It's thought that the Pine Mountiain we see today is half its original size.

Pine Mountain's past is certainly prevalent along an evolving 120-mile trail from Breaks Insterstate Park south to Cumberland Gap. Homesteads are marked with interpretive signs and a million years of geologic history are on display. Distance alone makes this one of the most physically demanding hikes in Virginia or Kentucky.

Hikers pass windshaped rock formations between Blowing Rock Gap and Skegg Knob, and upland bogs in the vicinity of the Doubles where rare plants unique to the mountain live.

View from Birch Knob

Ravens Nest, with its smooth rock surface and soaring views east and west - to Virginia and Kentucky - is just one in a succession of high overlooks along the ridgeline.

Long stretches of trail pass through forestland, emerge for a length on sun-baked rock faces, then re-enter the woods. Side trails lead to waterfalls, caves and cliffs.

Details: Currently, two sections of the 120-mile trail are complete: 28 miles from Breaks Interstate Park to US 23 (Birch Knob section), and another 16 miles to US 119 (Highland section).

Hiking Virginia guidebook

Getting there: start at Breaks Interstate Park: From Pound, VA, take Route 23 north two miles. Turn right on Route 83. Go 26.5 miles to Haysi, merging with Route 80 for 4 miles. Outside Haysi, stay straight to stay on Route 80 (Breaks Park Road). Go 5 miles to Breaks Interstate Park.

Map: USGS: Jenkins West, VA; Jenkins East, VA; Clintwood, VA; Hellier, VA; Elkhorn City, VA.

Contact: Pine Mountain Trail Conference

We wrote the book!

The Birch Knob section of the Pine Mountain Trail is fully described with mile-by-mile cues, history and map in the Burnhams' award-winning guidebook, Hiking Virginia.