A mountain meander
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
The mountains of eastern Kentucky have always been isolated. Indeed, until the Mountain Parkway was built in the 1960s, what is now a two-hour drive to Lexington could take as much as two days.
Start your mountain meander where the parkway begins on I-64, about halfway between Mt. Sterling and Winchester. Follow it east to Clay City, then follow KY 15 north for three miles to Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve.
Atop Pilot Knob is a sandstone outcropping where Daniel Boone and his party first viewed “the beautiful level of Kentucky” on June 7, 1769. A fairly steep trail leads to the very spot, which provides a 270-degree view of the Cumberland Plateau, The Knobs, and the Bluegrass Country.
A second trail, lower down, leads to the site of a millstone quarry where, among other things, you can still see partially carved millstones abandoned years ago.
Back in Clay City you’ll find the Red River Museum on Main Street, (606) 663-2555. Housed in an 1890s bank building, the museum celebrates the area’s iron, logging, and railroad industries that flourished here in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. In fact, at one time, the largest sawmill in the world was located nearby.
Back on the Mountain Parkway, continue east to Slade, where a visitor center provides brochures, maps, and other information on the region.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park is just a few miles south on KY 11. Between the visitor center and the park are several interesting sites, including the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, (606) 663-9160, where more than 70 snakes and reptiles are on display; and the Mountain Horse Museum, (606) 663-0928, which celebrates and commemorates the Mountain Pleasure horse and related breeds.
Going the other way, cross under the parkway and connect to KY 77, which takes you into the Red River Gorge area, where there are more than 100 known natural bridges and arches. In a few miles you’ll cross through Nada Tunnel, which was hand-hewn through the ridge in 1912. Built as a railroad tunnel to haul logs to the mill at Clay City, it’s now a one-lane passage only 13 feet wide.
In a few more miles you’ll cross a steel-trestle bridge. The road turns right there, and follows the Red River until connecting with KY 715. Stay on KY 77, in the direction of Frenchburg, and follow the signs to Swamp Valley, (606) 768-3250.
At Swamp Valley–situated halfway between Possum Holler and Lizard Ridge–you’ll find Clayton Wells’ collection of mountain memorabilia. Now in his late 70s, Wells has been amassing this collection “since I was a tadpole,” which includes everything from buggies and wagons to logging implements, kitchen and farm tools, hand-made musical instruments, and cultural mementos.
Return to the junction of KY 77 and 715, and follow the latter through the Red River Gorge. Along the way you’ll pass the Gladie Creek Visitor Center, which includes a small buffalo herd and the Gladie Creek Cabin, a log home built in 1884. Each September an archeology weekend is held here, with interpreters showing Native American life before European contact. For details contact the Stanton Ranger District, (606) 663-2852.
As you drive along 715 you’ll pass several major arches–such as Sky Bridge–and pullouts that provide spectacular panoramas until the road rejoins the Mountain Parkway near Campton. Rejoin the parkway and follow it east to Salyersville.
Although many people believe the Mountain Parkway continues to Prestonsburg, it actually ends here. There are plans to continue it along what is now KY 114.
At Salyersville you’ll find the Magoffin County Historical Society’s Pioneer Log Village, a collection of 14 log homes and a log barn that were collected in the region and re-erected on this site. Using furnishings and artifacts of the time, the village is a tour de force that traces the history of the region from Prater’s Fort in 1794 to more recent times.
Society President Todd Preston conducts tours of the village Monday through Friday. “But I’m always here on weekends,” he points out, “and will conduct tours if people call first.” You can reach him at (606) 349-1353.
Preston is a living encyclopedia of regional history and lore. For instance, the tour starts at the Long Fork School and United Baptist Church–a one-room log cabin that was used for both purposes. “This was very common,” he points out, “because the churches also ran the schools.” In this particular case, he points out, each family belonging to the church contributed two hewn logs for its construction.
From Salyersville take KY 40 to Staffordsville and the Mountain Homeplace, (606) 297-1850, a living-history farm that depicts rural living just after the War Between the States. Costumed first-person interpreters go about their daily tasks, using the tools and equipment of the time period.
Day Trips & Short Stops
Restoring Glacier Girl
If you go to any air show, the so-called “warbirds” are always the big hit. Warbirds are fighters and other military aircraft that fought America’s wars. There’s something about seeing these restored planes flying again that gets the blood pumping.
At the Bell County Airport in Middlesboro you can see a very special warbird being restored. It’s a P-38F Lightning that spent nearly 50 years under ice and snow before being recovered.
This particular plane, renamed Glacier Girl, was the fourth in a formation of six that made a forced landing on a remote glacier in Greenland on July 15, 1942, when they ran out of fuel. Each passing year saw the planes buried deeper and deeper under snow and ice.
About 10 years ago Pat Epps put together a group of technical specialists to see if they could find and retrieve one of the planes. It took three years for the Greenland Expedition Society to accomplish the task, which included digging through 268 feet of glacier with a specially designed hole-melting device. The plane was removed, part by part, and flown to a hangar in Middlesboro, where the restoration work has been going on ever since.
The hangar where the restoration takes place is now called The Lost Squadron Museum. In addition to watching the actual restoration work proceeding, you can see photos and other memorabilia on display at the museum that tell the full story of Glacier Girl’s recovery.
The museum is open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cameras and video recorders are encouraged. For more details, contact: The Lost Squadron Museum, P.O. Box 776, Middlesboro, KY 40965, (606) 248-1149, or go online at www.thelostsquadron.com.
Farm pond fishing
Farm ponds might not look like much. But they can provide some of the most exciting fishing available. Indeed, if you look at their track record, some of the largest bass caught in the Commonwealth come out of farm ponds.
Typically, a farm pond contains largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish among the gamefish, along with shiners and other forage species. Many ponds, especially those that are spring-fed, also hold crappie. In short, they are microcosms of our larger lakes and impoundments.
Location is another drawing card. Farm ponds are found literally everywhere in Kentucky. It’s just a matter of asking for permission to fish one. More times than not the landowner will be happy to grant it, because most ponds do not get fished enough to maintain the proper ratio between gamefish and forage.
No special equipment is needed for farm pond fishing. Whether you use a baitcaster, spinning outfit, or flyrod depends strictly on personal preference. Although the ponds are small, the fish they contain are often large. So just use your regular tackle and you should be fine.
With farm ponds, if anybody is catching fish usually everybody is. One or two people might be catching more than the others, due to tackle or bait choice. But it’s rare, indeed, that you don’t catch something from a farm pond.
And it’s not always what you’re after. You may be looking for bluegill when a 5-pound largemouth decides it wants your bait for supper. So be prepared for that, too.