After 25 years of telling stories about Kentucky people and places, surely I’ve seen it all by now. Whenever I think that, without fail something surprises me. This time it happened in Elliott County at a majestic place called Laurel Gorge.
Lured there by stories of towering cliffs and pristine waters full of trout, I loaded my day pack, walking stick, and fishing pole and headed east. From I-64 near Grayson, I took exit 172 to Route 7, and a little more than 20 miles away, I found myself in another world.
Near the community of Sandy Hook, I stopped at the Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center, a museum and education and visitors center devoted to local artisans and the area’s natural and cultural history. The gorge’s trails, managed by the local tourism council, begin right out the back door of the Heritage Center.
This place is so beautiful it’s hard to put it into words. From the head of the trail to the bottom of the gorge, the Cliffside Trail takes visitors along 100- to 300-foot-tall sandstone cliffs that are so impressive I wondered how this place, which looks like it belongs in the national park system, could be so little known. The trail winds its way to a large wooden deck overlooking a seasonal waterfall.
The Creekside Trail heads down into the gorge to Laurel Creek. Its cold, crystal waters are brimming with rainbow and brown trout, stocked by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Within minutes I felt the quiver and pull of a small but hard-fighting rainbow trout on my ultra-light spinning rig. Fly-fishing would most certainly be next for me. After a catch and release, I again looked up in astonishment at the massive boulders and cliffs, their cracks and crevices often exploding with color from wildflowers.
Not far from where I stand, Laurel Creek flows into the Little Sandy River at the very bottom of the gorge, providing its own breathtaking scenery. If all this is not enough, each April and May the Heritage Center sponsors wildflower and birding hikes in the gorge.
They call Elliott County Kentucky’s “diamond in the rough.” It’s no wonder. There are seven spectacular gorges in this rock-laden county. Perhaps this “diamond in the rough” should be called the “gem of the South.”
As for me, someone who has been down most every cow path in the state two or three times, I’m just glad there are a few more surprises around the bend.
• For more information, call the Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center at (606) 738-5543.
• A portion of the trails near the Heritage Center is accessible to persons with disabilities.
• Refer to the Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide for trout fishing regulations at Laurel Creek. It is published by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and is available free online at www.fw.ky.gov under the “Fishing and Boating” tab.