Slipping into solitude at Breaks Interstate Park
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
From an overlook on Route 80, the gorge called "The Breaks," cut by the Russell Fork River, can be seen. The rock formation at left is dubbed "The Towers," and is surrounded on three sides by the river.
- Where? Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky-Virginia line. Follow U.S. 460 for 6 miles past Grundy, then left (south) 9 miles on Route 609.
- How far? It's a haul from Roanoke -- about 3 1/2 hours of driving! Subtract an hour from the New River Valley.
- Why go? To see the deepest gorge in the eastern United States, surrounded by many impressive bluffs and rock formations. Most of the 12 miles of trails are easy, and lead to viewpoints over the canyon. Somewhat more adventurous hikers can head all the way into the gorge to walk in the solitude found near the river level.
- For more information: logon to the Virginia Breaks Interstate Park Web site or logon to the Kentucky park Web site.
Whenever I'm looking at a map, I'm always attracted to the green splotches, wondering what might be worth exploring in that park or forest.
One such green splotch that intrigued me enough for a recent visit is Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia-Kentucky border.
The Breaks is a geological wonderland. Russell Fork River created the spectacular gorge by gouging out a 1,600-foot canyon into the Appalachian landscape. This gorge is often said to be the deepest in the East.
Massive bluffs rise in multiple layers above the rapids-happy river that "breaks" through the mountains to form the gorge. (Though, as you'll read later, I had reason to wonder on the Grassy Creek Trail if "Breaks" might refer to the condition of one's bones after a hike in the park.)
It's an "interstate" park because it's jointly funded and managed by Virginia and Kentucky, one of only two such parks in the nation (New York and New Jersey jointly run Palisades Interstate Park). The Breaks 4,500 acres of Applachian hardwood forest and sandstone bluffs do sprawl across the state line, but as it works out, most of the developed part and all the marked trails are on the Virginia side.
There are many short and easy trails to bluff-top overlooks accessed from paved roads. The Overlook Trail parallels the park's main road and visits several different bluffs offering views of the gorge. None of the park's trails are more than a mile in length, but several can be combined into loops and longer hikes. The relative ease of most trails makes it good place for families to hike.
On this humid but not particularly hot Saturday, I sought solitude, so I found the most difficult trails in the park, descending all the way to the river and then looping back up through the bluffs for about four miles of hiking. Although family reunions and picnics were buzzing in the park above, I met not a soul once I got below the easier trails.
My route began on the Ridge Trail at the far end of the main road at what is called Stateline Overlook. (Its not at the state line, but looks over it.) The Ridge Trail gradually drops through a ridgetop forest to the "Notches" -- a group of sinkhole- and cavern-like depressions -- to join the Laurel Branch Trail along a small stream in a damp little hollow. This is a neat little area to poke around in for a while, lots of little places to explore, and cool and shady on a hot day.
The Geological Trail returns to the Stateline Overlook for a not-so-difficult mile loop. A few folks I met on the Ridge Trail headed up that way, but I continued along gurgling Laurel Branch to the Grassy Creek Trail.
Grassy Creek was one of the most dangerous stretches of trail I've ever undertaken. After an overnight rain, the Grassy Creek Trail was like a ski slope of mud. With a dog pulling me along by her leash, it was more like water skiing. There are no switchbacks here -- it plunges downhill within sight of the namesake creek toward the river.
The day I hiked it, every step was either on mud, wet rocks or wet roots. Even on a dry day, I can't imagine it having much traction. I slid several times, slipped partially off my feet a time or two, but never entirely onto my keister.
The woods and creek are lovely, but I didn't see much of them because I had to constantly watch my ankles to be sure they weren't about to do the twist.
It was harrowing.
Sometimes, when I type "trail" I mistype it as "trial." In this case, "Grassy Creek Trial" is ever-so-appropriate.
Mercifully, the Grassy Creek Trail finally levels out as Grassy Creek reaches its intersection with the Russell Fork River. I lost the trail here once, ending up crossing a giant plug of driftwood and trash to a small riverside campsite. I had to backtrack a few feet over the garbage-laced stickpile (the trash has washed here in high water, not dumped) to find the River Trail.
If you're expecting the River Trail to hug the river's shore, you'll be disappointed. The River Trail is actually more the "bluff trail," as it follows under the lowest bluff line above the river. You can see the river below on occasion as it tumbles over shoals.
In winter, with the leaves off the trees, I'm sure you can see even more of it. (But could you ever make it down the Grassy Creek Trail in one piece if there were ice or snow!)
Twice along here, I could hear the loud rumbling of a train become strangely muffled. Later, I found out there were train tracks and a tunnel across the river.
After about a half-mile, the River Trail begins to climb, this time, on switchbacks. The footing is infinitely better than it is on the Grassy Creek Mudslide.
The switchback portion of the River Trail takes on even more of the "bluff trail" personality. Except for hiking uphill in the humidity (I was shirtless by this point; OK, don't get a mental picture of that), this was my favorite portion of the hike. It climbs up through several bluff lines and "benches" -- level areas on top of the successive blufflines -- overlooking the river.
About halfway up, it comes to one impressive sheer rock wall, then follows alongside to find a gap the tail can break through. The River Trail then intersects with the Prospector Trail, which follows along under the highest bluff line, the one that supports the main part of the park.
If you are at any of the overlooks in the park, NEVER, EVER THROW ANYTHING OFF! You could hit someone hiking the Prospector Trail, and even a small object propelled by gravity over hundreds of feet can be a deadly projectile.
You can go either way on the Prospector Trail here -- left would lead back to the Laurel Branch Trail eventually. I chose to go right toward the Tower Tunnel Overlook Trail, then back up to the Overlook Trail, which parallels the road through a couple of overlook areas to the Stateline Overlook trailhead.
My solitude ended, but it was refreshing to take in the view from the overlooks and know that, unlike all these people, I dared to hike all the way down there and back!
And I had survived the Grassy Creek Trail.