Eastern Kentucky

Text: Steve Mauk • Photography: Steve Mauk, Sharon Mauk

Guided by a symphony of commands, the tires of my V-Strom 650 carve graceful arcs along the ribbon of pavement draped at the base of a rock wall. A different type of carving, to be sure, than that of Yellow Creek, whose efforts helped form nearby Cumberland Gap. At the moment, however, I could care less about semantics.

Monsoon Malaise

Pewter clouds blanket the horizon as my wife, Sharon, and I head toward eastern Kentucky for a three-day whirlwind camping tour featuring some of the Appalachian Mountain’s most notable geological features. Aiming for a predicted break in the rain, our round-trip tour includes stops at Breaks Interstate Park, Natural Bridge State Resort Park, and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Budget camping is the underlying theme for the tour, though Mother Nature soon lobs a grenade at that idea.                                                                            

Upon arriving at Breaks Interstate Park near dusk we make a quick pass through the campground. Rain begins to fall as we scan the campsites, and with the temperature expected to set a record low we make the difficult decision to begin our “budget” tour with a stay at the lodge. We were hoping to squeak by on about 0, but the new target is 0. The tour doesn’t officially begin until the morning, and we hope that the transgression will be pardoned.

Day One: Breaks Park to Natural Bridge

Our choice of lodging is validated as we wake to the monotone drumming of rain, and after coffee in the room we head to the restaurant and assess our options over lumberjack-sized breakfasts. The dining room overlooks the main feature of the park – a 1,650-foot-deep, 5-mile-long gorge nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the South, which straddles the border of Kentucky and Virginia. The gorge is currently preoccupied with swallowing clouds, however, and we catch only fleeting glimpses of rocky crags through the mist while we eat.

The weather improves somewhat by late morning, and we take a leap of faith and depart. Although we’ll return when we complete the tour we take a short walk to the gorge overlook for some spectacular pictures as we exit the park. Scents of honeysuckle and wood smoke linger in the cool air as we swing northwest toward Natural Bridge State Resort Park. The smooth, two-lane tarmac is a pleasant blend of sweepers snaking through rural hill country. Traffic is light, and with our GPS guiding the way we’re free to enjoy the roads and scenery.

Clouds give way to scattered bursts of sunshine late in the afternoon. The road tightens and the shadows deepen as we enter the lush Red River Gorge area shortly before reaching our destination. Passing through the historic Nada Tunnel, a single-lane, abandoned railroad tunnel, neither headlight beam adequately lights the dark interior, and the walls seem way too close. Arriving at the campground near dusk, we set up camp and opt for dinner at the lodge after 210 challenging miles in the saddle.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the November/December 2011 back issue.