Kentucky: Backroads of Appalachia

Text: Caleb McInturff • Photography: Caleb McInturff, Marisa McInturff

Our starting point is Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Pineville, KY. It’s mid-March, and the mornings are expectedly chilly. Marisa and I quickly find ourselves shedding additional layers of clothing as the sun warms the Kentucky hills, but as we descend into deep, wooded valleys, where the morning sun doesn’t fall, we feel the temperature drop sharply.

The Kentucky Adventure Tour, a loop of more than 900 miles in southeastern Kentucky comprising mostly one-lane country backroads, takes us south. We are treated to fantastic views as we ride up mountains and descend back through valleys. Evidence of the once booming coal industry’s shrinkage, and, in many cases, exodus, abounds in the small towns we pass through. Abandoned downtown areas and signs of the extreme poverty associated with Appalachia are common along the route.

Eventually we arrive at our lunch stop, Gap Creek Coffee House, just across the state line at the base of a mountain next to a babbling creek in Cumberland Gap, TN. Above us, at the end of a steep, curvy road that ascends the backside of the mountain, is Pinnacle Overlook (elevation 2,440 feet). After lunch we head to the bluff and take in the magnificent view of Kentucky, Virgina, and Tennessee. The rest of the day we ride twisted backroads to Kingdom Come State Park, in Cumberland, KY, where we’ll camp for the night. On the way, we grab a quick to-go dinner and arrive just in time to set up camp before dark. 

A very cold night of camping gives way to another chilly but thankfully clear morning. The second day’s route is around 140 miles and primarily consists of narrow, gnarled country backroads that follow the contours of the Appalachian Mountains. In the late afternoon, we round a corner and see a giant column of ominous black smoke rising out of the valley we’re approaching.

Run Boys, Run

As we ride into the small town of Phelps, we realize the smoke is coming from a house fire. By the time we arrive, the structure is completely engulfed and has already been reduced to burning rubble. Nearby buildings are smoldering, and the woods behind the burning home are beginning to catch fire. A few neighbors are trying to contain the inferno but most are frozen, observing in stunned disbelief as many do in terrible situations. Marisa and I quickly find a place for our bikes, and without wasting time to remove our riding gear we rush to find hoses. As we run toward the blaze, we can feel the fire’s intense radiant heat, but surprisingly our gear helps to keep us slightly cooler. Without the aid of actual fire fighting equipment, the only assistance we can offer is in the form of containment. 

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2020 back issue.