I spent a full weekend in Harlan County, mainly within Black Mountain Offroad Adventure Area, but I enjoyed my time off the trail as much as I enjoyed the trails themselves. Kentucky is famous for thoroughbred/bourbon country, obviously Lexington and Louisville. However, Kentucky is also infamous for it's rough and rowdy mountain region (the basic inspiration for this website) and it don't git no more infamous or rowdy than Harlan County.
Growing up, Harlan County was no different or special to me than anywhere else in southeast KY. Other than the hellish bus rides to play football over on that side of Pine Mountain, I never really thought much about it. I guess in recent years, and living away from the mountains, I've been reading and paying a lot more attention to media coverage and columns written about home. Harlan County seems to garner a lot of that media attention.
I was excited to not only spend a weekend under the stars but also to get a chance to be a tourist in an area that's so like home but on such a grander scale. I wanted camping to be as big a part of the weekend as riding.
Driving into Harlan County is an experience on its own. I left my jobsite in Jackson Friday evening and decided to take the route through Hyden and Leslie County. Going from Leslie County into Harlan County takes you over a massive mountain - there isn't a way that doesn't - and that's when you really start to feel like you're on an adventure.
I got into Evarts around 7:15 and picked up a trail map at the Black Mountain Offroad general store/trailhead. I had spotted a couple of campgrounds on the map and asked a feller at the store if I could make it in my truck. Since I travel light with just a dirt bike, he took a quick gander at the truck, said no problem and off I went.
Halfway up Trail 12 I got stopped by a couple local guys in Rzrs that warned me that they "gave me the wrong info" at the store and that the trail got rough just ahead - there's an RV accessible campground just past the trailhead - but onward and upward I went. The trail got a little rocky in places but I made it to Black Bear Campground without excitement. I will caution you that if there's a chance that you'll be coming back off the mountain after a good rain I would definitely avoid heading up the mountain in your daily driver. It's long, steep and slick hardpack all the way up.
The campgrounds designated on the trail map are definitely primitive. Don't expect grills, tent pads, gravel, or fire pits; they are as basic as it gets. If it weren't for a slightly wider spot in the trail and a very inconspicuous sign, you'd never know this was a campground. I pulled the truck as far off the trail as I could (this would not be an issue for normal folk that leave their automobiles back down in civilization) and found a small road that drops down the hill to the actual camp area. If you're a SxS guy and can pack your camping gear with you, Black Bear is perfect for you. It's secluded from the main trail but also just right down the bank. It was slightly overgrown but the underbrush is thin. There's plenty of room for a good sized group.
The weather was beautiful so I didn't bother with a tent or even a tarp (because this went well for me in the past...). I scrounged up quite a bit of firewood from just dead branches on the ground, strung up the Grand Trunk and camp was set.
I was up and at it early for trail day. Breakfast was cooked on my camping grill by the truck - eggs on grilled bologna used as a taco shell - unplanned but efficient, you're welcome.
After riding a good helping of the western half of the park I loaded up and headed off the mountain in search of a cold beer. Note: Harlan County is [mostly] dry, a rookie mistake by a native of a dry county. The Portal restaurant back in Harlan serves alcohol but apparently you still can't buy packaged alcohol in the county. Such a shame, albeit an expected one.
For night two's camp I had spotted the White Tail Campground on the map just up Trail 10, another green Truck Class II trail. Once again the ol' F150 made it up without breaking a sweat. White Trail Campground has an open shelter that looks like a prime beer drinkin' spot. There were folks temporarily posted up at the campground so after a little more map reading I thought I'd drive just around the hill to a clearing. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large open field ripe for the taking. The field was also east-facing so I knew this was a great place to take in a sunset after my evening trail ride.
From camp I noticed that a trail meandered on up and around the mountain behind me. The marked trail on the map ends just around the hill from camp. The trail was obviously very well traveled even though there's a noticeable sign marking the edge of the park's property. I would say that some rules are meant to be broken but I get the feeling that although this little section of trail ain't technically part of the park, it's probably an unspoken extension.
This unmarked trail led to the most beautiful overlook that I saw all weekend, by far. It's up there with the most beautiful overlook I've ever seen in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. What awaited at the high point was an incredible view of the southern slope of Pine Mountain. At 2,996 feet, you're eye-level with the summit of one of the most prominent mountain ranges in the state. It's truly breathtaking.
There was a middle-aged gentleman on a 4wheeler by himself taking in the scenery. After striking up conversation with him he tells me that he just moved back home after being gone for several years. He hadn't been on this point in 3 years and since moving back he's ridden to the top at least twice a week just to take it all in. This was his 'spot' and it reminded me of my own, which ironically looks directly at the northern slope of Pine Mountain. It was one of those "how do you see yourself in x number of years" moments and the only wish that I have is that I never go 3 years without taking in the view from my spot.
I got back from my evening ride after 6:00 to get the fire going and meat on the grill in time for the Kentucky/Florida game (thanks DirecTV/AT&T!). I planned to sleep in the truck bed so there wasn't any camp to set up other than sweep it out and inflate the sleeping pad. Unfortunately the spot I had chosen for camp only had a couple bars of 4G (damn you AT&T!) so I only got to watch a couple minutes of the game at a time. I wasn't really paying much attention to the game anyway because of this incredible sunset.
Neither Nature's TV (the fire) or an actual televised SEC Football game was able to distract me from that. By 9:00 it was lights out.
I had a plan to get up before dawn and ride up to the high knob and gander at the sunrise but I forgot to actually set an alarm. I don't know if it was anticipation or just old age but come 5:45 I was up and at it. I strapped on my headlamp, fired up the dirt bike and headed to the top of the mountain before daylight. The sunrise started to highlight the silhouette of Black Mountain off in the distance around 6:30; by 6:45 the sky was bright pink. Fog blanketed the entire valley, the sunrise was just as colorful as last night's sunset. It was definitely a cool moment.
I think people get caught thinking small when it comes to trips like these. If I hadn't have been creative with where to camp or hadn't taken the chance to drive up to these campgrounds I don't think the weekend would have be so damn enjoyable. The camping was just as much an experience as the trails, and that's exactly what I was hoping for. You won't always be in a position to get creative. Sometimes setting up camp next to a group of friendly folks is exactly what makes a trip. Just be confident in your plan and enjoy what the trip offers up.