Thursday, June 27, 2013

Breaks Interstate Park: Overlook/Laurel Branch Loop (Blog Hike #378)

Trails: Geological, Laurel Branch, Cold Spring, Loop, and Overlook Trails
Hike Location: Breaks Interstate Park
Geographic Location: north of HaysiVA (37.29291, -82.30824)
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2012
Overview: A grand tour of fabulous Breaks Interstate Park.
Park Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Haysi, take SR 80 north 8.2 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Pay the small entrance fee, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trail map, then follow signs to the parking lot for Stateline Overlook where this hike begins.

The hike: Easily accessed from nowhere, Breaks Interstate Park protects 4600 acres on the Virginia-Kentucky border.  The name “Interstate” comes from the fact that the park is managed jointly by the commonwealths of Kentucky and Virginia (not because it lies on a major highway).  The name “Breaks” comes from the 1000-foot deep gorge carved here by the Russell Fork River; it forms the only break in the otherwise continuous 125-mile long Pine Mountain.  Daniel Boone was the first person to call this area the Breaks when he discovered the mountain passage on an exploration in 1767.
            The narrow winding roads you have to drive to get here make getting to the park cumbersome, but they add to the special aura of the place: you have to want to be here to get here.  Visitors who patiently drive the roads behind slow-moving overloaded coal trucks (or in front of speeding empty coal trucks) to get here receive quite the reward: views of the largest canyon east of the Mississippi.  The park also contains an excellent lodge perched directly on the rim of the canyon.
            Many visitors to Breaks simply drive to some overlooks and think they have seen the park, but knowledgeable travelers know that there is much more to Breaks than just canyon overlooks.  Under the rim lies a fantastic geology lesson on how water and wind break apart rocks.  Away from the rim lies a network of pink and white rhododendron-choked ravines that come alive with color in late June to early July.  Fit visitors can make the steep, rocky descent to the river itself.  The route described here takes you under the rim, up the ravines, and past all of the major overlooks with only a moderate amount of difficulty.
            Start by walking the short distance out to Stateline Overlook, the most popular overlook in the park.  At this point, you are standing in Virginia, but the ravine directly in front of you contains the state line.  Thus, almost everything you see is in Kentucky.  Russell Fork River appears some 1000 feet below as it flows out of the Breaks canyon.  Partial views of the canyon can be had from here, but better views come later in the hike.
View into Kentucky from Stateline Overlook
            When you manage to rip yourself away from Stateline Overlook, begin the hike by walking across the parking lot and picking up the white-blazed Geological Trail as it heads back toward the canyon rim.  The trail descends the under the canyon rim using a single wooden staircase.  With the highest cliffline now above you to your right, the geology lesson begins. 
Descending steps on the Geological Trail
For the next 0.3 miles you will walk past, over, and under almost every type of rock formation imaginable.  Slump blocks broken off from the cliff lie below you to the left, forming narrow tunnels you have to walk through.  A few small boulders need to be climbed over or around.  A boulder fallen on top of a narrow opening forms a natural arch that the trail passes under.  Lastly but perhaps most interestingly, the trail passes through some large gaps in the rocks called the Notches.  As you walk through these rock formations, carefully observe each one and think about the forces of wind and water that formed them.
0.4 miles into the hike, the Geological Trail ends at the Laurel Branch Trail.  Turning left on the Laurel Branch Trail would lead down to the river, so this hike will turn right.  The trail heads gradually uphill following its namesake creek.  As the creek’s name would indicate, rhododendron (also known as mountain laurel) grows profusely along this creek.  At several points tall people will have to duck to avoid the rhododendron.  When I hiked this trail in early June, the pink rhododendron was just starting to bloom.  In late June to early July, this trail would look like a color painting.
Pink rhododendron
At 0.6 miles, the Ridge Trail exits to the right and heads directly back to Stateline Overlook.  Taking the Ridge Trail would form a short loop of only 1 mile, so this hike continues straight to remain on the Laurel Branch Trail.  At 0.7 miles, the Grassy Overlook Trail exits to the left, heading for the park campground.  Shortly thereafter you cross the park’s paved Nature Drive.  No parking is available at this road access.  Across the road, the trail crosses Laurel Branch a few time on footbridges, and some wet areas are traversed using strategically placed logs.  The grade is never steep, and overall the going is fairly easy.
Hiking the Laurel Branch Trail
At 1.1 miles, you reach an intersection with the Cold Spring Trail.  Continuing straight on the Laurel Branch Trail would lead to the developed area of the park, so this hike will turn right to begin the Cold Spring Trail.  The yellow-blazed Cold Spring Trail continues the gradual climb.  Some wooden waterbars seem to be succeeding in preventing trail erosion.
1.6 miles into the hike, you reach the trail’s namesake spring, which today consists of a pipe coming out of a cement vault.  The Cold Spring Trail ends here, so to continue you need to walk 0.2 miles gradually uphill on the sparsely traveled asphalt road that gives vehicle access to the spring.  Where the Cold Spring road meets the main park road, cross the main park road to arrive at Picnic Shelter #2.  If nobody has reserved this shelter, the picnic tables here make nice places to sit and rest near the midpoint of the hike.
Junction with Cold Spring Trail
            To begin the journey back to Stateline Overlook, pick up the Loop Trail as it departs from the rear of Picnic Shelter #2.  Loop Trail passes through the upper reaches of a ravine and then climbs steeply to its terminus at the Tower Tunnel Trail, which goes right and left.  We will eventually go right to access the Overlook Trail, but for now turn left and walk the short distance downhill to Tower Tunnel Overlook.
The view from Tower Tunnel Overlook is superb.  Except during the leafless months, the river is out of sight in the canyon below you.  Rock formations called Chimney Rock and The Towers can be seen across the river.  If you look carefully between these two formations, you can spot a railroad tunnel called Towers Tunnel on the opposite wall of the canyon.  This may be the most interesting overlook in the park, so take some time to see what you can see.
View from Tower Tunnel Overlook
From the overlook, retrace your steps back uphill, ignoring the Prospector and Loop trails when they exit left and right, respectively, to reach the parking area for Tower Tunnel Overlook.  Angle left across the parking area to pick up the Overlook Trail, which begins at a wooden post that says “Foot Traffic Only.” 
The trail stays right beside the park road and climbs moderately for a short distance to reach the parking area for Clinchfield Overlook.  Walk down the wooden steps to arrive at Clinchfield Overlook.  This overlook provides an excellent view of the lower portion of the canyon.  Also, don’t miss a secondary overlook just to the left of the main one.
View up canyon from Clinchfield Overlook
After climbing the wooden steps back to the overlook parking area, turn left and continue on the Overlook Trail as it leaves the parking area and descends using wooden steps.  Some more unnamed and unprotected overlooks appear on the left, and more pink rhododendron crowds the understory.  Take care on the bare rock at the unprotected overlooks, as falling over any of them would almost surely be fatal.
At 2.7 miles, you pass Pinnacle Rock.  Unfortunately, a chain-link fence prevents anyone from climbing the rock and obtaining more spectacular views.  After passing through one last shallow ravine, the trail comes out at the Stateline Overlook parking area, thus signaling the end of the hike.  If you have not seen enough of the canyon yet, you can steal a second viewing at Stateline Overlook before leaving if desired.

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