Pine Mountain Trail: Moonshine, Murder and getting lost in the woods
Deep in the woods of eastern Kentucky along the border with Virginia lies a mountain with a somewhat shady past. The Pine Mountain Trail follows the namesake ridge and the longest piece of that trail is the 35 mile Birch Knob section which runs from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Pound Gap right off U.S. Highway 23 on the Virginia border. The trail is challenging if you hike it from east to west with over 8,000 feet of elevation change (mostly up). Blazes are almost non-existent in places and switchbacks climbing up the steep mountainsides are even more scarce. Your gentle frolic in the woods comes when you're walking along the ridge line. While the trail is challenging and poorly marked in areas, for your effort you are rewarded with numerous views of the surrounding valleys which boasts the chance to eyeball five different states depending on which direction you are looking.
History: If you're interested in a little history with your hike, the Birch Knob section of the trail has a lot to offer in that department as well. Stone foundations from old homesteads, stories of moonshiner camps, murders, burial sites and plane crashes are just some of the rich history of the mountain which can be discovered in the deepest sections of the woods. At around mile eight there's a cemetery where a man was buried that allegedly got into a gun fight with 'the law' over his profession as a moonshiner - at least that's what one of the locals told us. Hike eight miles further to Dutton Bottom where a man was murdered in cold blood by a posse of men led by the sheriff of Dickenson County in Virginia over moonshine. Why all the moonshining? Well... it is Kentucky but beyond that Pine Mountain is speckled with natural springs high in the mountains with some of the purest water you can find. Perfect for making the highest quality moonshine - so I'm told. In addition, being so close to the state line makes it easy for alleged moonshiners to bounce between states with their stills.
Wildlife: Never in all my hiking have I seen such a diverse array of wildlife in the woods. I imagine I might get more if I went to the jungles of South America or Serengeti of Africa but for the Appalachian region of North America it was a zoo. We saw deer (including a buck), hawks, vultures, turkey, turtles, salamanders, oh yes and a black bear. This area of the woods was full of life as it is one of the main thoroughfares in and out of the "real" mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. I had read about the possibility of encountering bears while on the hike but imagined we would be too loud and threatening to actually come face to face with one. In addition to seeing bruin, thanks to recent rains and muddy trails we saw hundreds of bear tracks during the hike.
Adventure: If you're looking for a hike but still want a since of adventure instead of blindly following a path in the woods... yeah... this is your hike. Blazes were hard to come by in areas and four-wheel tracks often times split the trail into three different paths making is a thrilling backwoods game show at times - "Do we choose trail #1, trail #2 or trail #3?" Hills were steep and during heavy rains sections of the trail could easily become impassible. When you're not huffing and puffing up the incredibly steep sections, you may be scrambling across the numerous rocky, exposed ridges with class 2 and class 3 scrambles as well as one small section that may even be pushing class 4 climbing... er... hiking.
The Pine Mountain Trail won't leave you disappointed if you're into a wild, sometimes sketchy adventure. It's definitely not a tamed trail like others in the region. Want to go?
To see even more photos from the trip you can check out my Flickr page.
For more information about the entire PMT visit the Pine Mountain Scenic Trail's website.
Look for a complete turn by turn 'Rip & Go' article on the Birch Knob section of the PMT in BACKPACKER Magazine in 2014.