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by Stan Griffin

In the coal country of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, there is a park that straddles both states. There’s only one other U. S. park that crosses state lines.

Where Dickenson and Buchanan Counties in Virginia converge with Kentucky’s Pike County is the "Grand Canyon of the South," known officially as "Breaks Interstate Park." ("Break" was a word early settlers used for passes through rugged mountains.)

Filled with "spectacular scenery," the Breaks consists of 4,600 wooded acres. In the park is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River: five miles long and 1/4 mile deep. It was created over millions of years when a raging Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River carved solid sandstone in cutting through Pine Mountain. Elevations in the park range from 870 feet at the canyon’s Russell Fork base to 1,978 feet at Clinchfield Overlook.

Frontiersman Daniel Boone gets credit for discovering the Breaks in 1767. He was searching for trails through the mountains into Kentucky and the Ohio Valley beyond. When he and two friends attempted to navigate the gorge by foot, they ran into copperheads and rattlesnakes. They were also confronted with Russell Fork pounding through a tight canyon with 1,000-foot sheer walls, and they were overwhelmed by thick tangles of rhododendron, mountain laurel, and acres of towering trees (some 7 feet thick). Admitting defeat after several attempts, the three pitched camp nearby, sat out the winter of 1768, and returned to their homes in North Carolina.

In 1900 John Fox Jr. (author of "Trail of the Lonesome Pine") traveled from Big Stone Gap, Virginia to the Breaks in a horse-drawn buckboard, a distance of 70 miles, a trip that took him three days. Later he wrote an article published in "Scribner’s" magazine. It created a ripple of public interest in what he called "the most isolated spot this side of the Rockies."

However, it wasn’t until the post-World War II period that two-lane roads were built into a place that was "remote and almost inaccessible." The traveling public soon were marveling over the mountain scenery as they drove through. Eventually the park was recognized as a prime tourist destination that today attracts 1/3 of a million people yearly. Even today, there are only a few narrow roads that cross Pine Mountain. Dickenson County is one of few Virginia counties without a U. S. highway running through it.

From panoramic overlooks, visitors can view fantastic rock formations (like The Towers), caves (such as Pow Wow Cave once used by the Shawnee Indians), and even-- if they’re lucky-- golden eagles! More active tourists can take advantage of meandering hiking and bike trails, horseback riding, fishing, or rafting. (Some might even go looking for the buried silver treasure of John Swift, rumored to be in the vicinity.)

The park has picnic areas, a lake, swimming pool, gift shop, conference center and an amphitheater. Available for overnight stays are a rustic lodge, cottages, and a large campground. A Visitor’s Center contains mountain photos, wildlife specimens, maps and books, geological features, and a coal exhibit showing formative processes taking place over a 200- million-year period. Miners still risk their lives to bring "black gold" to the surface. Black seams of coal are visible in the roadside cliffs throughout the park.

Surfaces at the Breaks are hard packed dirt and rock and are well maintained with steps, handrails, plainly marked trails, and benches.

The closest towns are Elkhorn City, Kentucky which is five miles west, and Haysi, Virginia -- eight miles south.



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