The Breaks: Exploring the Grand Canyon of the South
Tucked deep in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and Virginia is The Breaks Interstate Park. (One of only two interstate parks in the country.) The Park is home to the largest canyon east of the Mississippi and is the by far the best kept secret in Virginia. The canyon is five miles long and dives to a depth of 1600 feet. The breaks are famous for its adrenaline filled adventures.
There’s over 100 miles of ATV trails, twelve miles of mountain bike trails, zip lining, white water rafting, horse trails, and much more. Hiking the Breaks is something I’ve done so many times, I’ve lost count. I have family in Elkhorn City, Kentucky which is just ten minutes from the park. For an explorer like myself, it’s too good of an opportunity to miss out on.
The park has a lot of different trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, and shelter for events. Theres also campgrounds and cabins. Although this is an “interstate” park, you will find that most of it is actually in Virginia. Despite the different trail options, I seem to find myself hiking the same path every time I go. The trail is very strenuous in some places and definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.
I’ve taken my sister-in-law with me once and she says she’ll never hike it again. If you’re in shape or are use to hiking this shouldn’t be too difficult for you. In fact, I’ve hiked it many times while pregnant. The hike itself wasn’t the hard part about hiking while pregnant. The most annoying thing in the world for me to deal with while hiking pregnant was the people telling me that I shouldn’t be doing it.
It’s too was too dangerous, saying that I may get too tired, that I may run out of food/water and pass out because you know pregnant women are more susceptible to things like that… [insert eye roll] When I got back from one of our hikes a family member saw a picture of me pregnant while standing on a log and she FREAKED and said “oh Samantha you shouldn’t have been on that log!!!” I think I hated the unwanted advice (see: demands) was more annoying to deal with than any of my pregnancy symptoms to be honest.
I recommend hiking in the summer or the fall. Don’t get me wrong, I have hiked it many times in all seasons, this is a beautiful place any time of there year. However, you will find the landscape the most appealing during the summer and fall. It’s an eight mile hike down to the bottom of the canyon and back. If you’re interested in a hike that challenges you and offers breathtaking views of a canyon that few Americans know about, this is the place for you.
I usually start at the State Overlook. It’s right off of the parking lot and you can see both Kentucky and Virginia from this point. I take the Geological Trail first which is a short, moderate 0.35 trail that takes you by the creek and over several small wooden bridges. Several parts of the Geological Trail are quite open between cliffs and the greenery gives off a very rainforest-esque vibe. There’s also opportunities for rock climbing. We aren’t pros or anything but we had a blast trying to work our way up the rock facings.
If you keep going straight avoiding the trail that veers off to the left, the Geological Trail will merge into the Laurel Branch Trail. There are several places off of Laurel Branch where you can stop to fill up your water or take a dip in the creek. From Laurel Branch, take the Grassy Creek trail.
While on the Grassy Creek trail you will see a place to get off the trail and down to the creek where there are a couple of great swimming holes. People in the area told me they are called Blue Hole and Choke Hole. I don’t know if those are official names or just local names for the swimming holes. But that’s what we have called them ever since. haha We usually stop at Choke Hole to take a swim and hang our hammocks for a while. (not in the winter though of course)
Check out that gorgeous water!
Where Grassy Creek meets River Trail, theres a great place to get down in the water. Seeing the canyon from the middle of the creek at the bottom will have you in awe. To feel so small is a gift we all need to receive. The river trail runs along the river for a half a mile before it starts taking you back up the mountain. Right before the trail starts going up the mountain there’s a sandy area where you can stop for lunch. I love to sit in the sand looking out over the blue water. Just enjoying the mountains. waiting for a train to come out of the tunnel on the mountain. This is one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever been to. This is also a great place to rock hop!
The trip back up from the canyon is very steep and is made of switchbacks. The path is also very narrow. I don’t do well with heights so the trip up makes me queasy. In the summer when you have the foliage to block some of your view down the canyon, it’s not as bad. When the trees lose their leaves, I struggle to make it through this part because my anxiety soars thinking about what a small trail I’m on and how easy it would be to slip up. How Alex Honnald does what he does is beyond me.
I’d also like to make it clear that I am an advocate for taking your children with you on your travels, even while hiking. These particular trails however are not kid friendly. Of course what ages should take the trail depends on how strong and experienced your little ones are. But I would say kids would be ready for this trail around age twelve. On easy and moderate hikes I love to use a baby carrier to bring my babes along with me. But again I wouldn’t recommend doing that on these trails.
You can learn more about the park, HERE.
If you aren’t from the area you probably haven’t heard of the breaks before. It’s a spectacular place that plays a beautiful role in the history and culture of Virginia and Kentucky that is definitely worth a visit (or several).
Have you ever hiked The Breaks? Let me know what trails I should try next time I go.
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