Date: April 2014 Jill, followed by Raina a few days later
Elevation: 4,139 feet
Distance: Drive up via a sketchy dirt road
I love driving on I-81. I love the mountains in the distance; I love the part where you’re traveling on I-81 south and I-77 north at the same time, and I love that the rest of my family usually falls asleep leaving me to think and listen to music in peace. Thus, our one week adventure through Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina began with a happy mom behind the wheel. Of course no Koly road trip is complete without a high point or two, and on that glorious morning we were heading for Black Mountain in Kentucky.
The drive from Roanoke, VA to Black Mountain, KY is long. I thought all of my thoughts, listened to two NPR podcasts, and Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and we still weren’t close. The kids woke up, demanded lunch, fell asleep again, and we still weren’t close. We switched drivers, we used several public restrooms, we finished listening to Team of Rivals, and we still weren’t close. Finally we began passing coal mines, and we thought maybe we were getting close. Just after we crossed into Kentucky we were finally there.
The guide book says to look for a paved road to the top, so we missed the turn off the first time. After completing a precarious fifteen point turn on a gravel path to get us turned around we found the spot where we thought the road should be. Two dirt roads diverged in the Kentucky woods, and neither one was paved so we took the one going up hill. I had no confidence in our decision. I was worried that we were going to blow a tire or drive off a cliff, but it turned out we had the right road. It may have been paved at one point in time, but in 2014 the road to the Kentucky high point is not paved. We had a dry day so it was passable, but you wouldn’t want to get your car washed or anything before you go.
The highpoint itself brought to mind the end of National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation. “Sorry kids, Kentucky’s high point is just a plaque surrounded by communications towers and litter.” What a let down. I may have sent Raina a nasty text message at this point. Kentucky is a beautiful state, and we’ve visited a lot of scenic spots there. I can’t recommend Black Mountain as one of them.
We snapped a few pictures and hopped back in the car. Luckily our day wasn’t totally Griswaldian because we spent the night at Cumberland Fall’s State Park’s Dupont Lodge. If you don’t mind rustic, this is a great place for families. There’s a patio overlooking the Cumberland River, and kids under 6 eat free at the dinner buffet. My kids were all for a place that served jello as a vegetable, and a good time was had by all. We took a short walk to Cumberland Falls hoping to see a moonbow, but it was too cloudy. We enjoyed ourselves though, and it was nice to stretch our legs after the long drive to Black Mountain.
When I received a text from Jill containing expletives about the road to Kentucky’s highpoint, I started to wonder what adventure was ahead of me. Jill and I wouldn’t see each other in-person to debrief about the experience until after my planned trip and she was largely out of cell range, so I didn’t expect any follow-up details to be forthcoming. It left me slightly concerned about this drive-up highpoint.
Before reaching that point in the journey, I came pretty close to losing my lunch. The primary road leading to the Virginia/Kentucky state line was a windy one. So windy that with one hairpin turn after another, I am surprised my stomach settled at all that day. Luckily, no mess to clean up.
When we got close to the summit road, I finally understood Jill’s commentary. All written directions I’d found identified a turn onto a “paved” road in between the Welcome to Virginia and Welcome to Kentucky signs. I mused, “this can’t be it; everything directs us to a paved road.” While I failed to see any evidence of that road having ever been paved at any point in its existence, we confirmed we were on the right path after passing the FAA building on the right. Somehow, no flat tires to speak of either. Another small miracle.
We reached the highpoint with a pick-up truck behind us – fellow Highpointers, I suspected. Our new friends ended up being a couple in their 60s from Tennessee. Turns out, every Good Friday, they track down a new windy road and drive on it just for fun. Not sure they had intended to get to Kentucky’s HP. They said they just started following us, assuming we knew where we were going, as though maybe we were joyriding on random windy roads all in Good Friday fun. Whether or not they’d intended to reach KY’s HP, they expressed the right amount of enthusiasm once there and snapped the requisite photos. They also volunteered stories of how they broke into NASCAR stadiums in their younger years. These two were quite the duo.
The highpoint itself reminded me of Mississippi’s highpoint, with a difficult approach road, a turn around at the top, a modest view, and a tower. The difference is that KY does not have a register or bench. We noticed two USGS markers – one on the rock behind the raised brick plaque and another under the tower. No bathrooms at this HP.
After our new friends departed, I was re-organizing from the road trip and left the car door open for a minute. Dozens of little bugs seized this opportunity to take over the car. I wasn’t expecting a bug problem in April, but I should have been more observant. We spent the next 30 minutes of the drive toward VA’s HP fighting off these pesky creatures.
If you’re passing through Wytheville, VA, Raina recommends C.J.’s Pizza and Subs. Try the subs over the pizza.