Breaks Interstate Park, located astride the SW Virginia/eastern Kentucky border along the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River, is one of only two interstate parks in the nation. Perhaps the scale of the 5-mile-long, .25-mile-deep gorge that forms the park’s centerpiece cannot rival that of the Grand Canyon, but the 250 million year old “Grand Canyon of the South” IS the largest gorge east of the Mississippi.
The park takes its name from this gorge, which forms a “break” in Pine Mountain. Passes through these rugged mountains were called breaks by early settlers. Where the raging waters have carved the solid sandstone to break through Pine Mountain, nature has dressed the canyon walls in some of the region’s most spectacular scenery.
Daniel Boone is credited with discovering The Breaks in 1767 as he attempted to find ever-improved trails into Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley beyond. Both he and Simon Kenton explored here in the last quarter of the 18th century.
Because of elevation and moisture differences, the park contains various biospheres, ranging from oak/hickory climax forests on the drier ridge tops to a laurel/hemlock environment in the bottoms and along the creeks. This biodiversity results in an amazing display of spring wildflowers, including rare plants like yellow lady’s slipper and Catawba rhododendron.
The region was a hunting ground for Cherokee and Shawnee Indians. It is the home of Pow Wow Cave, used by the Shawnees.
The crown jewel of the park is the Towers, an imposing pyramid of rocks more than half a mile long and a third of a mile wide. The area around the Towers is said to contain the lost silver mine of Englishman John Swift. In the late 1700s Swift supposedly had one or more silver mines that were subsequently lost. He spent the last part of his life trying to relocate them. The lost mines are one of the great –and recurring- legends of southeastern Kentucky.
Public Law 275 created the park on August 14, 1953, and today, the 4,600-acre Breaks accommodates more than a third of a million visitors annually.
Sources: “Hiking Kentucky” by Brook Elliott (1998, Human Kinetics)