Breaks Interstate Park, KY/VA
By Mary Reed
Dam Releases are usually every weekend in October, so plan your whitewater trip for then.
Calling this place “the Grand Canyon of the South” is a bit of a disservice. When October dam releases turn the Russell Fork into a class V whitewater run, this beautiful river races through Breaks Interstate Park amidst a fall color show that nothing in the Southwest can rival.
“It’s probably my favorite river,” says kayaking blogger Andy Herzog. “It’s short but it packs a lot of punch, about two miles of whitewater and it’s got a really pushy feel to it.” Put in at Garden Hole in Virginia and take out campside at Ratliff Hole in Kentucky. All told, that’s four miles of river with that two-mile continuous whitewater stretch. “It’s not a lot of speed, but extremely consequential,” says Andy. “It’s killed some really qualified boaters that had every business being up there.”
Even if you have no business kayaking the Russell Fork, there’s the commercial rafting option, which will give you the opportunity to see features such as The Fist and rapids such as El Horrendo (pictured). While the river is runnable throughout the season, rafting is only viable during dam releases. If you fish, the river is stocked with trout.
There are plenty of other things to enjoy at Breaks besides the water. Start your morning at Towers Overlook and wait until the fog clears to watch the view materialize in front of you. The rock tower sits atop a forested ridge, rising 600 feet above an oxbow in the river. Then move on to some of the other overlooks, such as Stateline, Pinnacle Rock and Lovers Leap.
The park has more than a dozen miles of hiking trails; Try the Overlook Trail to the River Trail down to the water and back. If you’re on two wheels, hit the three-mile Mountain Bike Trail from the campground.
Even though this is Hatfield-McCoy country, rest assured that you’ll be a welcome guest. “(The locals) love kayakers – they have paddler appreciation weekend,” Adam says. “They come up there and party and bring moonshine.”
Where it’s at: Four hours from Louisville along the Kentucky/Virginia border; from I-64 east of Lexington, KY take the Mountain Parkway 94 miles (it merges with KY 114) then merge with US 460 east, travel 30 miles and then merge with KY 80, take it 20 miles to the park
Contact: www.breakspark.com or (276) 865-4413
Digs: The park has some riverside campsites and a main campground ($12-$20); cottages ($525/week); and a lodge ($61 and up per night)
Grub: The Rusty Fork Café in Elkhorn City, KY, www.potterflats.com/cafe.html or (606) 754-4494
Gear and Outfitting: Russell Fork Whitewater Adventures, (276) 530-7044