Megan Victoria Epperson is an Americorps Vista at Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS) and member of their program staff.
Sky Marietta, PhD is the Director of Early Childhood at PMSS.
Tucked into a beautiful valley on the north side of Pine Mountain in Harlan County, resides Pine Mountain Settlement School, a 100 year-old settlement-school-turned-environmental education-and-retreat-center is worth the effort it takes to get to its remote location. For those who make the trek, they are rewarded with the exceptional experience of being among beautiful historic buildings — the campus is a National Historic Landmark — situated on 800 acres of pristine lands that include the 348-acre James E. Bickford State Nature Preserve, that is part of the Kentucky State Nature Preserve system. Fall Color Weekend is the perfect time for a visit, with a number of resources to make it a perfect trip, including convenient accommodations, programming, hiking and other entertainment.
Even as you arrive at the Settlement School, you’ll meet friends new and old, even as you check in. Many guest rooms were once dorm rooms and their simple beauty is similar to what you might find at a meditation retreat. There are also 5-bedroom homes with full kitchens and living rooms available for rent for those who want a family or group-oriented option. Hot water and high speed internet give guests the amenities you don’t often find while lodging in the mountains.
PMSS's Far House. Photo via EKI Director, Gerry James.
Meals are enjoyed at shared round tables. The preparation focuses on folk cooking techniques: time-honored recipes made from locally-gathered ingredients and put together by local women who have the expertise of generations.
This year’s Fall Color Weekend was a beautiful retreat at the school and through the Pine Mountain Range. Nights were spent eating meals together, gathering by the fire and learning from programs like the raptor presentation from the Letcher County Raptor Rehabilitation Center.
Guest woke up to hot breakfast -- biscuits, gravy and fried apples -- after the opportunity to walk the campus with Rod Botkins, a former Environmental Education Fellow at Pine Mountain Settlement School, leading a birding expedition as the mist began to clear off the mountain. Then came the weekend’s main event, hiking through Kingdom Come State Park.
Pine Mountain Settlement School is ideally situated as a gateway to some of the best outdoor opportunities in the region. Cumberland Gap National Park, Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve, Blanton Forest, Lily Cornett Woods and many other spots are within an hour of campus. The trip to Kingdom Come is taken mostly along Little Shepherd Trail, a 28-mile scenic road that follows the ride of Pine Mountain, offering a mix between spectacular views and the gentle enclosure of leaves in full autumn display.
The group made many stops on the trip, the first at Bullock Overlook. With an elevation of 2,680 feet, it offers a beautiful vista of the Cumberland Plateau decorated in color. Staff educator William “Bucky” Field was there to discuss the region’s mountain formations, the Pine Mountain Range, Black Mountain and the Cumberland Plateau.
The hike begins at Possum Trail, this year led by staff educator Ben Turner. Other staff members were there to naturalize along the trail which winds its way to the infamous Raven Rock. The sculpted limestone outcrop offers stunning views of Kentucky’s highest mountain, Black Mountain and the Cumberland River Valley. The location is beautiful, ancient quartz pebbles are peppered along the stone, and large patches of lichen grow in the unlikely space.
Crossing Raven Rock leads to Raven’s Rock Trail and onto Ivy Trail. Ivy Trail leads to the stunning Knife Ridge Overlook, another limestone outcrop showcasing the colorful mountainside and a western view of the valleys towards Harlan. From here, guests can gaze on the beauty of the valleys and mountainside, taking photos and naturalizing the flora nearby.
Ivy Trail continues and ends behind the levee near the visitor center. A trail loops around the water. A local man is fishing and ducks are crossing the 3.5 acre pond. A picnic in the park closes out this leg of the trip.
The first stop on the way back to campus is Log Rock, a natural sandstone bridge -- A few were brave enough to walk across.
The final stop before getting back to campus is 12 O’Clock Overlook. Once again, the Cumberland Plateau gives breathtaking views with a wonderful assortment of fall colors and a perfect view of the Pine Mountain Range to the East.
The day closes out with a hot meal and a performance by bluegrass band Sunset Ridge.