Blanton State Nature Preserve: A perfect day trip into Kentucky’s largest old-growth forest

By Brad Bowman

Video, music and narration by Brad Bowman.

As gas prices remain a financial challenge for Kentuckians’ summer travels, Blanton State Nature Preserve provides the perfect day-trip destination for a hiking treasure – the state’s largest old-growth forest.  

On the south face of Pine Mountain, near Harlan Kentucky, hemlock, beech and several species of oak make up the more than 2,300 acres of old-growth forest in Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve.  

It’s one of the largest old-growth tracts in the United states and the largest in Kentucky with 4.5 miles of hiking trails of varying difficulties open from dawn to dusk. Some of the trees have been dated to be as old as the late 1600s, old enough to be seen by the same pioneers who traveled to Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap.  
“The old-growth forest at Blanton has what is known as ‘structural diversity’ This simply means it exhibits different age and tree sizes,” Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves Southeast Natural Areas Manager Kyle Napier said.  

“Some of the largest trees exceed 40 inches of dbh (diameter breast height, the standard for measuring trees) and many of these have been found to be 300-plus years old. However, size doesn’t always represent age. In fact, some of the oldest trees, mostly oaks, have been found to be 400-plus years old, but are sometimes only 15-25 inches dbh.” 

View from Knobby Rock’s summit showing off the Pine Mountain ridgeline. From this vantage point, hikers can see the vast stretch of forests around Pine Mountain including the Cumberland Gap in the far right background. Kentucky’s first pioneers through the gap may have seen some the very same trees. Knobby Rock is on a four-mile loop trail up the south face of Pine Mountain. Elevation: more than 1800 feet at Knobby Rock.
Photo by Brad Bowman
All trails are well marked and maintained in Blanton State Nature Preserve by OKNP’s Doug Wilder, trails manager of and his crew . This is the specific blaze for Knobby Rock. Photo by Brad Bowman

These smaller trees, Napier said, show their age by “usually growing with many crooks and have become quite gnarly,” and many have grown in less than ideal conditions causing them to have slower growth than the larger trees found in the area.  
Napier has spent his career at Blanton Forest and in the Pine Mountain geography. He’s hiked all over the hills in Blanton Forest, treating the hemlocks threatened by the invasive wooly adelgid and helping to maintain the perimeter of younger trees that act as a 1,200-acre buffer on the old growth.  
“When we speak of old-growth forest, we mean it has not been altered by humans, like agriculture or logging, but it has been touched by natural phenomena such as storms,” Napier said. “A few things like the American chestnut blight of the 1930s has affected several old-growth areas where the tree was once dominant. Today, those areas have been replaced with oaks, primarily chestnut oaks.” 

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Many trees in Blanton’s old-growth forest tower hundreds of feet up above the canopy. Many trees here have been dated to nearly 400 years old. Old enough to have been seen by European pioneers traveling to Kentucky for the first time. Photo by Brad Bowman

An easy, half-mile hike along the Watts Creek Trail provides visitors with lush scenery full of ferns, moss, small waterfalls and a hemlock-mixed forest, which Napier said is a “forest that consists mainly of eastern hemlocks and a mixture of birch, beech, oaks and several other trees.”  The Watts Creek Trail is a one-way trail that intersects with the sandstone overlook Knobby Rock Loop Trail. From the parking lot, adjacent to Camp Blanton, Watts Creek Trail is about 1.5 miles roundtrip.  

Robert Myers, naturalist at Kentucky State Parks, points out Ghost pipe or Indian Pipe on the trail that stands out against the overly lush, green forest floor. These perennial plants are ghostly white due to an absence of chlorophyll. It saps nutrients and carbohydrates from tree roots. Photo by Brad Bowman

The Knobby Rock Trail loop demands more time and has a higher elevation climb but gives a commanding view of Pine Mountain’s vast ridgeline that extends to Tennessee and Virginia.  
On these drier slopes, Napier said, hikers will find more pine species dominating the scenery.  And on some of the damper areas and slopes “you can find what is known as the mixed-mesophytic forest that consists of many different species such as oaks, sugar maple and tulip poplars to name a few.”  
The Knobby Rock Trail is about 2.5 miles round trip. The view itself is worth the hike.  

Adventurous hikers will encounter this sign at the intersection of Sand Cave and Knobby Rock trails. The Sand Cave trail also includes The Maze, which may remind seasoned hikers of the Appalachian Trail in northern states like Maine, which requires hikers to traverse over large boulders and rocks, negotiating huge slick slabs formed over hundreds of years.    Photo by Brad Bowman

For hikers that can set aside enough time and have adequate water, the Knobby Rock Loop Trail intersects with the Sand Cave Loop Trail that continues north and eventually leads back into the Knobby Rock Trail Loop.  

Sand Cave is actually a large overhang that relieves summer hikers with pockets of cold air trapped under its sandstone ledges. Hikers eventually come to The Maze, which may remind seasoned hikers of the Appalachian Trail in northern states like Maine, which requires hikers to traverse over large boulders and rocks, negotiating huge slick slabs formed over hundreds of years.   

Doug Wilder, trails manager of the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, and his crew help maintain the Blanton State Nature Preserve trails, which are part of the 35 miles of trails in the state’s nature preserves.  

The OKNP staff also assist other private and public agencies in maintaining an additional 140 miles of trails as needed. 

Doug Wilder, trails manager of the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, and his crew do regular trail maintenance throughout the state’s nature preserves. Here, he’s clearing obstacles on the Knobby Rock loop trail. Photo by Brad Bowman

Blanton’s ecosystem thrives with an endless supply of plants and insects to satisfy any hiker’s curiosity. Left to right: a delicate mushroom grows in the shell of a tree trunk on Knobby Rock Trail, Hemlock varnish shelf, ganoderma tsugae, grows creek side on a downed hemlock, Wilder holds a hemlock branch infested with wooly adelgid. Photo by Brad Bowman

“We maintain the 35 miles of trails to our high standard, which includes the knowledge of everyone from the botanist to the land managers. We also build new trails when we see a need for them,” Wilder said.  

“We also offer trail workshops twice a year. We try to incorporate the nature preserve sites with that training. We train up to 48 people per year on trail maintenance, upkeep and trail building. They are park naturalists, park maintenance workers, park managers, trail crews and volunteers that want to work on trails across the state with us.” 

Old-growth forests like Blanton State Nature Preserve, allow visitors to experience a forest undisturbed by man, protected as much as possible from exotic species. The forest’s roots may stretch far into the past, but it’s value for the present and future is priceless according to Robert Myers, naturalist at Kentucky State Parks.  

“If you want to step back in time when the first Europeans stepped into Kentucky, they would’ve seen what you see at Blanton now,” Myers said. “… that old-growth forest that allows certain species that don’t exist anywhere else in Kentucky to flourish. The whole web of life that needs that old-growth forest will only be found there. It’s very important to keep it safe and for us to study and learn…maybe a new species. You never know.”  

A base of sandstone rock at the ascent to Knobby Rock, before hikers must traverse a steep elevation of stairs and its climbing ridgeline. Photo by Brad Bowman

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