By Jeremy Patton
The Berea Pinnacles are located in Madison County, Kentucky.
The land is owned by Berea College, called “Berea College Forest.” The trail system is called “Indian Fort Mountain Trails.” Locals know the area simply as “The Pinnacles.”
I last visited the Pinnacles during the late 1990s when I was a student at Berea College. When I returned on 4/15/17, the ridges and overlooks were far more extensive than I remembered. Nostalgia accompanied me throughout the day.
There were six named overlooks: West Pinnacle, Indian Fort Lookout, Devil’s Kitchen, Buzzard’s Roost, Eagle’s Nest and East Pinnacle. I also found countless unnamed prominences.
The trail system forms a cross pattern. From the parking lot, Indian Fort Trail runs vertically up the cross. From the center, trails branch off toward the west and east pinnacles, located at the ends of the arms. A bit further up the center reside Indian Fort Lookout and Devil’s Kitchen. As you approach the top of the cross, short trails branch off again to Eagle’s Nest and Buzzard’s Roost.
Most of the overlooks are dead-ends, except for Indian Fort Lookout and Devil’s Kitchen. After enjoying them, retrace your steps to the center of the cross, then select the next overlook you would like to explore. The trail system makes it easy to visit just one overlook or all of them in a day (if you are in shape).
I rate the trails as moderately difficult. They were easy for me in mid-April, but my hiking season was winding down and I was still in top condition. I made it to all six overlooks with time to spare.
The trails were well-signed and maintained. The only exception was a poorly marked intersection on the way to Buzzard’s Roost. I chose the wrong path, but realized my mistake after about a quarter-mile. It would be hard to get lost as long as you pay attention to your surroundings.
The trails were short, but the miles added up while switching from one trail to another. Distances were adequately posted throughout area, however, so it was easy to make decisions on whether to visit another overlook or return to the parking lot.
The area was generally safe, but you must watch children on the ridge. There were many spots where a wrong step could be deadly.
The Pinnacles would even be safe during the summer, if you can stand Kentucky’s humidity. The trails were wide enough in most places to avoid contact with vegetation and hitchhiking parasites. You could also spot snakes before stepping on them.
I will now describe the landmarks that I visited in chronological order. I will provide directions to the Berea Pinnacles and a trail map at the end of this article.
The Pinnacles receive many visitors, so the parking lot is spacious. A sign posted at the entrance states that it will be closed and locked from dawn till dusk.
Indian Fort Theatre is located on the right side of the trail, a short walk from the parking lot. It is an open-air venue with a stage and semi-circular seating.
Heading northeast up Indian Fort Trail, I took the first turn to the left and hiked all the way to the West Pinnacle. The trail was labeled “Sacred Shadow Trail” on the map, but I never saw that name on the signs. Anyway, I just followed the ridge, which was less than a mile, one-way. There were a few other trails in the vicinity, but I saved them for a future trip.
The West Pinnacle was one of my least favorite overlooks because its views (mainly of roads and farmland) were obstructed. The limestone formations leading up to it were intriguing. It was beautiful, but outshined by other landmarks.
I decided to head back east toward the center of the cross via “Difficult Trail.” I think it was called “Main Dome Trail” on the map. It did not seem more difficult, except for a challenging climb through a gap in the ridge, dubbed “Difficult Climb.” In my opinion, this short, but steep section was difficult due to several slanted boulders that had to be traversed without adequate hand-holds.
I was surprised to find a small natural arch at the bottom of Difficult Climb. I call it Difficult Climb Arch.
A spectacular rocky outcrop resided above. It was unnamed, as far as I know, so I call it Difficult Trail Overlook, one of many anonymous perches.
Continuing east, I followed the signs to Indian Fort Outlook, a series of outcrops scaning an impressive ridge and valley to the north. They extended quite far and reminded me of Red River Gorge.
While hiking southeast from Indian Fort Outlook, I noticed a hole in the trail with iron bars fitted across it, the first clue that I was standing atop Devil’s Kitchen. A nearby path led below the ridge to a natural arch in progress; a distinct lintel had partially separated from the cliff. I pondered whether or not it would achieve full separation, hundreds or thousands of years in the future. It was a wonderful example of arch formation.
Back on the ridge, a short walk brought me to a trail veering north toward Eagle’s Nest and Buzzard’s Roost. The side paths to either overlook were short: 0.4 and 0.2 miles respectively, according to the sign.
Eagle’s Nest was one of my favorites, not only for the view, but also the numerous limestone boulders scattered about the perch. Weaving among them was a lot of fun. I also found a small, but striking natural arch on one of the boulders: Eagle’s Nest Arch.
I enjoyed Buzzard’s Roost, which provided another panorama of cliffs and farmland. As mentioned earlier, I took a wrong turn while heading there, so mind the trail closely.
I back-tracked and headed to the East Pinnacle, where I encountered a crowd in the late afternoon. That’s what I get for going on a holiday weekend.
I saw numerous outcrops along the ridge, but most were occupied; some college students had hung a cot in one such area. I stumbled upon an abandoned, smoldering fire-ring at another. It pissed me off because the conditions at that time were dry, which could have started a forest fire. I poured some precious drinking water onto the embers.
Folks occupied the East Pinnacle, so I made the most of the situation by snapping the following picture; strangers sometimes provide interesting photo opportunities. I plan to return to the East Pinnacle, perhaps next winter.
From Berea College, drive east on KY-21 for about three miles then turn left into the Indian Fort Theater Parking Lot. You will find the trailhead there.
Added 4/16/17 Updated 5/4/17