By Jeremy Patton of London, Kentucky
Pine Creek Gorge is my favorite place in Laurel County. When my parents drove west on KY-80 toward Somerset, I pressed my face against the window to catch a glimpse of its majestic cliffs as we zoomed by. I wondered what I might find if I someday ventured there.
I also heard tales of Penitentiary Holler, the site of a Civil War prison camp somewhere deep in the forbidding gorge. Evidence supposedly remained of its existence, such as stone works carved into the canyon walls.
When I reached my late teens, I asked around about the gorge. I spoke to a man who claimed to know a thing or two about it. I asked him if it was possible to climb down from KY-80 where the towering earthwork divides the gorge into north and south (it functions as a bridge; my friend Dewayne said that it might be called a “berm”). He said no, it was a sheer drop from either side of the highway. The gorge is a dangerous place anyway — you should stay out of it.
I graduated high school, college then started a career. I forgot about Pine Creek Gorge, but continued hiking elsewhere when I could.
Several years ago, I set my sights on it again, but now I was wiser and more experienced. I went on numerous exploratory hikes to find a spot where I could safely descend. Drop-offs halted my progress.
My friend Robbie later informed me that his brother had entered the gorge many times and was willing to show me the way; I was elated. All three of us entered via a gas-line clearing that traversed some of the steepest terrain in Laurel County. The trek was brutal, but far safer than trying to climb down a vertical rock face. We struggled with rhododendron, negotiated a steep ravine and found a waterfall. The place was as magical as I had imagined.
Since then, I have found numerous ways in, but all of them are tiring and time-consuming.
In January of 2017, I stopped on the roadside after a long hike to photograph the overlooks. Amazingly, I had never done this before because I did not like to linger near traffic (I think that traffic is far more dangerous than the wilderness). I snapped a few photos of the north overlook, then peered over the guard rail. “That is steep, but it doesn’t look like a sheer drop,” I said to myself.
I walked east along the guard rail, taking more pictures, then came to a drainage ditch leading down from the highway. It was not a drop either, but rather a steep, rocky slope. I crossed the highway and found a similar situation at the south overlook.
The gorge was indeed accessible from the highway. Joy washed over me as I considered the implications: Direct access would save me time and energy.
My face then flushed red with anger. I remembered the man who, decades ago, had given me his worthless advice. He had never peered into the gorge. He probably had never set foot anywhere near the place. I struggled for years searching for alternate routes, when the most direct ones were right under my nose.
I do not regret the search; I now know the area better. Also, I appreciate a valuable lesson learned: Never take a man’s word for it. Go check it out yourself.
I have descended into Pine Creek Gorge, via the direct route, numerous times over the last few weeks and found many natural wonders. I have inspected numerous ravines and bluffs, including those within the adjacent Angel Hollow, but still have not found evidence of a Civil War prison camp. It is probably a legend. The search continues.
The gorge’s mysterious veil is falling away, but the magic remains. It is still my favorite place in Laurel County, possibly in the world.
Note: Pine Creek Gorge and Angel Hollow are isolated and rugged. Do not enter unless you are an experienced hiker who can read a topographic map and use a compass.
Added 1/31/17 – Updated 2/16/17