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By Gary McBain

Back to Black Mountain, Kentucky

Riding in Michigan has some wonderful benefits. Trails are diverse and can be tight and narrow or wide open. However, when the call came in asking to go back to Kentucky and write about Black Mountain ORV Park again, I jumped at the chance.

I rode Black Mountain in September of 2005, only a few months after it had opened. The park was created out of thousands of acres of former coal and timber land that Harlan County citizens, local, county and state government set up as an ORV recreational park in the spring of 2005. It was hoped that the park would bring much needed revenue to the economically depressed area. Since then, more and more land has opened up and the trails have expanded.

For this ride, I was invited to stay at the Harlan County Campground and RV Park which opened up in October of 2005. The campground sits at the bottom of the mountain and is connected to the Putney Trail head which is about 8 miles northeast of the city of Harlan on US 119.

I recruited a couple new riders to make this year's trip to Kentucky. These guys, who happened to be my older and younger brothers, (Keith and Leigh) had never ridden ATVs on trails before. Along with Paul, a compadre’ from the 2005 trip, we drove the 500 miles from Michigan to Kentucky on a Thursday night arriving around 10:30pm. John Foster, the campground owner met us and showed us to our cabin.

The cabin was large enough for two sets of bunk beds and a sofa bed. In addition, it had a refrigerator, a bathroom with shower, a small kitchen area with coffee maker and a small table.

The next morning was cool with the typical morning mist hanging in the trees. It was time to get some machines to ride. Paul had brought his own machine but I wanted to get the same perspective as my brothers, who don’t own machines. Since rental machines are available at the campground, we had arranged for us to rent ATVs.

Denny Pace owns the ATV rental concession (ATV Rentals of Harlan and the Trail 45 Snack Shack) where one can buy snacks, helmets, goggles, trail maps and other supplies. The rental machines turned out to be John Deer ATVs. These 500cc machines have automatic transmissions and full time four wheel drive. They turned out to be easy to ride, had plenty of power and were reliable for the two hard days of riding we put them through.

With the rental paperwork completed and trail map in hand, we were soon packed and saddled up. The new trail map bought showed that a good number of new trails had been added to the park since our last visit in 2005. One of these was Trail 45. This trail runs right down into the campground and this was our access to the park and the top of the mountain.

Trails in the park are rated as green for beginner, blue for intermediate trails, and red for advanced trails. There is plenty of each to go around and none lack for beautiful views. Since half of our riders were beginners, we chose to stay mostly on green trails. I should note that some of the green trails are fun and challenging to beginners and experienced riders alike. In fact, Trail 45, which is green, turned out to be one of our favorite trails. It had plenty of switchbacks, steep inclines, mud, rocks and great views, not to mention its convenience to the campground.

As we climbed up the trail, we found it had rain earlier in the week, which provided plenty of mud puddles to play in. In addition, the wet ground kept the dust down. Reaching the ridge top, we found ourselves in bright sunlight. We were above the clouds and the mist that hung in the valley. We rode the rest of the morning with perpetual smiles on our faces as we're greeted with one spectacular view after another.

We stopped for lunch on top of one of the ridges to enjoy the view. Here is a tip if you stay in the campground. A quarter mile down the road from the campground is a combination gas station, convenience store and diner. Not only do they serve a great breakfast of ham and eggs, biscuits and gravy, but the ladies will make and pack you a great sandwich for the trail at a bargain price.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring new trails and increasing our skills and confidence for the next days ride. We ended the day sitting on the porch of our cabin drinking a cool beverage and telling trail stories. Our neighbors, from the cabins on either side of us, stopped by to introduce themselves and get acquainted. One of the neighbors was a 72 year old gentleman for Ontario, Canada who had been there a week. Our other neighbors, newly arrived for the weekend were two couples with two small children from Ohio. In addition, John, the campground owner stopped by to chat as well. He pointed out a large excavation up on the side of the hill. John explained the plan for the campground was to create a series of tiered camping areas directly adjacent to the trail.

Day Two

The next morning, we rode from our front door up out of the mist onto the ridge top for a long ride to the southwest end of the park to the Hawkeye Overlook on Trail 36. To get to the overlook you find yourself riding the narrow crest of the ridge with 3,000 foot drops on both sides. That ride rewards you with a great 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. The return ride that morning proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. We found an unmarked trail and used Paul’s GPS to plot a track back to Trail 45. That trail proved to be one of the most diverse rides of the two days. It took us over and around rocky outcroppings and to the lowest valley floors. It took us through high meadows and low river beds. When it was done, we found ourselves within a quarter mile of the campground having covered 14 miles. We finished the afternoon with a ride to the spectacular views from Bald Mountain which is at the extreme northeast tip of the park.

That evening back at the cabin, the trail stories and smiles attested to the great time shared by people with a now common interest. My brothers gained a new appreciation of the sport of ATVing and a new skill level and confidence in their riding abilities. Best of all, they got a chance to see the mountains in Kentucky from a whole new perspective.

If you are a new rider or even if you have experience you might want to consider bringing your friends or family to the Putney Trail head. Sharing the adventure of Black Mountain in a cabin, tent or camper will be a memory that will last a lifetime.

A few notes about Black Mountain

Black Mountain ORV Recreation Park is free. No registration, permits or tags are required. There are however some rules for the use of the park. Helmets are required and recommended. References to campgrounds or camping areas in the park itself mean that there are clearings that people camp at up on the mountain. Those areas are free to use but are considered primitive or rustic areas. There are no reservations. There are no facilities whatsoever.

You will need a trail map. Maps are available at most businesses in Harlan County and cost $4.00. The map fee helps cover the cost of printing and maintaining the park. Unlike in 2005, most of the trails are now marked but other trails are constantly being added.

The reference to Black Mountain as being a “park” should not been perceived that this area is not a rugged wilderness. The area is vast It is easy to get lost if you get off a marked trail. Riding this area can be challenging and dangerous. Riders should wear proper riding equipment, take water with them and use common sense.

While a GPS is not necessary it does help to keep one oriented in the park to find ones way back to a marked trail.

Additional Information about Black Mountain Recreational Park can be found here.

Information about the Harlan County Campground and RV park is located here:

ATV rental information is available at:

More info about Black Mountain is in this article;

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