By Gary McBain
Back to Black Mountain,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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