The Reinvention of Breaks Interstate Park

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The 4,600-acre expanse is wild and prime for adventure, but can it save a post-coal community?

Breaks Interstate Park isn’t like other parks. Encompassing a wild parcel that runs along eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, it’s among a handful of interstate parks in the United States. And the terrain is unique: The Russell Fork Gorge, a 1,600-foot chasm carved by the Russell Fork River, sits within Breaks' 4,600 rugged acres, making it a prime destination for whitewater rafting, climbing and hiking. Some, inspired by the drama of the sandstone fissure, have even nicknamed it the “Grand Canyon of the East.”

Now land managers are hoping a proposed feature will give visitors another reason to stand up and take notice. In December 2019, leaders announced plans to begin construction on the country’s longest swinging pedestrian bridge within park bounds (Gatlinburg, Tennessee, holds the current title with its 680-foot-long Skylift). The new 720-foot-long bridge would cross high above the Russell Fork Gorge’s churning whitewater, connecting Kentucky and Virginia and possibly providing a boost to local economies that sit in the heart of coal country.

“For a long time, all of the region’s eggs were in one basket with coal, but now the local economy is collapsing,” said Austin Bradley, Breaks Interstate Park’s manager. “This new bridge is one of the ways we’re trying to help the area pivot to adventure tourism.”

Since 2015, the park has been making a concerted effort to attract new visitors. Land managers began hosting elk viewing tours and the park built a zip-ine and 12 miles of mountain bike trails, along with an adventure hub where visitors can rent bikes and other gear.

Bradley said the efforts are starting to pay off; the park estimates 300,000 people visited last year. The area is beautiful and unspoiled, “but we struggle from isolation,” he said. “There aren’t any large towns near us, and the area has seen a steady outflow of population because of the collapse of coal.” 

Still, Breaks' remote location is what makes it a prime adventure destination. Each spring, whitewater paddlers flock to the park to raft the Russell Fork’s wild Class V rapids. More than 25 miles of hiking trails deliver hikers and runners to sandstone bluffs overlooking the river and a newly-built mountain bike trail system gives fat-tire enthusiasts a chance to explore the gorge. 

Even with all that, the park offers the most to climbers. Its gorge rises from the banks of the river in a stacked series of sandstone cliffs broken by patches of hardwoods. After officially opening the park to climbing in 2015, Bradley created a program where land managers provide free hardware and lodging to those willing to develop new routes. 

So far, about 300 new climbing routes have been established, ranging from 5.7 top-ope lines to 5.13 sport and trad climbs. And according to Brad Mathisen, a board member for the Central Appalachians Climbing Coalition, climbers have only scratched the surface. He estimates there are at least 1,500 potential routes inside Breaks waiting to be developed—and the climbing is good.

 “If you’re a climber, you immediately see the potential in Breaks. Once you’re in the park, you’re just a 10-minute walk to hundreds of climbs,” Mathisen says. “And there’s a better variety of difficulty, too.”

The new suspension bridge, to be completed in spring 2021, will provide access to the Kentucky side of the park, where facilities and trailheads are currently few and far between. Construction will primarily be funded by a $433,000 grant from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, which allocates money from fines levied on coal-mining companies to projects in southwest Virginia. A single bridge isn’t going to revive the economy of a post-coal community, but Mathisen thinks it could bring more attention to their lesser-known park.

“There’s an outside perspective that the Appalachian region doesn’t have anything going for it,” Mathisen says. “My hope is that the Breaks can help change that perception.” He added: “Breaks can be [a] model for a different relationship with the mountains—one based on physical activity and adventure over resource extraction.”

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