Hidden within a 300 year old stand of some of Kentuckys finest old growth forest, Rock Hotel is more than just your average rock shelter. This short, yet magical 0.75 mile loop traverses a jungle like section of old growth hemlock, tulip, and white oak forest tucked into its own separate nature preserve, the Pine Mountain State Nature Preserve. This trail is easily accessible along Highway 382 while headed from Limestone Gap to Laurel Cove, and became our last hike for the day shortly after completing the journey to Powderhorn Arch.
Having passed by the trailhead earlier in the day, I took note of the fact that there is not much of a parking area for this trail. We had to squeeze our suv onto a thin stretch of shoulder just off the main highway, with the hope that it would give cars passing by adequate space to maneuver. The trail begins just past the stone steps leading from the state park into one of two separate tracts, totaling 868 acres of state nature preserve, within Bell County, Kentucky. So you might be asking, “Why create an extra layer of protection within an already protected state park?’
Well, it turns out that Rock Hotel is one of many sites in the region with recorded prehistoric Native American habitation going back thousands of years. In fact, the Pine Mountain Ridge, which extends 125 miles through the states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, has a rich history of early human habitation since the Late Mississippian Period. Some of these sites even contain petroglyphs, preserved in the stable environment of several rock shelters. Walking this trail, its entirely possible to imagine yourself retracing the same steps as our early ancestors did while they roamed the land.
Unlike several of the trails in the park that feel ragged and in need of some maintenance, with weedy and overgrown plants encroaching onto the path, this trail is well looked after. The forests maturity, having had time to establish a well defined understory, give this whole area a sense as if we were strolling through a garden. Dense mats of emerald green moss gave way to sprawling colonies of reindeer lichen. Although most of this species of lichen are found primarily in the extreme northern latitudes of North America, this particular variety thrives along the high elevation of the Appalachian Mountains. We’ve even spotted some while hiking the ridges above Twin Arches, In Big South Fork N.R.R.A.
As we gazed down at all the funky stuff growing beneath our feet, we couldn’t help but to spot another unusual looking wild mushroom. Terrestrial coral mushrooms are some of the wildest looking fungi out there. These industrious decomposers come in an assortment of colors, from purple, red, yellow, and white. What sets them apart from most mushrooms, which grow a cap attached to a stalk, is their distinctive antler like shape. We spotted some earlier in the day on our hike to Honeymoon Falls, a bit further down the mountain.
After a short stroll, we reached a staircase leading down to the loop containing Rock Hotel. Not more than 7 minutes later, we rounded a bend in the trail to find ourselves in the midst of this ancient rock shelter. Those standing on the cliff above, would never realize they were directly above a small cave, as the cliffs edge juts out over the main space. The shape of the shelters opening, with its sharp lines and boxy shape is so unique, it has an almost modern aesthetic.
It briefly occurred to me that, the stones slanted and layered appearance looked as if the rocks had been pushed out of the ground. A bit of research informed me of the fact that this entire region lies on a fault block, one of the most prominent geological structures in the eastern United States. Around 230 million years ago, as the Appalachian Mountains were being uplifted, the pressures from mountain building caused the northeast edge of a block to be thrust upwards, forming the 125 mile long Pine Mountain Ridge.
Heading deeper into the cavern, the floor is littered with boulders, making it easy to imagine why its believed that most early Native Americans only used shelters like this on a temporary basis. As most of these early peoples were mainly hunter-gatherers, moving from region to region in search of wild game, they would only inhabit these rock shelters for a short period of time while migrating through the area.
If you continue just past the cave opening, you’ll find a rugged path that climbs up onto the cliff above. The vertical climb is slippery, with only thin tree whips to grab ahold of, but the view once on atop is well worth it. Another thing to note is the fact that this shelter also sits on the edge of a deep precipice thats hidden behind the thick stands of rhododendron near the mouth of the cavern. My curiosity got the best of me as I began parting through the brush to see the valley below, only to find that I was standing on the edge of a sheer drop.
Leaving Rock Hotel, we jumped back on the trail, descending into a deep ravine. Halfway through the loop, a wooden plank bridge takes you over a wetland bog that apparently never dries. It reminded us a lot of the bogs surrounding Big Bone Lick State Park. Even though this is one of the shortest hikes in the park, its one you shouldn’t miss. The chance to walk amongst one of only a handful of old growth trees in the state felt like a privilege. Theres a permanence to this place thats hard to explain, but once you’re here, you can literally feel it.
As we head back to the car, we noticed the sun beginning to dip below the tree line. Wanting to catch a proper mountain sunset, we drove back to the lodge and sat out on the back patio. Within a span of 20 minutes, as the sun sank into the valley between Pine Mountain and Log Mountain, we watched the sky turn from a bright yellow and orange to deep shades of violet. Tomorrow morning, we will head out first thing in the morning to catch the sunrise fog surrounding Pineville, as we hike to Chained Rock.