Tired of the same old thing? Want something different? Breaks Interstate Park is a rarity. There are only two interstate parks in the country. Breaks is mostly in southwestern Virginia with a small part in Kentucky. It’s 4,500 acres of woodland and Appalachian Mountain scenery that are breathtaking. It gets its name from the break in Pine Mountain created by the Russell Fork River. Besides its uniqueness, the park has so much to see and do that you won’t find everywhere. Getting there involves driving mountain roads. This is the only county in Virginia that has no four-lane highways.
I visited on a comped press trip, but my opinions are my own.
1. Rhododendron Restaurant
We met with Austin Bradley, superintendent of Breaks Park, at the Rhododendron Restaurant. Its floor-to-ceiling windows gave a spectacular view of the gorge. Stepping out on the balcony brought me even closer to this magnificent natural phenomenon. It’s called the Grand Canyon of the South. The 1,000-foot gorge formed over millions of years as the Russell Fork River roared its way through Virginia into Kentucky, headed for the Ohio River.
Having such a view enhanced the lunch experience. We had the buffet since we were there on a weekend, but there is a regular menu during the week. The salad bar included a delicious pasta salad along with several kinds of greens, pepperoni, egg, cheese, and more. The fried chicken is true southern style and desserts are a treat. Do try the cherry cobbler.
2. Breaks Interstate Lodging
You have lots of lodging choices here. The park lodge buildings, next to the restaurant and visitor center, are named for plants: Redbud Hemlock, Dogwood, and Catawba Lodges. The lodge has 70 rooms and one suite in the Rosebud Lodge. They all look out on a view of the gorge.
There are four split-level Woodland Cottages with two bedrooms and one bath, sleeping up to four adults. All have completely furnished kitchens.
The five lakefront cabins have a rustic appearance but are more luxurious. They all have a covered front porch with rocking chairs and a back deck complete with a hot tub overlooking Laurel Lake. Austin told about one guest who caught a nice sized fish while soaking in his hot tub. Looking over the deck railing, we saw several fish swimming in the clear water below. Two cabins include two bedrooms, two baths — one with a loft and additional space — and one is three bedrooms, three baths. One cabin is handicap accessible.
There are three yurts if you want camping on a slightly more luxurious scale. For cooking, each yurt has a microwave inside and an outdoor cooking area featuring a picnic table, fire ring, and a charcoal grill. There are no bathrooms in the yurts, but they are located close to a campground bathhouse. One is handicap accessible.
For campers with their own equipment, anything from tent to motor home, you are well covered here. The campground is open from April 1–October 31 and has 138 sites in four campground areas ranging from tent to full service with water, electric, and sewage. The campgrounds have bathhouses with hot showers, laundry, and a camp store.
Pro Tip: Campgrounds and some of the other lodge rooms are pet friendly.
There are things to do here to please everyone. For the thrill seekers, you can zip the Canyon Rim Zipline across the Grand Canyon of the South going from one scenic outlook to another. There is half a mile of ziplines with three different stops across the canyon.
4. Whitewater Rafting
You can take the thrill a bit lower by whitewater rafting on the Russell Fork River. The river has 16 miles of whitewater between Haysi, Virginia, and Elkhorn City, Kentucky. Upper sections of the river are good for beginner and intermediate rafters; some parts of the river are deadly and only for very experienced rafters.
5. Rock Climbing
Rock climbing at the Breaks is a relatively new sport. It started in 2016. You can climb about 350 routes up steep sandstone cliffs. Seeing those sheer cliffs that stretch to the sky, and some of the route names like Achy Breaky Start, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad, are enough to tell me I’ll never try this.
6. Tamer Adventures
For those who like tamer adventures, there are choices including taking a pedal boat, canoe, or kayak ride on Laurel Lake; biking with either a pedal or electric bike; fishing; or doing some leisurely hiking along the 25 miles of trails for bird and wildlife viewing. The park is home to white-tail deer, black bear, and many smaller species. There are two fledgling peregrine falcons that have been reintroduced to the area that are nesting down in the gorge. You might see beavers and mink along the river. There are two species of rhododendron, rosebay and catawba, and mountain laurel.
7. Breaks Interstate Waterpark
The Breaks has a large waterpark for those who like wet fun. It has a 4,000 square-foot beach-entry shallow pool, a current channel, four water slides, a spray ground, in-pool basketball and volleyball courts, and some shade spots if you want to avoid the sun.
One thing not to miss is the overlooks. There are eight overlooks in the park. Many of the hiking and biking trails lead to them. My favorite is State Line Overlook. From there, you can see Russell Fork Gorge crossing over from Virginia to Kentucky, passing Pine Mountain.
On the Kentucky side, there is a relatively flat, highly unaccessible piece of land called Potters Flats that was once inhabited by a family of moonshiners. Locals used to ford the river, but when the water was high, they had to hike about 2 miles around a winding dirt trail to get to their homes. The park took the land under eminent domain, forcing them to move. Many of the descendants still live in the area.
Austin told us the park has plans to develop the area and make the flats accessible via a swing bridge across the gorge. The idea was probably based on a local story that when the Potters were creating their product, a buyer could come to the edge of the gorge and send his money across in a basket rigged on a cable across the gorge that is still hanging on one side. The Potters would take the money and return a bottle of their whiskey in the basket.
Towers Overlook, which is closest to the lodge and restaurant, is also a great view. Grassy Overlook is the closest for those staying in the campgrounds.
9. Elk Tours
For me, the highlight of my visit was the elk tour where I watched herds of this recently reintroduced majestic animal. The tour begins when you board a bus in the parking lot across from the park visitor center. It’s held certain days in March through May, and August through October. The back story as to why this is so special is that habitat loss and hunting depleted the once vast herds of elk. The last eastern elk in Virginia was killed in 1855 and, in 1877, when the last elk was killed by a hunter in Pennsylvania, the sub-species was declared extinct.
We rode for about half an hour along some rugged mountain roads to wildlife conservation land. Much of this had once been coal mines and has been restored to provide food and shelter for the newly introduced herds of elk. Much of the land here is open for grazing pasture. Just after we entered the reclaimed land, we spotted a heard of elk grazing just on the side of the road. We stopped and got out to take pictures. The elk were far enough away we didn’t disturb them.
We continued to a place at the top of a mountain owned by the Nature Conservancy where the elk was originally reintroduced back in 2012. There is a small shelter and several picnic tables. Part of the tour is a picnic meal that we enjoyed as some of the conservation group told us about how they had reintroduced the elk. The project began in 2012 with 75 elk from neighboring Kentucky who had been reintroduced earlier.
Unbelievably, there was opposition from ranchers to the program. They were concerned that the elk might bring in disease that could spread to their cattle. During the reintroduction process, they quarantined the elk to prevent any diseases from entering the state. Today, there are about 250 elk in Virginia. Unfortunately, this year, they are going to allow some to be killed in a legal hunt. Apparently, navigating the politics needed to reintroduce the elk involves allowing hunting when the herds are large enough.
Pro Tip: If you do the tour, watch the ground around you. Elks shed their antlers annually. If you find an antler, you can keep it. One of the biologists on our tour did find a large antler.
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