When I moved to Eastern Kentucky almost half a century ago, I learned early on that no one who lived here could tell me what Eastern Kentucky is; so, over the years I have gradually developed my own ideas…making an honest attempt to lay out in a short essay what I think are the boundaries of Eastern Kentucky.
Approximately one-fourth of the total land area of the state or about thirty-three of Kentucky’s 120 counties fall within the traditional boundaries of “Eastern Kentucky,” though culturally speaking, one could argue that the area may be considerably larger. It contains the largest county in the state, Pike County, where someone is sure to tell you, “If you flatten it out, it’s bigger’n Texas!”
So, what are these traditional boundaries?
On the north, the busy Ohio River separates Eastern Kentucky from Ohio; while to the northeast, the Big Sandy River and the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy, across which the Hatfield and McCoy feud was fought, form the boundary between Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Both of these streams are, relatively speaking, small. A teenage youngster could fling a stone over most of their reaches.
To the east and southeast, the Cumberland and Pine Mountain ranges help to define the border with Virginia. To the south is Tennessee, where there is no precise natural border with Eastern Kentucky, while on the west a wide wall of tree-covered hills and hollows known as the Pottsville Escarpment is the only noticeable geographic boundary.
The Daniel Boone National Forest, which lies within this escarpment region and is featured on many road maps of Kentucky, when extended north to the Ohio River is a good approximation of the traditional western boundary of the region.
Travelers approaching Eastern Kentucky from the west, on I-64 near Morehead, for example, leave what is often called the “Outer Bluegrass” and enter the escarpment country. It is a place of rugged hills broken further by the deep, breathtaking gorges of swift flowing streams such as the Red River, and it appears to be leading into “real” mountains beyond, though that never quite happens. This escarpment leads up to the Cumberland Plateau.
About two-thirds of Eastern Kentucky lies on this plateau, a region of almost unbroken, though modest, hills–if one compares them to ranges like those in other areas with the Appalachians.
The remaining third of Eastern Kentucky is located, for the most part, in the Cumberland and Pine Mountain area. Black Mountain near the Virginia border, part of the Cumberland range, rises to 4,139 feet and is the highest peak in Kentucky, but it is the exception rather than the rule. The property where this writer lives near Ashland, Kentucky stands barely 800 feet above sea level, but is nonetheless a part of these “highlands.”
Eastern Kentucky is well-known for its fine recreational parks, which include Carter Caves, Greenbo, Jenny Wiley, Cumberland Falls, Kingdom Come, Natural Bridge, Paintsville Lake, Levi Jackson, Grayson Lake, Pine Mountain and Buckhorn Lake–all state resort parks with over-night accommodations, as well as Cumberland Gap National Park. All are quite beautiful and worthy of a visit, with numerous natural streams and man-made lakes, which add to the area’s scenic and recreational value.
So, when the frenzy of the summer vacation season is over, you might want to plan a tour of Eastern Kentucky. While you’re here, get out of the car and take a leisurely stroll down a country lane or down an overgrown path in a remote part of any of the parks. Soak in the beauty of the area and notice the astonishing variety of flora growing at your feet. See if you, too, don’t begin to develop a love for this special place in America!
[Ernie (Ernest Martin) Tucker is a regular contributor to Columnist with a View. He is a retired history professor and continues to reside in his beloved Eastern Kentucky. He is a “man about town” in Ashland, Kentucky and is also available for speaking engagements.]