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Rock climbing OK’d at Breaks Interstate Park for adventure tourism

A climber tackled a sandstone cliff in Breaks Interstate Park. The park on the Kentucky-Virginia line recently opened access for rock climbing, which had not been allowed before.
A climber tackled a sandstone cliff in Breaks Interstate Park. The park on the Kentucky-Virginia line recently opened access for rock climbing, which had not been allowed before. Courtesy of Access Fund

Enthusiasts have begun establishing dozens of new rock-climbing routes on the sandstone cliffs of Breaks Interstate Park, which could boost efforts to make the area an adventure tourism destination and create jobs.

The commission that governs the park, which includes land in Kentucky and Virginia, approved a plan earlier this year to manage climbing in the 4,600-acre park, which didn’t previously allow rock climbing.

An organization called Access Fund announced June 6 that the park had been opened for climbing.

There are 50 to 75 climbing routes open now, but there is potential for hundreds more, said Zachary Lesch-Huie, southeast regional director for Access Fund, which works to protect access to climbing areas.

Kentucky is renowned among climbers from around the world for the number, variety and high quality of routes on the sandstone cliffs of Red River Gorge.

Breaks, as it is called locally, is smaller, but Lesch-Huie said it has great crags, easy access to routes and good amenities, including camping and lodging in the park.

Access Fund said the gorge at Breaks is lined with miles of orange and gray sandstone cliffs similar to those at nearby Obed Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee and the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

“Breaks is a truly fantastic and extensive sandstone climbing resource,” Lesch-Huie said. “It’s got it all.”

Elkhorn City, which is a few miles from the park, is among the places in Eastern Kentucky that have been trying to boost adventure tourism to diversify the economy in the face of a steep slide in coal jobs.

The park, which surrounds a 1,650-foot deep, 5-mile long gorge billed as the biggest east of the Mississippi, is a key piece of that effort.

“There is such a shared feeling around here of needing to transition our economy,” said Austin Bradley, the park superintendent. “We are actively trying to remake ourselves into an adventure tourism destination.”

Bradley said that a study released earlier this year found that Red River Gorge attracts 7,500 climbers a year and that they spend an estimated $3.6 million.

Even a small piece of that would help boost the economy around Breaks, Bradley said.

The area already is known for kayaking and rafting on the Russell Fork River, which runs through the park and Elkhorn City.

The river attracts kayakers internationally on October weekends, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from a dam upstream, creating challenging rapids.

Advocates are talking with members of Congress in hopes of increasing the number of releases from the dam to create more whitewater weekends.

The area also promotes fishing, hiking, mountain biking, camping and trails for all-terrain vehicles, in addition to cultural and historic attractions.

Bradley said the park recently re-established its horse stables and is seeking outfitters to develop recreation businesses. There also is interest in developing rafting packages and perhaps a zipline, he said.

Bradley said adding climbing to the mix of tourism attractions began as the park commission considered a new 30-year master plan.

Comments on the plan indicated a lot of interest in climbing in the park, Bradley said.

There has been some some climbing in the park going back at least 30 years, according to Access Fund. Little of it was authorized, however, so climbing didn’t develop into a significant attraction.

Bradley said the park’s philosophy is that it has a mission to protect the scenic, rugged terrain within its boundaries, but also a duty to consider allowing recreational activities that don’t compromise the protection.

After the commission that oversees the park decided to open access to climbers, a committee worked out a management plan covering issues such as protecting birds, plants and wildlife and responding to emergencies involving climbers, Bradley said.

The park is home to some species of concern, including a population of peregrine falcons.

Bradley said the park is one of the few places in the region where the bird has made a comeback after being decimated in the Eastern United States by the use of DDT, a once-popular insecticide.

The park’s climbing plan includes restrictions on access to some cliff areas to protect them. It also includes having climbers listen to a recording of a falcon sounding an alarm, so climbers will know when they’ve gotten close to a nesting area.

“We took a very careful, balanced approach to natural resource protection and climbing access,” Bradley said in a news release.

The plan requires climbers to stop at the visitors center or the lodge to register and get a packet of information. The plan also requires climbers to catalog routes they open, in part to help guide authorities if they have to respond to an emergency.

Lesch-Huie said the effort to develop a climbing plan for Breaks was one of the most successful partnerships between climbers and land managers in his experience.

The park is waiting on the results of additional ecological studies. It’s likely that more areas will be opened for climbing once that is done, Bradley said.

Lesch-Huie said he thinks the popularity of climbing at the park will grow as word of the opportunity spreads and more climbing routes are established.

“I think in coming decades, it’s going to be much more popular,” he said.

Information on climbing routes in Breaks Interstate Park is available at www.mountainproject.com.

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