Black Mountain, reaching an elevation of 4,139 feet, is the highest point in Kentucky. Virtually all of the upper portion of the mountain lies within eastern Harlan County near and along the Virginia line, although a small part extends northward into extreme southern Letcher County. Because of its high elevation, Black Mountain supports an important natural system of plants and animals unique in Kentucky, such as Wehrle's salamander. The Northern Hardwoods forest type has its best development on Black Mountain. Over 40 OKNP-listed species have been documented on the upper portions of the mountain. One of these, the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), is listed as Federally Endangered. At least 12 OKNP-listed species found on upper parts of the mountain are known nowhere else in the Commonwealth, and the populations of another 15 OKNP-listed species are the highest quality known in the state. About 40 moth species have been collected on the mountain and nowhere else in the state. There are likely other species that are found in Kentucky only on Black Mountain. A majority of the rare species associated with Black Mountain are most abundant near the summit and become less common at lower elevations. Below about the 3,000 foot contour, most rare species are no longer encountered.
In 1999 an agreement was reached between the Commonwealth of Kentucky and several coal operators with interests in Black Mountain. This agreement designated two distinct zones, the Timber Purchase Area and the Timber Conservation Easement Area. At the top of the mountain the 1,800+ acre Timber Purchase Area eliminated the possibility of surface mining at the highest point. The next zone down in elevation is the 18,000+ acre Timber Conservation Easement Area, a buffer zone between the top of the mountain and the minable areas below 3,200 feet in elevation. The Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves is the lead agency in overseeing these zones, in cooperation with other agencies.