On September 15, 1995, the first 1,075 acres on the south face of Pine Mountain in Harlan County were dedicated as Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, protecting half of the largest old-growth forest in Kentucky. Today, with assistance from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund and the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve protects 3,509 acres of old-growth and second-growth forests. As one of 13 large old-growth tracts remaining in the eastern United States, Blanton Forest is a diverse ecological treasure. Many of the trees are 3 feet to 4 feet in diameter, towering 100 feet above the forest floor. Several trees have been dated to the late 1600s. Blanton Forest contains several forest communities, including mountaintop wetlands known as acid seeps and mixed-mesophytic deciduous forest. Many tree species such as sugar maple, tulip poplar, various oaks, hemlocks, beech and several magnolias make up the forest canopy.
A trail system approximately 4.5 miles in length is open for public use. The main trail consists of two loops leading to points of interest on the south face of Pine Mountain. The first loop is a moderately strenuous trail leading to a large sandstone rock outcrop known as Knobby Rock. From Knobby Rock, visitors gain a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the surrounding forest. The more strenuous loop to Sand Cave and the Maze takes visitors higher into the Watts Creek and Big Branch watersheds. Depending on the time of year, visitors can expect to see a wide range of wildlife and plant species within the largest old-growth forest in the Commonwealth. In addition, a shorter half-mile trail leading along Watts Creek offers a scenic but less strenuous alternative route to enjoy the preserve. Designated parking is available in a lot adjacent to Camp Blanton, a private facility. A kiosk and signs direct visitors to the trailhead. The preserve is open year round during daylight hours and is limited to foot travel only.
- Features - largest old-growth forest in Kentucky.
- Hiking - loop foot trail (four miles) up the south face of Pine Mountain, foot trail (one-half mile) along Watts Creek.
- Parking - lot adjacent to Camp Blanton.
- Hazards - steep slopes, venomous snakes and hazard trees.
- Activities - hiking, birding, nature photography and research.
Blanton Forest, Brigadoon, and Vernon-Douglas State Nature Preserves were recognized as being a part of the Old-Growth Forest Network in 2016. The Old-Growth Forest Network, a nationwide conservation organization, was created to identify a forest in each county which will remain in a natural condition and is open to the public.
Harlan County, approximately five miles west of the city of Harlan. From Interstate 75, take exit 29 onto U.S. Hwy 25E at Corbin. Travel south on U.S. 25E to Pineville. Turn left on U.S. Hwy 119 (crossing the Cumberland River) and travel north for 23.5 miles. Turn left on KY 840 at a sign for Camp Blanton. Follow KY 840 for approximately two miles; the parking area for the preserve is adjacent to Camp Blanton.