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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Millard

First Task: Hike the Pinnacles of Berea. Second Task: Paint Them.

Updated: Jan 11

I didn’t plan to hike spectacular trails this particular day in the Fall; but I did...

Fall colors overlooking the valley from the Pinnacles of Berea
The Fall colors were bursting this year in Kentucky!

It was a sunny, warm, end-of-October Saturday in Kentucky. Trees were stuffed with rainbows of colors. The sun glowed warm and beckoned all creatures to wander into the great outdoors. There was no way I could stay indoors on such a glorious day. I searched “best hiking near me” in Google Maps since I wanted to paint en plein air at a new location, somewhere close to home.

I live near Red River Gorge Geological Area in eastern Kentucky, so trails from that park came up first in my search. (Speaking of the trails at Red River Gorge…I will have to write a whole other article about them later!)

I scrolled past Red River Gorge trails until I saw a trail named, “Pinnacles of Berea”. There were hundreds of 5-stars and it was only a 30-minute drive away. WHUUUT. How did I not know about this place? Granted, I have only lived here over a year, but even then, I should have at least heard of it!

Back Roads Through the Holler

I grabbed a set of travel watercolors, watercolor paper, some favorite brushes, bottles of water and a screenshot of the trail map. I envisioned myself sitting atop a pinnacle, soft wind blowing over the Appalachian valley, rustling the orange leaves as I gazed upon the valley of green farmlands and barns below. The reality wasn’t far off.

On the drive there, the hollers were bursting with color. The rich smells of leaves disintegrating into the soil was strong. I had my car windows down as I let Fall into my life, in all its glory. The sun streamed over creek beds that ran along the curvy back roads.

The holler is aglow with Fall colors
Who are we kidding? This is going to end up as a painting.

As I traveling through the winding roads, I found myself in the parking lot owned by the “Berea College Forestry Outreach Center at the Pinnacles.”

I knew that Berea College was a well-known liberal arts school. They host quite a few art and music festivals throughout the year. The town had a special charm to it, a beautiful college campus and restored historical buildings dotted the streets. I had not been aware that the college owned a swatch of the Appalachians. Now that I knew that, I was even more intrigued.

Indian Fort Mountain Trail System

Owned by Berea College, the Indian Fort Mountain Trail System is located within one of the oldest managed private forests in the country. Starting from the main trailhead the trails all branch upward and gain elevation steadily up from 950 ft to 1500 ft. There are many trail options and vantage points overlooking the Appalachian hills and hollers.

I stopped at the Welcome Center and met a friendly volunteer named Diane. She and I talked about the area briefly and I mentioned how excited I was to discover this trail system and that I might paint or sketch a little something along the trail. We had a nice discussion about how we both had lived in other places, including Arizona and the west coast and how we both had only lived in Kentucky the last few years. We also found out we lived relatively close to one another.

I couldn’t wait to get on the trail to get up to a pinnacle! It was time for me to get some inspiration and maybe sketch or paint a little!

A view from the main trail in the Fall
The view from Indian Fort Mountain Trail

Up on the Mountain

The Outreach Center has information posted about the Shawnee and Cherokee artifacts found across the land and how the school came to own the land. The trees on the trails were made up of Paw Paw, Dogwood, Eastern Red Cedar, Red Oak, Redbud, Sassafras, Shagbark Hickory, Sweet Gum, Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, White Oak and more. I recognized the Oaks, Cedars, Dogwoods, Sycamore and Redbuds, as well as the Beech trees since their roots were grown up on the trails, they looked like “knuckles grabbing the earth” just as Berea College wrote in the tree descriptions for the public.

As I neared the East Pinnacle, the view of the valleys below emerged. Even the most experienced hiker would have taken pause to soak in the views.

View over the valley of homes and trees below
View from the East Pinnacle

There were quite a few people resting atop this location. It was almost a mile up and back and the view was worth every step. I decided to continue onto the Eagle’s Nest. Diane, the volunteer I had met earlier suggested it as a good spot to paint with less traffic.

I followed the trail back to the split and headed upward for a bit to reach Eagle’s Nest. The views there were intensely beautiful as well. The area’s huge boulders were made of conglomerate rock, a type of limestone mixed with tiny pebbles, much like gravel. Scientists say conglomerate rock was created by the ocean that once covered this region, thus, it’s considered to be older than the Appalachians themselves.

Another nice treat is that Diane from the Welcome Center was off work and had hiked up to Eagle’s Nest the same time I arrived, so we got to chat a bit more. I invited her to join a plein air group that I meet with during warmer months. We typically paint outdoors at parks, historical locations and private residences since many of us live in rural areas, surrounded by nature’s living paintings.

Conglomerate rock with praying mantis on it
Conglomerate rock made of limestone and pebbles (gravel) with a camouflaged visitor

A Painter’s Dream - Indian Fort Lookout

I decided to give the Indian Fort Lookout a peek next. That trail was sort of on my way back down the mountain. I had to pick a location to paint since I had been messing around on the trail for the last hour taking photos and sightseeing. I knew I would have to start a sketch on the mountain and finish it at home without distractions.

Daylight is a friend and a foe of a plein air painter. We love the way the sun lights up our subjects, but we are always in a race with it and have to work fast outdoors.

As I neared the pinnacle at Indian Fort Lookout, I noticed a cave tucked below the trail I was walking on. The trail was named Rock House. I made a mental note that I’d have to visit again to hike down to the Rock House and then over to the West Pinnacle. Too much beauty to see in one unplanned hiking trip!

The views at Indian Fort Lookout did not disappoint. The valley below contained everything a plein air artist would want…and more. Rolling hills and knobs covered in vibrant yellows, oranges and reds, freshly groomed farmland, barns, creeks, roads, layers of hills overlapping one another as far as the eye could see. A painter’s dream. I took a lot of photos and began a sketch.

A view over the valley covered in bright Fall colors
One of the views from the Indian Fort Lookout Trail

Just a Wee Little Watercolor Painting

I laid down a few base colors and shapes and let those dry before I headed back down the mountain. When I got home, I worked on layering the colors to try and capture the density of the forest. The camera on my phone didn’t come close to capturing the depth or richness of the views in-person.

I spent the majority of my day outdoors in 75 degree weather in October, with no bugs, no rain and minimal fellow hikers. I couldn’t have asked for a prettier trail or more lush scenery.

I am 100% content to have stumbled upon such an inspiring part of the Appalachians. I will be back to finish unfinished business.

Watercolor overlooking the Appalachians from Indian Fort Lookout
Watercolor from Indian Fort Lookout


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