SURROUNDING ™ LIVINGSTON AND THE ROCKCASTLE RIVER
There are places that just seem to be near the center of all things important. Livingston, located on Roundstone Creek where it breaches the Rockcastle River in the mountains of Kentucky, is one of those places. It seems that so many of nature’s wanderings and human longings come to a focus at that location.
The Rockcastle River posed the last rugged barrier to those early pioneers heading into the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. But they had guides. Bison herds from the plains knew the mountain routes well, and passed through to drink their fill at the many salt licks in the mountains. So the Native Americans who traveled the Great Warrior’s Path [in Algonquin, “Athawominee,” meaning “Path of the Armed Ones”] followed along these great bison traces, forming the first roads through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. From the south, that path traveled around the upper river regions of the Rockcastle River [near Gray Hawk], to reach Station Camp Creek [along its War Fork tributary] and its ford at the Kentucky River [at Irvine].
Henry Skaggs was one of the first to blaze such a trail west of that Path, heading down into the Rockcastle River country from a surprising stretch of slight hills to the east. Mountain areas that were gently rolling, even “flattish” [around London]. Skaggs turned west to head into that rugged Rockcastle River landscape at a place called, “Hazel Patch.” It was easily recognized for those wonderful, nutted, clusters of small trees. A “rest stop” on this packhorse highway.
Go there yourself, and see what I mean [this is “old” Hazel Patch, not the one on your maps]. There is a historical marker there, placed by the “Friends of Boones Trace” [on Patton Road at Highway 490]. They are a knowledgeable group. And along with the Boone Society, excellent guides through the Boone family’s history.
Daniel Boone, however, had other ideas. He was working with Colonel Richard Henderson to establish a new colony on the Kentucky River [Boonesborough]. So he turned north at Hazel Patch and, after following another buffalo route, blazed a new trail, crossing the Rockcastle River upstream from Livingston and curving back to join Roundstone Creek at the mouth of its Crooked Creek tributary.
Once at Roundstone Creek, Boone and his axe men headed toward from whence it came, as the floodplains opened up with forests of giant cane to hack through. But he knew where he was going. Toward what would be called “Boone’s Gap,” just south of Berea. He knew better than to try to come down that “Big Hill” to the east.
In 1792, the Kentucky Legislature provided funding to expand the Cumberland Gap trail in Kentucky into a passable route for wagon traffic. It was called the “Wilderness Road.” It cut a new path from Hazel Patch, heading directly over the mountains to the Rockcastle River. It crossed at a ford opposite Livingston and headed up to Mt. Vernon, which then became the new jumping-off point for a mountain journey.
The Wilderness Road was the site of one of the first Union victories in the Civil War. It happened on Wildcat Mountain, just across the Rockcastle River from Livingston, where the Wilderness Road cut through it.
Go drive the gravel roads up Wildcat Mountain. This is the Wilderness Road you are traveling along! Get out and walk along with the wagons. Feel the horizon. You might even hear one of your ancestors describing the rough going. Three hundred thousand pioneers crossed over this route!
To get there, let us first head to Berea, then to Boone Street, turning south on Slate Lick Road. You will immediately get the feel of the first pioneers crossing through the knobs in this region. Link up with U.S. Highway 25, which used to be the route south before they built the freeway to the side of it. This road is another trip through Kentucky’s history, just a little more recent.
Keep your eyes open. You will hardly notice the low gap you’re crossing over. Daniel Boone knew what he was doing! This was the easiest way out of the mountains!
It is called Boone Gap. Pull over along the side cut-off. It is where the Daughters of the American Revolution placed one of their famous monuments to Boone’s passage. And where the Friends of Boone Trace placed a historical marker.
You are now in the headwaters of Roundstone Creek. You can see why Boone used it to found Boonesborough. Wide open! Drive through Roundstone to the small community of Wilde. Here, we go overland, if your vehicle is stout on gravel. So turn west over the railroad tracks, and skirt along the Merritt Cemetery Road. You will like the feel as much as what you see. Turn right on Hummel Road and stop for some music history at the Renfro Valley Museum. And then onto Mt. Vernon, where you can linger in their square for some history lessons.
Now drive south on Highway 25 and head down to Livingston. You are riding on the Wilderness Road, and it has a street sign to prove it!
Livingston is at the mouth of Roundstone Creek. A famous place, and the people there love it. Funky and fun. Obviously groovy. And you’ve never seen so many hiking trails. This place is truly “Trail City.” Both for them then, and now for you!
Canoeing? Sure. I’m headed there now. Just below the city is an old ford onto which you can drive [this is the original crossing of the Wilderness Road]. Put in there, and do the unusual. Paddle up to the mouth of Roundstone Creek. You now own part of its pioneer history. And across the river? That’s Wildcat Mountain, and that is where we are going next to visit!
Back on the road, we head down Highway 25, following the river. Another bridge, with a historical marker. This is where Skaggs Trace crossed the river! And what a lovely setting for a special trading store and a botanical park! [Rockcastle River Trading Co. and Riverside Gardens]
Cross the bridge, drive onto Wildcat Mountain and drive into Civil War history. Get out and walk back even further in time, along the Wilderness Road that was built 64 years before the battle!
In the Civil War, Wildcat Mountain was important in holding Kentucky for the Union. But Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer was blocking the Cumberland Gap. The Battle of Wildcat Mountain would test each side’s strength at controlling movement through Eastern Kentucky on the Wilderness Road. In one of the earliest Union victories in the Civil War, the Confederate forces were repulsed.
Ride to the top of Wildcat Mountain. There is a small park, with clean bathrooms. Get out and take a deep breath. The air is infused with history here! This is the Wilderness Road. What you are seeing, and the ground you are feeling, is the same as that experienced by pioneers so early in Kentucky’s history.
This gravel road is also the course of the Sheltowee Trace [wasn’t that the Shawnee name for Daniel Boone?]. It turns to the right on the ridge, but drive forward [and make sure you have the right car to do so]. You will come out flush to the river, directly across from where you put in your canoe below Livingston. I think the sign is serious when it says, “Impassable at High Water.”
Drive back off the mountain and locate the “old” Hazel Patch. The Friends of Boone Trace will now be our guide for a while. Find their sign at the old Hazel Patch, and you will have found a famous place in early Kentucky geographic decision-making. For Daniel Boone set off here in a new, northerly direction with his swinging axe men. He was cutting a new way through the mountains to found Boonesborough for Colonel Richard Henderson. Boone’s Trace, it would be called.
Take a look at the Friends of Boone Trace website and access their excellent route maps. Follow Boone’s Trace to Boonesborough. They got it right with the help of Kentucky’s early land expert from Shelbyville, Neal Hammon. You will be joined, for part of the way, by backwoods bicyclists on a route that the Friends helped create.
Now head along what was once a buffalo trace to one of the few bridges that now cross the Rockcastle River [Route 490]. And near the same location that Daniel Boone once forded! Look downstream. That gravelly ford crossing is still obvious!
Now, the fun part. Head west along the opposite side of the river, to the small road junction called “Lamero.” Turn up Trace Branch Road.
Yup, it is the same route that Boone’s axe men cut. You are now seeing what they created. It is such a big deal to drive through the wilderness of Kentucky’s history!
Daniel Boone had been there before. He crossed over to the mouth of Crooked Creek at its junction with Roundstone Creek. And from there, up Roundstone Creek all the way up to the Boone Gap that you previously crossed when we started this journey. It is nice to complete the circle.
But today, let’s follow that ridge crest north, entering Berea from the back, over the “Big Hill” that we hear so much about. You will pass through the communities of Three Links and Morrill.
Then get ready. The “road cuts” down Big Hill are massive and impressive. Turn left at the bottom on Highway 21 toward Berea, and pass the two Pinnacles and Indian Fort Mountain.
Then stop for dinner, at the Berea College’s Historic Boone Tavern. That is a fitting ending to this historical expedition!