Author: Leah Guggenmos
If you are visiting the Red River Gorge for more than a day or two, you might be interested in an adventure that takes you a little further off the beaten path. Eastern Kentucky is full of interesting sights and attractions, you just need to know where to look! One such interesting and little-known place to visit is the Southfork Elk View, located in Jackson, KY. Combining a Kentucky classic, horses, with the beautiful scenery of the mountains, this is a stop you don’t want to miss!
Here’s the story. Years ago, these mountain foothills were aggressively strip-mined for coal. This type of mining takes place on the surface of the soil, rather than underground, as was done traditionally, leaving behind large swaths of flattened lands between the hills. Thanks to regulations enacted in the late 90s, finished strip mines were required to be “reclaimed”, providing newly suitable areas for grazing animals, like the elk that were reintroduced to Kentucky around the same time.
Residents of these foothills often do not have flat land for their animals to graze on, and saw a new opportunity in these reclaimed strip mines. During the lush seasons of spring and summer, locals would leave their animals to roam free in these areas, hoping they’d bulk up nicely in time to be brought home in the fall. However, starting during the economic recession of 2008, more horses were dropped and fewer picked up. Stallions began to be released, and what was once a well-controlled and managed population of owned horses, became an unchecked breeding ground for feral horses.
Thankfully, organizations like the Appalachian Horse Project stepped in to look out for the horses who had no owner to speak of. In the winter months they provide hay, and ensure the horses are a healthy weight. Those who are struggling are taken into foster care, and adopted out to the public. Many volunteers keep watch, and local universities assist in inventorying and researching the populations.
You may visit the free-roaming horses of Kentucky anytime at the Southfork Elk View in Jackson. From the overlook, you will likely see horses, but if you’re lucky, if it’s the right time of day and a quiet day of the week, you may see wild elk as well. The overlook is reachable by car and plenty of parking is available. You will see trails below, carved out by ATVs. It seems that riding ATVs in this area is permitted, but if you choose to do so, please do not harass the horses and give them plenty of space. You may also walk on these trails. Do remember that horses can be dangerous animals, even if they are not intending to be. Never approach a horse with a foal, and be wary of getting close to large groups, where scuffles can break out and you could end up in the way of a fleeing animal. Please be respectful, do not litter, and do not harass or haze the animals for any reason, including photo ops.
It is highly recommended that you contact the Appalachian Horse Project and sign up for a guided tour. Doing so supports the efforts of the program in protecting these horses, and also helps ensure your personal safety.