Nature’s Towering Beacon – Pilot Rock

WESTERN KY (11/19/12)—Pilot Rock—a towering stone protrusion on the edge of Todd and Christian County—has served as a natural beacon to natives, pioneers, and adventure seekers trekking through western Kentucky for centuries. Today, the natural landmark remains a popular destination and provides an excellent environment for a variety of recreational activities including hiking, wildlife observation, geocaching, “folk tale” treasure hunting, rock climbing, repelling, and more. 

Jutting out from an already elevated ridge of rocky Kentucky soil and soaring to heights over 960 feet above sea level (about 75-90 feet from the ground upon which it stands), Pilot Rock is the tallest single point in the surrounding dual-county area. As a result, sightseers can survey miles of terrain from above the dense canopy when standing on the landmark’s circular, plateau-like summit, and can even view the famed Jefferson Davis Monument in Fairview, KY, which stands approximately 8-10 miles south. In fact, these lofty attributes are how the outcropping came to be known as Pilot Rock according to one written account found on KentuckyGenealogy.org. An excerpt from this work is as follows: 

Its elevated summit, which is gained without much difficulty, affords a fine view of the surrounding country for many miles, presenting a prospect beautiful and picturesque. In the leafless season and a favoring atmosphere, it is said Hopkinsville, twelve miles away, may be distinctly seen from its summit, and in pioneer days it was known far and wide as an infallible landmark, hence its name.

But how did Pilot Rock actually come to be? 

As geological research seems to suggest, Pilot Rock became what it is as a result of seismic activity or erosion in the area thousands of years ago. On the technical side, blog writer and Christian County, KY resident, Genevieve Netz—who has written several pieces regarding Pilot Rock via her blog, Prairie Bluestem—discovered that the proper geological term for the immense overlook is actually “a knob on an escarpment” after perusing Todd County groundwater files.

According to Merriam-Webster, an escarpment is defined in the following manners: 1) a steep slope in front of a fortification; 2 ) a long cliff or steep slope separating two comparatively level of more gently sloping surfaces and resulting from erosion or faulting.

In this case, the latter definition fits best with the scenario found at Pilot Rock, with the lower farm lands of both Christian and Todd Counties serving to define the elevated ridge. As the actual landmark stands as the highest point on the escarpment, being called a “knob” seems fitting. 

With such a unique, high-reaching presence in tow, it’s no wonder that the tower, the surrounding countryside, and tales of its historical significance have appeared in a variety of written works dating back to the early 19th and 20th Centuries. Specifically, several reports and local stories indicate that the rock has been used for recreation, a criminal hideout, spiritual ceremonies and religious rituals over the years. 

Writer R.W. M’Roberts offers up what is now century-old commentary on the varied past of the “Kentucky Wonder” in a January 27th, 1904 edition of the Kenutcky New Era courtesy of the Louisville Times

Indian legends are plenty where once was the Red Man’s Council Hall—his point of lookout; and from its flat top his signal fires were lighted, their blue smoke reaching the bluer sky and telling a message as plan as [fabled Italian inventor, Guglielmo] Marconi can transmit with his wireless telegraphy. 

Later on it was the meeting place of the lawless band of Pennington’s horse thieves; when thieving was as common to the foothills of Kentucky as illicit distilling was to the eastern mountains. 

But today the landholders pass beneath the shadow of the mighty rock, stop to drink from the crystal spring at its base, all unmindful of its former history, but resting secure in the civilization and good government that our country affords. 

Tourists come thither every summer to enjoy the scenery and ponder upon the work of nature that lifted this mighty rock up from the common sail and bared its face to the sun and wind. Kindly time covered it with mosses and ferns and small oaks are growing in the crevices. A note of life is lent by the bumble-bee pilfering from the blue bell her honey and like its master, Man, grumbling because it gets so little. 

Beyond what initially appears to be well-written conjecture or the telling of a “windy” western Kentucky tale, though, it should be mentioned that the site is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its direct connection with Native American history, specifically the Woodland period tribes. 

Though a specific area of the rock or address is unmentioned, the NHR listing states that prehistoric petroglyphs (ancient rock art/carvings) dating roughly between 1000AD-999BC exist in the vicinity of the rocky barbican. What’s more, the petroglyphs are listed as being significant in three categories: art, prehistory, and religion. While the actual tower’s primary historic function is listed as “Religion” on the NHR’s page, the landmark’s historic sub-function is described as a “Ceremonial Site,” which lends extra credence to tales told of more recent tribal usage. 

In more modern times, however, it seems that the area was intermittently used for preaching Christianity. As reported in a Kentucky New Era column entitled, “Watching the Parade,” written in 1969 by Joe Dorris, those familiar with the region (a Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter in this case) may have been used to seeing religion intermingled with relaxation at the locale. 

“He [Mr. Carpenter] said he had seen so many persons at the rock that their horses and buggies would be parked around the base in an area covering several acres,” writes Dorris of Mr. Carpenter’s account. “The kids would play in and around the rocks. They would have a big dinner there, along with preaching.” 

In another well-researched blog post by aforementioned Prairie Bluestem writer Genevieve Netz, which can be found by clicking here, a more specific event and memory is recalled with help from an article in the Kentucky New Era by Elzie Yancey: 

In 1895, the pastor of Vaughn’s Chapel was retiring. (Vaughn’s Chapel was roughly 4 miles southwest of Pilot Rock, cross-country. At that time, it had around 150 members). ‘I want to get my congregation as near to Heaven as I can for my last sermon,’ Reverend Bowles said (according to Elzie Yancey, who was then a young member of the congregation). And so, the last sermon that Reverend Bowles preached was on top of Pilot Rock. ‘That rock was crowded with people that Sunday,’ Yancey said. Fortunately no one fell off!

Aside from the religious and ceremonial history of the site, the area between Pilot Rock and the relatively nearby town of Apex, KY, may also conceal a real buried treasure according to several treasure hunting websites and local accounts. As Netz reports in another post regarding this supposed treasure, which can be found here, it is believed that a bag or satchel containing what was once approximately three thousand dollars worth of gold coins remains hidden in the 12-15 mile area between the two locations. 

How did it get there, you ask? According to Netz’s research, it is said that the owner(s) of the gold and his party were attacked while transporting the funds. However, someone in the group was able to bury the gold before it could be taken by the attacking robbers. Unfortunately, the bag could not be located afterward and may have remained there ever since. Today, it’s estimated that this particular bag of gold would be worth over $100,000. 

While this shimmering claim is more than inviting for adventurists, it doesn’t seem to be verified by any hard historical evidence. Interestingly enough, though, there are actually several confirmed “treasures” one may find in and around the area with a keen eye, a little bit of effort, a taste for exploration, and a decent GPS unit. 

With over five million participants worldwide and a total of 1,889,549 active caches hidden around the globe, it’s no secret that the act of geocaching has taken off since it was first introduced in 2000. Couple this fact with an abundance of natural and majestic terrain in western Kentucky and you’ve got a plethora of inviting locations to search for and hide a treasure cache.

Unfamiliar with geocaching? As Geocaching.com explains of the free recreational activity, “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.” After locating a cache—usually a military-style ammo box or Tupperware container—a geocacher may take one of the enclosed treasures if he or she can replace the item with something of equal or greater value. In rarer circumstances, a geocacher may also locate a “travel bug,” which is a treasure that is traceable and can be moved to a new site, preferably in a new state. Following the hunt, geocachers publicly log their findings via Geocaching.com and share their story with other members of the geocaching community. 

Amazingly, there are over 9,000 active cache coordinates listed on Geocaching.com that are within 100 miles of Madisonville, KY (as of this writing), several of which are on or nearby Pilot Rock.

Evidencing this fact, I stumbled upon a friendly and knowledgeable geocacher named Chris Fox who was searching the rock’s peak for a well-hidden cache the last time I paid a visit to the site. With nearly 200 finds under his belt, several of which were discovered in distant, out-of-state locales, it was no surprise that Fox had several interesting treasure hunting tales to share, as well as some interesting insight into the world of geocaching. Luckily, I had a pen and a notepad with me at the time, jotted down his email address, sent him a few pictures I took of him and his canine counterpart, Clifford, and set up an interview with him for a more in-depth look at his involvement with the ever-growing community of geocachers, a closer look at how the game is played, what benefits can come from participating, and more. The noteworthy story that resulted from our seemingly random chance encounter, as well as several conversations via phone and email, can be found by clicking here.

For those seeking an instant rush, each of the craggy facades on the rock presents an excellent opportunity for both beginner and intermediate rock climbers and repellers living in our area. While most new climbers can scale the southwest facing of the rock with relative ease, TrailsRUs.com makes note of the fact that the landmark “has two established 5th class routes and potential for more.” Though Pilot Rock isn’t necessarily a “premier” destination for advanced stone scramblers, it makes for a decent afternoon with friends and is great for exercise in a unique setting. Just don’t forget to use caution when climbing!

But not everything at Pilot Rock is about in-depth investigation, historical significance, and adrenaline; there are also plenty of worldly sights to take in, including a wide variety of wildlife and vegetation. From fence lizards and brightly colored dragonflies, to picturesque overhangs, crevice-born oaks, and one-of-a-kind stone wall impressions, the abundance of natural wonder on and around the stone monolith can easily serve as basic therapy for most anyone looking to relax. Moreover, a simple family picnic atop the tower’s summit can become an enchanting afternoon outing simply because of the breathtaking view. 

Unfortunately, among all the positive attributes inherent to the locale, there are also a couple of negatives that should be noted. The biggest culprits: an abundance of broken glass and a laundry list of less-than-impressive graffiti. Whereas the broken glass at the base of the tower and on the top can be safely avoided when using caution, there’s a real need for a serious clean-up effort at the site. Knowing the singular history resting just behind the surface and enjoying the overall atmosphere of Pilot Rock on a deeper level makes the need for a stronger attempt on everyone’s part all the more crucial. Though the removal of the graffiti would be particularly difficult to complete without a notable supply of paint removal chemicals and a large team willing to put in the elbow grease, simply refraining from adding more “artwork” to the mix can help to restore the area’s original beauty over time. Regarding the shards of glass, simply don’t throw bottles; hold on to them and dispose of them after you leave.  

Do you know a group willing to organize a serious clean-up effort at this site and others like it? Do you have a project like this in the works? If so, contact me, Luke Short, via this site’s contact page or via my email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Not only could our media team offer up ideas or lend a helping hand, but we can also provide a new avenue to spread the word or can give you free publicity. 

The only other advice I can offer up is this: be careful around the edges of the peak and be ready to lose most of your cell phone service for a couple hours. With that in mind, those interested in geocaching at Pilot Rock might want to look into purchasing an actual GPS unit instead of trying to rely solely on a smartphone app. 

While Pilot Rock isn’t in Hopkins County, it’s a mere 35-40 minute trip from downtown Madisonville and is even closer to the Nortonville community. 

To pay a visit to Pilot Rock from central Hopkins County, head south toward Hopkinsville, KY on the Edward T. Breathitt/ Pennyrile Parkway until you reach the Crofton Exit/Exit 23. Turn to the left (east) onto Crofton-Fruithill Rd. (HWY 800). Continue on this road for several miles until you reach a fork near Fruithill Missionary Baptist Church and make a right-hand turn onto HWY 189 South/North Greenville Rd. You will then drive 1.6 miles until you see Lacey Elementary School on your right and you will turn onto HWY 189 South (keep your eyes open and don’t accidentally turn onto HWY 107 at this intersection; it is a slightly awkward spot to navigate). Once on rural HWY 189, continue for approximately 7 miles until reach HWY 507/Pilot Rock Rd. (west) on the right. From there, your destination is only 1-2 miles away and will become apparent on the right side of the road as your approach it. Drive just past the landmark and turn into a gravel parking area adjacent to the Todd County sign. After you arrive, you have several options for reaching the top. The easiest route—a set of manmade “steps” that lead to a deep, but traversable fracture—can be found by walking east along the shoulder of the road you just drove in on until you’re nearly past the actual rock. If you keep looking, you will see the steps on the left. Once you reach the top step, look to your left and you’ll see the pathway to Pilot Rock’s apex. 

Believe it or not, for all the history, recreation, and healing power that Pilot Rock brings to our area, it is nothing without those who value it and other natural wonders’ existence. 

Will you let the beacon draw you in?

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp and Luke Short

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