Harlan County, Kentucky
The Harlan County depicted in the Elmore Leonard-inspired tv-series Justified is a hard-scrabble mining community with a drug problem. The real Harlan County – population 30,000 – is a hard-scrabble coal mining community with a drug problem and plenty to keep a visitor busy over a rough-and-tumble long weekend. Bordering the tip of Virginia, the county’s rolling mountains stand along the Cumberland River and hide illegal moonshine stills, questionable mining operations, and the town itself, which appears in the show’s gritty, thumping opening credits.
“When people tell us why they’re visiting town at least 75% of them say, ‘I wanted to see Raylan’s hometown,'” says Harlan County Tourism Director Brandon Pennington, who is a bit touchy about the fact the show was shot in Pennsylvania. There may not be such a thing as bad publicity, but the show, with its guns, drugs, and prostitutes, doesn’t necessarily show the area in the most positive light. “It makes it seem like a worse place than it actually is,” says Pennington.
To Pennington’s point, Raylan never goes kayaking in the Cumberland or soaring over the hills on the Black Mountain Thunder Zip Line, which can reach up to 60 miles per hour. He never even crawls inside the Portal Exhibition Mine, which allows visitors to get a taste of a truly brutal profession. He never even stops by Backwudz Grill in Slemp for ribs.
Raylan’s biggest mistake? Not ever visiting Black Mountain, home to the 7,000-acre Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure park, which offers 150 miles of terrain, encompassing the town itself. Riders are allowed to drive ATVs down main street and into the woods on both sides of the mountain. The trails, color-coded like a ski slope’s, run the gamut from tame and straight to bouncy and extremely steep. Novice riders stick to the quieter forest paths while advanced riders navigate the massive boulders of the “rock garden” in enormous customized vehicles.
And, no, you won’t have to stay in a trailer park – though you can if you want. Head to Harlan Campground instead. The kudzu-draped spot offers fully furnished cabins to Elmore Leonard fans, Timothy Olyphant obsessives, and the right-minded folks who have been rooting for Boyd Crowder all along.
More information: That drive from Lexington to Harlan that Raylan makes about three times an episode is actually three hours one way, but it’s beautiful. Cabins at Harlan Campground run from $150 a night.
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