The topography of the county is hilly to mountainous. Most of the county is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest and has extensive hardwood forests. Natural resources include timber, limestone, clay, and some coal.
It is believed that Rowan County was first explored in 1773 by a party of surveyors from Pennsylvania. The first settlement was established in Farmers, town 10 miles west of Morehead. Additional settlers came to Rowan County from Virginia in the late 18th century after being awarded land grants at the end of the American Revolutionary War. Morehead became a settlement in 1854. Colonel John Hargis founded the city and named it after governor James Morehead. Rowan County came into existence in May 1856 with Morehead the county seat.