Arch Trip Vol 1
Hello and welcome to the first installment of the Arch Trip! Kentucky has a claim that no other state can make, the second highest concentration of natural arches and bridges in the United States! Only Utah has more! Scattered across the Bluegrass, there are over 1600 arches/natural bridges and more are being discovered almost daily. The highest concentration of these unique land forms can be found in both the Red River Gorge region of the Daniel Boone National Forest as well as in McCreary County bordering Tennessee. By comparison there are several arches in McCreary County that are far larger than any of the ones found in the Red River Gorge, but that has no bearing on anything. Both areas have natural features that are both beautiful and unique. Before we dive into the trip, let us take a moment and understand how one is called an arch or a bridge and discuss the threats that face these incredible geological structures.
For a long time I was not aware that there was a difference between a natural arch and a natural bridge. A natural arch is created by wind and rain, a natural bridge is created by running water. There are a couple of exceptions to this naming, notably Natural Bridge and Sky Bridge in the Red River Gorge region. Both really should have the word “Arch” at the end of their names, and I noticed at the parking area at Natural Bridge State Park it does say Natural Bridge Arch.
Conservation and Preservation
Kentucky’s arches and natural bridges have taken thousands and thousands of years to evolve and are still evolving through our lifetimes, though in most cases it is not noticeable. Eventually due to erosion these natural wonders will collapse and become a pile of rubble. One would think the greatest threat to arches and bridges are the forces of nature, but they are not. Sadly, humans are their greatest enemy. If you have ever walked across Sky Bridge or Natural Bridge one thing that catches your eye are the thousands of etchings that scatter the deck. Though individually these etchings are small, as a whole this is a massive acceleration of erosion. Rock that would have taken hundreds of years to erode only took a handful of minutes with the use of a pocket knife. If etching were not enough, throughout the state the problem of spray paint is a real issue. Within the last couple years the base of Sky Bridge was spray painted but has since been removed by volunteers. Sadly, less popular arches don’t get that kind of care. Evidence of spray paint can be seen on several remote arches throughout the state, the worst I have seen is Apex Arch (pictured below) in Christian County. Located on private land, the arch itself is a beautiful thin sliver of rock where the entire surrounding landscape, as well as the arch itself, has spray paint on it. Oh, and there was a ridiculous amount of trash everywhere too, which has also been the case at many arches I have visited. Often times if there is a lot of trash there is also a fire ring and burnt debris under the arch. Though camping is not allowed within rock recesses or under arches throughout the Daniel Boone National Forest many choose to ignore this. All camping within the National Forest is to be 300 feet from the cliff line. Fire is especially damaging to sandstone as it heats up the rock causing it to become brittle and break off. The fire will also char up the rock turning the beautiful red/yellow hues to black. Last year when we hit 11 arches in Laurel and Whitley Counties over a weekend and we dismantled seven stone fire rings that were directly under them. Keeping in mind what I've mentioned, I would like to encourage everyone who visits these natural arches and bridges to be mindful of these threats. If you see trash, pack it out. If you see a fire ring, dismantle it, throwing the rock about and dispersing what's been burnt. Woodpile next to the fire pit? Disperse it as well throwing it where it will get wet in the rain. If you come across someone camped out under and arch kindly explain to them that it is against National Forest Rules to do so. Together we can protect our beautiful natural landforms and educate others so we can enjoy them for generations to come!
The heavily spray painted and trashed up Apex Arch in Christian County.
For our first Arch Trip we will take an abbreviated tour in The Red River Gorge. The Red River Gorge region is home to over 700 confirmed arches and natural bridges. At first I thought about sharing some lesser known locations, but most of those are off the beaten path and directions and descriptions are a bit more difficult to be accurate with. Also, BillPatrick has 7 volumes of DVD's featuring GPS locations and photos of many of the lesser known arches in The Red. A handy tool for any arch enthusiast or for someone who likes a payoff along a hike. I will supply a link at the end of the trip to his website for those who are interested.. Keep in mind the The RRG is a dangerous place if one is not careful. Sheer sandstone cliffs are found throughout the forest and many have died being irresponsible. That being said, on this adventure we will stick to the more popular arches mainly in the southern section of the region. So let us begin!
Winter At Grays Arch From The Rock Shelter Below.
Early Fall Under The Arch.
Of all the 100 arches I have visited Grays Arch is my all time favorite! There is something really cool about standing far below and staring up at this massive beauty! To get there, from Ky 15 turn north onto Tunnel Ridge Road which will take you over the Burt T Combs Mountain Parkway. About 1 mile on your right is the trail head parking and picnic area for Grays Arch. The hike to Grays is a 1.5 mile moderate one way hike. Though the trail is mostly level the final .5 mile of the hike has a decent elevation change with several steps. The Grays Arch trailhead is located at the picnic area, you'll pass by the restrooms and follow the trail .3 miles to where it intersects with the Rough Trail. Turn right here. Eventually the trail will begin to descend. For those who don't want to make the trek down the steps there will be an overlook of the arch on the right, though the view is not that great. If you want to visit the arch continue down the trail and make your way down the series of steps. At the base of the last flight of steps you'll pass an intersecting trail to the left and continue straight. Above to your left you can see the arch. Follow the trail which will bear left at the railing and you will ascend a series of steps for views directly beneath the arch. Return to the parking lot the way you came.
The unique Rock Bridge stretching over Swift Camp Creek.
Just around the corner from Rock Bridge is the lovely Creation Falls.
Rock Bridge is one of the coolest features in The Red River Gorge area and there is a nearby waterfall too! Technically the bridge is located in the Clifty Wilderness. Though not as majestic as Sky Bridge Arch or Natural Bridge Arch it makes up for it in its location and overall scenery. From the Grays Arch Parking Lot head back out to KY 15 and turn left. When KY 15 meets KY 715 turn left onto 715. After crossing over Mountain Parkway look for a gravel road on the right, this is Rock Bridge Road. Follow Rock Bridge Road 3 miles to the end which has a circle parking lot with bathrooms in the center. The trailhead for Rock Bridge is here and you have two options. Being that the trail is a moderate 1.25 mile loop, you can choose the trailhead furthest from the restrooms or you can choose the one closest to the restrooms. Me personally, I like heading out the trail closest to the restrooms and that is the direction we will use for our trip. The trail begins at a near level pace but eventually begins a steep but manageable decent. At the bottom the trail intersects with the Swift Camp Creek Trail which leads off to the left. The Rock Bridge trail goes to the right and that's the direction you want to go. The trail will gradually descend and meet along Swift Camp Creek on the left. You will see some paths going creek side, these paths offer a view of Rock Bridge stretching over the creek. Continue along the trail and you will pass by the base of the bridge and just beyond offers more views of this unique landform. While viewing the arch you may hear the sound of falling water near by. That is because just around the corner is the beautiful Creation Falls. Continue along the trail a short distance and it will lead you to an overlook which will view the falls from above. You can also make your way down to the creek just before the overlook for access to the base. During the rainy season the falls is beautiful but during drier times it will become but a trickle. In the summer the splash pool at the base of the falls is a popular swimming hole. To return to the parking lot, pass the waterfall on the main trial and make the ascent to the parking lot or return the way you came.
Sky Bridge Arch
Sky Bridge on a beautiful Autumn morning.
Another shot of Sky Bridge on a gorgeous Spring day.
Both impressive and easily accessible, Sky Bridge is probably the most popular destination in the Red River Gorge. That being said, do not be surprised to see a full parking lot on a summer weekend. Though it can be crowded, if you have not been to this gorgeous natural feature it is a must see. From the Rock Bridge trailhead drive Rock Bridge Road back to KY 715 and make a right drive approximately 4.4 miles. As you drive, notice on the left you'll pass Chimney Top Rock Rd and the trailhead parking for both Angel Windows and Whistling Arch. In an apex of a downhill sharp right curve turn left onto Sky Bridge Road. The parking for the bridge is less than a mile. Along the way there are several pull offs for overlooks which are worth having a look at including the Devil's Canyon Overlook. The trailhead for Sky Bridge is at the end of the parking lot and is about 1 mile loop hike. For the most part the trail is easy except for about 75 steps back up to the parking lot at the end of the trail. Honestly, I've started walking the trail backwards walking down the steps, it's a much easier hike that way. For this post though we'll go the normal way where the trail takes you across the top of the bridge for views over the Red River Gorge. The trail continues out the ridge, slopes down and makes a hard right taking you below the cliff line. Here you'll pass along the underside of the arch and eventually come to the 75 steps back up to the parking lot. Be sure to notice all the interesting textures in the cliff as you make your way to the arch.
A view of both the Angel Windows.
The North Window resembles a grazing horse.
From Sky Bridge head back out Sky Bridge Rd and veer right up the hill. After a short distance you'll see a parking area on the right for Whistling Arch. Though not a part of this tour, the trail here is fairly easy 0.3 mile hike to the arch. The Whistling Arch really isn't all that impressive but if you follow the trail beyond the arch there's a nice overlook that's also a decent sunset spot. Continue past the Whistling Arch parking area soon you will pass the trailhead parking lot for Swift Camp Creek and Rough Trail and shortly after is the parking area on your right for Angel Windows. The trail to Angel Windows is a 0.3 mile easy/moderate hike. Though these twin arches are not that big, they are still very cool. If you stand in the right place the right arch resembles a horse grazing. In springtime/early summer Firepink can be seen around the base of the arches.
From the Angel Windows parking lot continue on 715 and look for Chimney Top Road on the right and turn on it. Follow the gravel road approximately 5 miles till you come to a circle parking lot with a restroom in the center. There are two trailheads here, the one on the left when you enter the parking lot is for Chimney Top Rock. The one on the right of the lot is the trialhead for Princess Arch. The Princess Arch trail sign says it is a .5 mile hike to the arch but it is less than that and for the most part it's an easy trek. The trail brings you over the top across the arch but if you look to your left before you reach the deck you'll see a short side trail that will take you to some great views of the arch from below. Though not massive by any means, it is a beauty. If you continue along the lower trail a short distance past Princess Arch there is Little Princess Arch, a 21 foot by 6 inch arch forming under a small recess. A good time to visit Princess Arch is in the late day when a low sun in the sky will illuminate the sandstone on and around the arch creating a beautiful golden scene.
Chimney Top Rock
An obstructed sunset from Chimney Top Rock
Since you are at Princess Arch you might as well go across the parking lot and visit Chimney Top Rock and it is a fairly easy .5 mile of a hike. If you have ended your day at Princess Arch, looking for a great place to watch sunset or just like a good overlook this is the place to do it! Offering a ridiculous 300 degree plus view, to the left you can see Half Moon Rock, to the front left is Hanson's Point, straight ahead is Pinch'em Tight Gap and to the right is the Red River and the Red River Gorge. Chimney Rock is a pillar that is separated and stands about 8 away from and about 8 ft below the main cliff. The separation is difficult to see from above. Keep in mind this is a dangerous place. Keep your children and pets close. There are rails in place for a reason. Many folks have died crossing the rails and attempting to jump to, or return from the Chimney. Mostly it is returning from, as someone would have to jump 8 ft up in the air and 8 ft across the separation to make it safely.
So that's it for the Arch Trip Vol. 1! Remember when in the Red River Gorge or anywhere in our National Forests and National Parks to practice Leave No Trace. Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Keep your eyes peeled for the Arch Trip Vol 2 where we will take a trip to Carter Caves State Park and one of the largest arches in the eastern United States!
You can check out Bill Patrick's DVD's at http://www.redrivergorgearches.com/