Vince Medlock is a paddler and hiker who lives in Murray with his wife, son, dog, and cat. When he's not teaching international students to speak English, he likes to hit the lake or trail and see where it goes. Some of it goes to really interesting places.
On a grey, chilly Saturday morning in March, my wife and I headed east on I-69 to join a group hike organized by the Explore Kentucky Initiative (EKI). The detailed instructions we received via email told us to meet near the trail head of Dawson Springs Trail Town and together, we would be led to Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area (WMA) located just inside neighboring Caldwell County. The itinerary included a few mile to mile-and-a-half jaunts down the WMA's trails to see unique rock formations that you would not expect to exist in Western Kentucky. We arrive at museum a few minutes early, parking behind a truck with Madison County plates. I immediately start wondering if this could be a fellow hiker and why he would drive so far? Curiosity got the best of us and we introduced ourselves to Mike Park, an experienced Red River Gorge hiker who's come halfway across the state to join Explore Kentucky's event.
As we're talking, another truck pulls into the museum parking lot. This time with Estill County plates. Another experienced Eastern Kentucky hiker and photographer, Traca Wooton, has also driven several hours for today's hike. Then, another vehicle slowly cruises by. That's when we meet Shara Sumner, an Ambassador for the Explore Kentucky Initiative and today's guide.
With a quick smile, she gets us organized and leads our small caravan to the parking area at Jones-Keeney. Expecting others to join us, Shara leaves a note on the gate before leading us down an old roadway. About a quarter mile down the trail we cross Buttercup Hill, which is just past peak bloom. We turn right down a side path to our first point of interest, Jones-Keeney Natural Bridge which is only about ten feet high at the top with an arch. Ducking under the rock slab, Shara shows us the chamber behind the arch which is backed by a 15-foot rock wall with a small waterfall and a couple of cairns left by previous hikers. Mosses and ferns cover many of the rock faces. The place is magical. Camera and cell phones in hand, everyone begins taking photos.
Shara then leads us back to the main trail and towards Saltpeter Cave. We emerge from the woods on top of a rock shelter that makes up the cave. There's a small creek coming from further up the hill that pours over the edge of the rock. The sound of the water splashing to the ground below, breaks the silence. We scamper and slide down the natural stair beside the waterfall to the cave below.
This is a gorgeous space. There are shelves and platforms in the rock shelter, and plenty of evidence that others have been camping. The trail that led us from the top of the rock face continues across cave and up the hill on the other side. Water spills over the lip of the cave roof, flowing from the little creek we saw above. It collects in a small pool then runs into the woods towards the Flynn Fork stream further down the valley. It's easy to feel very calm, centered, and grounded here.
As we scramble back up the rock stair to the top of the bluff, we meet a few newcomers including Gerry Seavo James, the Director of Explore Kentucky Initiative. These are some of our group who were delayed are just now catching up to us.
We return to the parking lot and move on to the next trail. About a quarter mile behind another gate across another old roadbed, a path leads to Hunter's Bluff, a cliff top overlooking the Flynn Fork Valley. When we emerge from the woods onto the bluff, we're about 75 feet above the floor of the valley. The view is amazing. The ridge continues to the left and right, but ahead of us is open air. As we look over the treetops below, it's a bit disorienting to be looking down at birds in flight. In the distance, a farmhouse sits among its fields, and newly-green trees meet the overcast sky.
After we've enjoyed the view, we return to the parking area for the last adventure of the day. Shara tells us that, due to limited parking at the next trailhead, we'll need to carpool, so we take advantage of Traca's generosity to ferry us around to the Flynn Fork.
Once parked, we walk a half mile or so the base of the bluff we just visited. The view from below is just as incredible as from above. Layers of rock have been weathered into beautiful shapes, and cottage-size boulders have broken off the cliff face and litter the area around the base. Climbers have placed bolts and chains in order to ascend various routes up the cliff face and onto the bluff.
After exploring the area, we decide that we're all famished and decided to eat at Pennyrile Forest State Park. We roll into the Clifty Creek Restaurant at the state park with about five minutes left in their lunch service. Fortunately, their staff are willing to seat us, and we enjoy a great meal talking over the day. The hikes were incredible. One by one each of us shared their love for hiking and the camaraderie of trail life. Gerry and Shara shared with us upcoming plans for EKI. If our trip was any indication, the organization is developing an active following with individuals willing to drive hundreds of miles, even booking hotel rooms, just to be a part of an EKI event. Before we part, we take one last photo together documenting the new friendships that were formed on the trail.
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