You probably know that Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions has taken a real liking to the Red River Gorge Geologic Area in east central Kentucky over the past year. So it probably comes as no surprise that on a weekend in January, when temps were predicted to approach 60 degrees, that’s where we headed! No camping this time, we headed down before the crack of dawn Saturday morning with a one night reservation in the Natural Bridge Resort State Park lodge.
We arrived in the area just after 10am, and took the obligatory cruise around the scenic byway (Nada Tunnel is not to be missed). Our plan was to hike Tarr Ridge East, as it is a little known ridge with amazing views. However, upon arriving at the trail head parking, it was full. What I hadn’t counted on was that all the park gravel roads were still closed due to a snow storm from a week before, meaning all the weekend hikers were left to the border trails off the scenic byway, instead of the more popular trails in the heart of the park. As we continued driving around the byway, the story was the same with most all trail heads. We finally found a spot off the Angel Windows trail, so we went for it. Angel Windows is a short half mile hike out to the main attraction, two small arches just tall enough to walk through. One of the arches looks like a horse bending it’s head down, at least that’s how we see it! We continued around the arch and explored cliff faces and rock shelters, admiring the landscape still covered in snow and ice.
Afterward, we continued around the byway and back to Slade and the state park. With all the RRG trail heads full, we knew there would be plenty of parking here. We decided to hike the Whittleton Arch Trail (part of the larger Sheltowee Trace), which starts at the back of Whittleton Campground and follows Whittleton Branch. While the temps in the sun were quickly climbing into the 50s, this trail follows the stream at the bottom of a long ravine where little sun reaches, keeping the temps hovering around the freezing mark. The trail was only listed as a mile long, but it sure seemed longer than that, as hiking on snow covered trails is about as difficult as hiking on loose sand, but more slippery. Once you reach the Whittleton Arch, though, it was all worth it. The stone arch is actually the longest in the geologic area, because it was originally a deep rock shelter that had the back side cave in. Somewhere around 50 feet of ice was hanging off the front as the snow above melted and trickled down into the colder ravine. The only thing that can make this landscape even more spectacular is the ice formations of winter.
After a good night’s sleep at the lodge, we stayed close and headed straight up the Original Trail, the very first trail created by the logging companies from a century ago when the logging companies owned the rights to this land. The Original Trail is the most direct route up the cliff to Natural Bridge, and was very slippery in spots with trampled down snow turning into ice in spots. But the beauty can’t be denied, at times surrounded by the greenery of mountain laurel, the sounds of a trickling stream, and cliff faces pock marked with crazy erosion designs. The trail comes out right under Natural Bridge, a true spectacle, but only one of many such natural arches in the geologic area. Getting to the top involves shimmying through Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow crack between the rock face just wide enough to pass through sideways, made more difficult when wearing backpacks! Once on top, the view is expansive. Crystal blue skies above, snow down below (none on top as the sun had melted most of it the day before). We walked across and up the ridge to Lookout Point and Lover’s Leap. At the point where the ski lift reaches top, a crew of men were working on a new landing deck for the lift, should be nice this summer for those who prefer that route vs. the hike.
I had expected the state park to be very busy, but the trails we were on were much less crowded than those out in the gorge the day before. We walked back across Natural Bridge and took the Balanced Rock Trail down. It is a longer, more scenic route, with more mountain laurel and more cliff faces and rock shelters to explore. Stairs were plentiful, definitely glad we were going down instead of up. Once to the bottom, Balanced Rock stood out like a fossilized UFO sitting atop it’s landing post. Shortly after is another rock shelter, but this one actually has a cave entrance (gated to protect the bat population) that exits on the other side of the ridge, where the Original Trail begins.
And so went yet another awesome hiking weekend in the Red River Gorge. That’s five visits to the area in the past year, and we’ve still just scratched the surface. Looking forward to spring and getting back into backpacking!