A retreat to the woods quiets the mind and feeds the soul.
Over my lifetime, the Red River Gorge and the Daniel Boone National Forest have provided me a retreat demanding less than a two-hour drive into its hills and hollows.
Although the highest points barely reach1,300 feet, people affectionately have called it the place where the Bluegrass meets the mountains. The Daniel Boone National Forest has started to eclipse the once popular Natural Bridge State Park for the resurging interest in rock climbing and repelling. The forest, which encompasses more than 708,000 acres, has more than 100 arches, rock shelters and hosts enough fauna and flora for any nature lover.
The sandstone spires reach into the sky like steeples while arches and rock shelters stretch into majestic natural cathedrals. The Gorge can entertain the interests of the historian, biologist and naturalists in your family. In this one tank trip, you will find a bit of history and guides to trails easily accessible from your car or recommendations for a secluded camping trip.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, geology of the area comprises limestone, shale and Corbin sandstone. The arches, comprised of Corbin sandstone, started taking shape more than 250 million years ago when general weathering started to erode the strata into spires, cliffs and arches. Swamps and shallow seas have deposited mud, pebble and sand into the hollows creating deep valleys while the Red River has cut a gorge through the rock. Sand blankets many of the trails, especially in higher elevations, and unfortunately the soft sandstone has made it easy for irresponsible visitors to carve their initials in the sides of rock shelters and arch attractions.
The Daniel Boone National Forest naturally provided shelter for indigenous people with its numerous overhangs and rock shelters. In R.H. Ruchhoft’s book, “Kentucky’s Land of the Arches—The Red River Gorge archeological evidence indicates Paleo, Adena and Archaic or Woodland Culture Native Americans all lived or frequented this area.
Academics argue over whether the first inhabitants, the Paleo Indians, had the advanced culture of those like the Shawnee that Daniel Boone encountered in Kentucky. The Paleos hunted big game, which brought them to the area around 10,000 B.C. and drew many of the petroglyphs found in the rock shelters. Layered digs indicate they buried their women and children within the rock shelters, but mysteriously not the men. They covered their fire pits with mud and ash and added about 10 ft of ground inside the shelters over their extended stay in the area.
The Archaic culture resided seasonally in the gorge area and carbon dating puts them in the area disputably between 1,000 to 8,000 B.C. By 1,000 B.C., the Archaic evolve into the Woodland Culture who practiced agriculture, basket weaving and dug many of the ‘hominy’ holes inside the shelters. Archeologists realized that the hominy holes predate the introduction of maize and corn into the area and the inhabitants drilled the cylindrical holes in the stone floors for grinding nuts and seeds.
The Adena Culture evolved from the Archaic Culture and evidence shows they made pottery and jewelry from mica and copper. Archeologists have traced the source of the mica to Michigan suggesting trade of mica went as far south as Florida.
The Shawnee, Miami, Iroquois and Cherokee didn’t live in the area but north of the Ohio River and south of the Cumberland River. The buffalo trails or traces were called the ‘Warrior Paths’ where different tribes use the trails to hunt and enter warring tribe lands.
In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker entered the gorge as the first historically documented white man followed by John Finley. Finley met the Shawnee and was taken to an encampment called Eskippakithika a few miles west of the Red River Gorge. Finley receives the historical credit for telling Daniel Boone about Kentucky.
The Red River Gorge Scenic Byway encompasses the main state routes KY 77 and KY 715. From this byway, visitors can travel by car to easily accessible trailheads like Chimney Rock, Sky Bridge, Princess Arch and Angel Windows. Other than Princess Arch, the trails are mostly paved and require little physical hiking ability and offer a huge scenic pay off.
Hikers can reach Chimney Rock and Sky Bridge in less than a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. From Chimney Rock, visitors can see Half Moon Rock. Repelling enthusiasts and rock climbers made Half Moon Rock a popular destination as it could be climbed from the ground via a seam running from its base. The crown of the rock and the outlook on Chimney Rock provide an almost panoramic view of the Red River Gorge valley with the river at the bottom and shouldn’t be missed.
The trailhead to Princess Arch is directly across the parking lot from the Chimney Rock. The trail doesn’t demand much physical prowess as much as it does respect. To reach the arch, you must traverse sometimes-slick rocks crop up in the middle of the trail.
One can easily walk over top of the arch missing it entirely and mistaking it for a Corbin sandstone plateau. No handrails or safety measures are in place on its side and falling from those sides have the potential for serious injury. Once you reach what you think is the sandstone plateau, walk back and take the first divergent path on your right, which leads quickly down to the next landing and places you under the arch. The view will reward you with a pleasing view of the arch, its natural grotto-like holes and a path around its side revealing more interesting formations and a view over the cliff.
For a definitive guide to every trail in the gorge and those off the beaten path like Indian Stairway and Cloud Splitter (which I recommend for serious hikers wanting to escape into deep seclusion), find R.H. Ruchhoft’s book “Kentucky’s Land of the Arches—The Red River Gorge.” You can find it in some stores down by the Daniel Boone National Forest and Natural Bridge State Park. The book in my home library has many dog-eared pages from years of use. A less dense book with GPS coordinates written by Sean Patrick Hill “Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” is the only other comparable contemporary publication.
For more information visit the Gladie Cultural Learning Center in Daniel Boone National Forest or on the web at goo.gl/MtMRb8