Red River Gorge

The most beautiful gift of Nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.

~Albert Einstein

We just returned from a whirlwind trip that included stops to see my parents, two areas in Kentucky, and some birding in Ohio. We camped one night in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park which straddles the borders of three states. The next day we traveled north to Daniel Boone National Forest and the Red River Gorge. We had looked online for areas between the Virginia mountains and our Ohio birding destination and the Red River Gorge jumped out as an outstanding place to explore. It has the unusual designation (to me anyway as I had never heard of this before) of a National Geological Area by the U.S. Forest Service.

Red River Gorge scenic vista

Scenic vista in the Red River Gorge (click photos to enlarge)

The area is known for its scenic vistas, unusual rock formations, waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, and abundant natural stone arches.

Sky Bridge

Sky Bridge is one of 150 natural arches in the area

With over one hundred fifty natural arches in this region, the Red River Gorge reportedly has more of these unusual geological features than any place outside of Arches National Park in Utah. Natural arches form in a variety of ways, but most in this region are what geologists call ridge-top arches. These form along the many narrow ridges found in this area. There are deep fractures that penetrate the sandstone along these ridges. Water penetrates these fractures and, over time, freeze-thaw action and weathering cause large blocks of sandstone to fall away leaving only a narrow center portion of a ridge. The soft rock underlying the arch-forming layer is gradually eroded away, leaving an open arch. More detailed information is available at this link – History and Geology of the Natural Bridge-Red River Gorge Area.

Sky Bridge 1

Wide view of Sky Bridge

Sky Bridge is a large arch, with a span of over 80 feet in its’ two openings. The trail across the top leads to some fantastic views of the gorge and then offers an optional hike down below the arch along the rock face.

View from Sky Bridge

View from atop Sky Bridge

Stone wall below Sky Bridge

Rock wall beneath the arch

Patterns in the rock at the base of Sky Bridge

Patterns in the rock wall at the base of Sky Bridge

Ant lion pits underthe rock shelter

Ant lion pits under the rock shelter at Sky Bridge

The arches and rock shelters have proven rich in archeological finds and offer unique habitats for plants and animals. The rock shelter at the base of Sky Bridge had hundreds of ant lion pits in the sand sheltered by the overhang and numerous mud dauber nests scattered on its face.

View along trail 1

View along Auxier Ridge Trail

We camped at the Forest Service campground that night, awaking to the sounds of numerous migratory birds. Hooded warblers are especially common in this area, along with black-and-whites, black-throated blues, tanagers, and several species of thrushes. The next morning we decided to hike 6+-miles on one of the more popular trails, the Auxier Ridge and Double Arch Loop. The day was gray and cool, perfect for hiking in these hills.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Many of the trails follow the ridge lines, making for an easy hike with great views. Once we got out to Courthouse Rock, the trail descends a staircase along a cliff face and we entered another world, much greener, with rich soil and abundant wildflowers.

 

rain drops on fallen leaf

Rain drops on a fallen leaf along the trail

Yellow lady slippers along the trail

Yellow lady slippers

Big Leaf Magnolia

The aptly named bigleaf magnolia is common on parts of the trail

The side trail to Double Arch is well worth the extra time, although poison ivy is incredibly abundant along much of the sides of the path.

View from Double Arch

View through Double Arch

Steps carved into sandstone

Steps carved into the sandstone at Double Arch

While only spending a day and a half in Red River Gorge, we learned a lot about the potential for more hiking adventures and primitive camping opportunities. I have a feeling we will be back in the near future to explore this beautiful area.

 

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