The most beautiful gift of Nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.
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.
The area is known for its scenic vistas, unusual rock formations, waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, and abundant natural stone arches.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.