written by Bill Fultz
edited by Christopher Morris
all photography credit to Bill Fultz & Fultz Fotos
Hello and welcome to the first installment of the Arch Trip! Kentucky has a claim that no other state can make, the second highest concentration of natural arches and bridges in the United States! Only Utah has more! Scattered across the Bluegrass, there are over 1600 arches and natural bridges and more are being discovered almost daily. The highest concentration of these unique landforms can be found in both the Red River Gorge region of the Daniel Boone National Forest as well as in McCreary County near Tennessee. By comparison, there are several arches in McCreary County that are far larger than any of the ones found in the Red River Gorge, but that has no bearing on anything. Both areas have natural features that are both beautiful and unique. Before we dive into the trip, let us take a moment and understand how something is called an arch or a natural bridge and discuss the threats that face these incredible geological structures.
For a long time, I was not aware that there was a difference between a natural arch and a natural bridge. A natural arch is created by wind and rain, a natural bridge is created by running water. There are a couple of exceptions to this naming, notably Natural Bridge and Sky Bridge in the Red River Gorge region. Both really should have the word ‘arch’ at the end of their names. I noticed at the parking area at Natural Bridge State Park it does, in fact, say Natural Bridge Arch.
Conservation and Preservation
Kentucky’s arches and natural bridges have taken thousands and thousands of years to evolve and are still evolving through our lifetimes, though in most cases it is not noticeable. Eventually, due to erosion these natural wonders will collapse and become a pile of rubble. One would think the greatest threat to arches and bridges are the forces of nature, but they are not. Sadly, humans are their greatest enemy. If you have ever walked across Sky Bridge or Natural Bridge, one thing that catches your eye is the thousands of etchings that scatter the deck (lintel). Though individually these etchings are small, as a whole this is a massive acceleration of erosion and destruction. Rock that would have taken hundreds of years to erode only took a handful of minutes with the use of a pocket knife. If etching were not enough, throughout the state the problem of spray paint is a real issue. Within the last couple of years, the base of Sky Bridge was spray painted multiple times, but has since been removed by volunteers. Sadly, less popular arches don’t get that kind of care. Evidence of spray paint can be seen on several remote arches throughout the state, but the worst I have seen is Apex Arch (pictured below) in Christian County. Located on private land, the arch itself is a beautiful thin sliver of rock where the entire surrounding landscape, as well as the arch itself, has spray paint on it. Oh, and there was a ridiculous amount of trash everywhere too, which has also been the case at many arches I have visited in the state. Often times if there is a lot of trash, there is also a fire ring and burnt debris under the arch. Though camping is not allowed within rock recesses or under arches throughout the Daniel Boone National Forest, many choose to ignore this. All camping within the National Forest is to be 300 feet from the cliff line. Fire is especially damaging to sandstone as it heats up the rock causing it to become brittle and break off. The fire will also char up the rock turning the beautiful red and yellow hues to black. Last year when we hit eleven arches in Laurel and Whitley Counties over a weekend, we dismantled seven stone fire rings that were directly under them. Keeping in mind what I've mentioned, I would like to encourage everyone who visits these natural arches and bridges to be mindful of these threats. If you see trash, pack it out. If you see a fire ring, dismantle it, throwing the rock about and dispersing what's been burnt. Woodpile next to the fire pit? Disperse it as well throwing it where it will get wet in the rain. If you come across someone camped out under an arch, kindly explain to them that it is against National Forest Rules to do so. Together we can protect our beautiful natural landforms and educate others so we can enjoy them for generations to come!
The heavily spray painted and trashed up Apex Arch in Christian County
For our first arch trip, we will take an abbreviated tour in the Red River Gorge. The Red River Gorge region is home to over 700 confirmed and documented arches and natural bridges. At first, I thought about sharing some lesser known locations, but most of those are off the beaten path and directions and descriptions are a bit more difficult to be accurate with. Also, Bill Patrick has seven volumes of DVD's featuring GPS locations and photos of many of the lesser known arches in the Red. A handy tool for any arch enthusiast or for someone who likes a payoff along a hike. I will supply a link at the end of the trip to his website for those who are interested. Keep in mind that the Red River Gorge is a dangerous place if one is not careful. Sheer sandstone cliffs are found throughout the forest and many have died being irresponsible. That being said, on this adventure, we will stick to the more popular arches that reside mainly in the southern section of the region. So let us begin!
Winter At Grays Arch From The Rock Shelter Below
Early Fall Under The Arch
Of all the 100 arches I have visited, Grays Arch is my all time favorite! There is something really cool about standing far below and staring up at this massive beauty! To get there, from KY 15, turn north onto Tunnel Ridge Road which will take you over the Burt T Combs Mountain Parkway. About 1 mile on your right, is the trailhead parking and picnic area for Grays Arch. The hike to Grays is a 1.5-mile moderate one-way hike. Though the trail is mostly level the final .5 mile of the hike has a decent elevation change with several steps. The Grays Arch trailhead is located at the picnic area, you will pass by the restrooms and follow the trail .3 miles to where it intersects with the Rough Trail. Turn right here. Eventually, the trail will begin to descend. For those who don't want to make the trek down the steps, there will be an overlook of the arch on the right, though the view is not that great. If you want to visit the arch continue down the trail and make your way down the series of steps. At the base of the last flight of steps, you'll pass an intersecting trail to the left and continue straight. Above to your left, you can see the arch. Follow the trail which will bear left at the railing and you will ascend a series of steps for views directly beneath the arch. Return to the parking lot the way you came.
For more information about Gray's Arch, just click here.
Map of Trail to Gray's Arch
The North Window resembles a grazing horse
From Sky Bridge head back out Sky Bridge Rd and veer right up the hill. After a short distance, you'll see a parking area on the right for Whistling Arch. Though not a part of this tour, the trail here is fairly easy 0.3-mile hike to the arch. The Whistling Arch really isn't all that impressive but if you follow the trail beyond the arch there's a nice overlook that's also a decent sunset spot. Continue past the Whistling Arch parking area soon you will pass the trailhead parking lot for Swift Camp Creek and Rough Trail and shortly after is the parking area on your right for Angel Windows. The trail to Angel Windows is a 0.3 mile easy/moderate hike. Though these twin arches are not that big, they are still very cool. If you stand in the right place the right arch resembles a horse grazing. In springtime/early summer Firepink can be seen around the base of the arches.
For more information about Angel Windows, just click here.
Map of Trail to Angel Windows
From the Angel Windows parking lot, continue on KY-715 and look for Chimney Top Road on the right and turn on it. Follow the gravel road approximately 5 miles till you come to a circle parking lot with a restroom in the center. There are two trailheads here, the one on the left when you enter the parking lot is for Chimney Top Rock. The one on the right of the lot is the trailhead for Princess Arch. The Princess Arch trail sign says it is a .5 mile hike to the arch but it is less than that and for the most part it's an easy trek. The trail brings you over the top across the arch but if you look to your left before you reach the deck you'll see a short side trail that will take you to some great views of the arch from below. Though not massive by any means, it is a beauty. If you continue along the lower trail a short distance past Princess Arch there is Little Princess Arch, a 21 foot by 6-inch arch forming under a small recess. A good time to visit Princess Arch is in the late day when a low sun in the sky will illuminate the sandstone on and around the arch creating a beautiful golden scene.
For more information about Princess Arch, just click here.
Map of Trail to Princess Arch & Chimney Top
An obstructed sunset from Chimney Top Rock
Since you are at Princess Arch you might as well go across the parking lot and visit Chimney Top Rock and it is a fairly easy .5 mile of a hike. If you have ended your day at Princess Arch, looking for a great place to watch a sunset or just like a good overlook this is the place to do it! Offering a ridiculous 300 degree plus view, to the left you can see Half Moon Rock, to the front left is Hanson's Point, straight ahead is Pinch'em Tight Gap and to the right is the Red River and the Red River Gorge. Chimney Rock is a pillar that is separated and stands about eight away from and about eight feet ft below the main cliff. The separation is difficult to see from above. Keep in mind this is a dangerous place. Keep your children and pets close. There are rails in place for a reason. Many folks have died crossing the rails and attempting to jump to or return from the chimney. Mostly it is returning from, as someone would have to jump eight feet up in the air and eight feet across the separation to make it safely.
For more information about Chimney Top, just click here.
So that's it for the Arch Trip, Volume 1! Remember when in the Red River Gorge or anywhere in our National Forests and National Parks to practice Leave No Trace. Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Keep your eyes peeled for the Arch Trip, Volume 2 where we will take a trip to Carter Caves State Park and one of the largest arches in the eastern United States!
You can check out Bill Patrick's DVD's over at Red River Gorge Arches or the link above, 'RRG Arches'.