June 11, 1973 -
Mike Hoffman at Dumpling Rocks Arch
© Mike Hoffman
After retiring from a 33 year career of land surveying in 2013 and wanting to continue to be outdoors and active, Mike ran across Bill Patrick’s Arches Of The Red River Gorge DVD’s which inspired him to begin exploring the RRG. Here, besides hunting documented arches, he made some new discoveries that have since been confirmed by Bill and added to the DVD series. Later he found the Kentucky Waterfalls, Arches and Landscapes group and the KY Landforms database soon followed. When he first began exploring he focused mainly on arches but began to include waterfalls and overlooks in his adventures. Eventually Mike would branch out from The Red and begin exploring the Big South Fork National Recreation Area and the Stearns and London Districts of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Southern Kentucky. Mike prefers the solitude of off trail hiking in areas where there are less people and feature a vast array of landforms and plenty of undeveloped public land. In fact, other than on five occasions, he has explored exclusively alone. Having a career where carrying surveying stakes and other equipment in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky required him to learn to be careful in challenging conditions. It helped give him the confidence and knowledge to explore the rugged cliff lined gorges of Eastern Kentucky’s backcountry. In preparation, he uses several online resources available; lidar and topo maps, aerial photos, Kentucky Mesonet, and TVA precipitation website (if it has rained), to plan out an area that looks promising. Of the 127 Arches he has documented his favorite is Koger South Fork Arch in McCreary County. This turned out to be a significant arch that is about 60 feet long and 15 feet in height. When Mike first saw it, he was far below and wasn’t sure what he was looking at. After studying it for a bit, he realized he was looking at an arch. It would turn out to be his largest find. Another of Mike’s favorite finds is Gem Falls in Laurel County. This towering plunge type waterfall is 105 feet tall. Though it is hard for him to pick a favorite, he mentions the Hen’s Nest Cliff area of McCreary County as having a concentration of great overlooks. On the data side of it, no one comes close to his 110 overlook submissions, which were inspired by the lack of documented overlooks in the database and feeling that they were not as appreciated as arches and waterfalls.
© Mike Hoffman
At the age of 72 (he’ll be 73 in June of 2023) Mike is the oldest of our current arch hunters to be featured. In the ten years he’s been out there exploring, five of those he’s been submitting to the database. Though not a household name in the world of Kentucky landforms there is no denying the impact Mike has had, and is having on the hiking community with nearly all of his 388 documentations being visible on the landforms map. With no sign of him slowing down anytime soon, I have a feeling those hidden and forgotten arches, waterfalls and overlooks are not going to stay hidden for too much longer.
How long have you been exploring the woods of Kentucky?
I started working as a Land Surveyor for an engineering firm in Lexington in 1980 and continued my career as a Land Surveyor with other firms until I retired in 2013. I did Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Surveys, boundary surveys for the Army Corps of Engineers, topographical surveys for the design of new highways and other types of surveys. While doing these surveys, I was usually in hilly and rural areas that were not always easily accessible and saw a lot of central and eastern Kentucky.
What inspired you to begin off trail exploring?
I like to stay active and be outside whenever possible. I knew when I retired I would need an activity that would let me continue to do this. I don’t remember when it happened, but I came across Bill Patrick’s series of DVDs “Arches of the Red River Gorge”. I knew then what activity I would be doing. Bill Patrick was the one who inspired me to explore the Red River Gorge and it expanded from there.
In looking at some of your documentations you have taken on some rugged landscapes, where did you learn the skills for this type of off trail exploring?
When I was surveying, I did a lot of hiking while carrying a stake bag and equipment. This helped me develop the ability to be aware of where I was walking and to get around in precarious locations.
When out exploring do you have a preference as to what you discover or go out exploring for? Arches, waterfalls or overlooks?
When I first started exploring I was looking for arches. I would see some waterfalls, and if I was on a high point and had a good view I would take a picture, but finding arches was the purpose of the hike. I started looking at Facebook posts about the Red River Gorge Area and through them found Kentucky Waterfalls Arches and Landscapes. This led to me finding kylandforms.com. After that I started including waterfalls and overlooks in my hikes.
What goes into your decision to explore an area? Do you have a process?
I like to explore areas that don’t get a lot of hikers. I’ll check the Landform Map and see what areas don’t have many symbols showing found land forms. When I find an area that looks promising, I’ll look at the Lidar map, aerial photos and topo maps to see if it is accessible and the best way to get there. If it has rained recently or is going to rain, I’ll make a possible waterfall my destination. I’ll check the Kentucky Mesonet site and the TVA Region Precipitation site to see how much precipitation there has been in the past few days. Even if my main objective is a waterfall, as I am hiking, I’ll check places that look promising for arches and overlooks.
Do you have a favorite region(s) or county(s) to explore? If so, can you describe why?
When I go hiking now, I usually go to the DBNF or the Big South Fork Area. Laurel County and McCreary County are my favorites. I like the Big South Fork Area for its size, variety of landforms and few hikers. The area of the DBNF north of Hwy 92 and between Big South Fork River and Little South Fork River in McCreary County is a great place to explore.
Do you have a favorite arch you have documented? Favorite overall arch?
Do you have a favorite waterfall you have documented? Favorite overall waterfall?
Do you know how many arches and waterfalls you have been to?
I have been to over 550 arches and 170 waterfalls.
No one has submitted more overlooks to the KY Landforms Database. What inspired you to go out and find all these unique vistas? Have you found an overlook that just simply took your breath away? If so, which one is that?
I think part of it is that there weren’t that many overlooks in the database. I don’t think that overlooks are as appreciated as arches and waterfalls. But to stand on a rock outcrop with the wind blowing through the trees behind you and a vista spread out below you is pretty neat. It is hard to pick a favorite overlook, but the best concentration of great overlooks is on Hens Nest Cliff in the DBNF in McCreary County.
It appears you prefer visiting arches and waterfalls that are off trail and not the more popular arches and waterfalls. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, it is. I like to explore and see what is around the next bend in the cliff face or if the stream I am hearing has a waterfall.
Do you usually explore alone or have someone join you?
I am almost always alone. I have had my brother with me on 5 hikes
Have you ever had any close calls or crazy situations out in the field?
I have seen black bears on 5 separate hikes. Luckily, they all ran off as I got closer. I also have seen a very angry Timber Rattler curled up and waiting for me. It was on an old road and I could get around it. Other than these, I haven’t had any problems.
You are retired, correct?
I retired in 2013 at the age of 63.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
I consider myself lucky to live close enough to the Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest and the Big South Fork Area to be able to go to any of these areas for a day of hiking and exploring.