Autumn at Natural Bridge State Resort Park
When Daniel Boone reportedly said, “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place,” he certainly could have been talking about Natural Bridge State Resort Park. The Slade destination is primed for peak viewing in autumn with its glories of jewel colored mountains; sandstone cliffs with striations of pale pinks, grays and rust; and the magnificent 65-foot-high rock arch that gives the park its name.
Boone really did pass through the area in 1767. Sheltowee Trace Trail, the state’s longest trail, part of which runs through the park, was named after Boone. Sheltowee is Algonquin for “Big Turtle”—the name given to the famed explorer by the Shawnee.
Visitors can walk in Boone’s footsteps by following the turtle signs marking the trace, says Brian Gasdorf, grounds maintenance supervisor at the park. At 2,400 acres, the park is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest, making it seem like a vast panorama of mountains and valleys, with the Red River Gorge cutting a wide swath through the topography.
Gasdorf says a good way to get an overview of the park is to follow the 2.3-mile loop starting at the Hemlock Lodge.
“We have approximately 20 miles of trails,” the prime draw for park visitors, he says.
The trails range from easy—the quarter-mile stroll along the shores of a small lake—to strenuous, such as the 7.5-mile Sand Gap Trail that follows in part old logging roads and takes four to six hours to complete.
Of course, the most popular spot is the 78-foot-long and 20-foot-wide Natural Bridge. It’s a somewhat steep climb along the footpath leading to the bridge—but, remember, when this first became a tourist destination in the 1890s, women did the trek in long skirts and delicate leather shoes. Now, there’s also the Skylift, the type of transport found at ski resorts, for a trip to the top.
Hit the trail for leaf-peeping
For those wanting to explore the park in autumn, Gasdorf says the peak of fall color is usually mid- to late October, although occasionally it extends into the first week in November.
“The best trail to hike to see good fall color is the Laurel Ridge Trail, which begins at Natural Bridge and ends at Lover’s Leap Overlook and is .75 miles,” he says. “To access the Laurel Ridge Trail, hikers will first have to trek up to Natural Bridge. If riding the Skylift, you will be dropped off at the Laurel Ridge Trail not far from Natural Bridge.”
From there, it’s an easy journey to Lover’s Leap. (Those hankering for a challenge can take the turnoff to Devil’s Gulch Stairway, an arduous shortcut to the Battleship Rock Trail.) Lover’s Leap, probably the second-favorite stop in the park, is a photographer’s dream for shots of the bridge and the valley’s amazing vistas.
The Balanced Rock Trail, with its 600 stairs, is the park’s steepest hike, with a 400-foot elevation change. Part of the Sheltowee Trace Trail, the hike includes a cave and then, further up, the unique Balanced Rock—a large, round rock tapering down to a small apex seemingly precariously balanced on a huge rock. But don’t worry about it falling—it’s been that way for eons.
Along the trails, look for great blue lobelia, a 2-to-3-foot-tall native plant with impressive lavender-blue flowers, and fluffy-flowered yellow goldenrod.
If you decide to extend your stay overnight, you can choose your way to stay. Options are back country camping (permit required), regular campsites and cabins; the 35-room Hemlock Lodge, near the swimming pools, features balconies overlooking the park’s grounds.
More exploring in Natural Bridge
You don’t have to hit the trail on foot to see fall foliage and landscape in and around Natural Bridge. Below, read about options on horseback or watercraft, plus find out more about an area entertainment venue.
“Late fall is my favorite time when the leaves pop and drop, covering the ground with colors and you can see the bluffs outlined through the trees,” says Troy Davison, co-owner, with Andrea Williamson, of Whisper Valley Trails in Beattyville, which offers guided trail rides.
Davison and Williamson have a large herd of horses, from 3 months old to 30 years, so there’s a good fit for every skill level of rider. Each horse has a distinctive personality, including the two ponies who got into Davison’s trailer after he’d left the door open for the cats to get in.
“We offer one- and two-hour rides with trips going into the mountains and then dropping down 150 feet in elevation,” he says. “Depending on the trip, we go past three different waterfalls—including a multitiered one that drops 70 feet and one that is a straight drop from a rock cove where the sounds of the water echo off the cliffs.”
Rolling on the River
“Kayaking and canoeing in the fall is spectacular,” says Judy Braden, owner of Red River Adventure campground and canoe rentals. Offering single seat and tandem kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, the business offers several water options such as the 8-mile, self-guided Adventure Tour that winds past cliffs, woods and fascinating rock formations along the Red River Gorge.
“We also have trips on Lake Reba—that has a little island with lots of turtles—and Mill Lake which is a very pretty lake that’s surrounded by 200-foot cliffs and has a submerged forest,” Braden says.
Meadowgreen Appalachian Music Park in Clay City opens its 2019-2020 season October 5, a celebration open stage and potluck dinner that’s open to all.
“If someone can’t cook because they’re from out of town or camping, they’re still welcome and we have tons of food,” says owner Rickey Wasson. “Then we have performances every weekend featuring local, regional and nationally known bands.”
Wasson is a performer who brought the park a few years ago, but notes that it’s been a favorite place for bluegrass music for around 40 years.
JANE SIMON AMMESON is a food, lifestyle and travel writer, James Beard Nominating Judge for the Great Lakes Region, photographer and author of 11 books.