From the lowest point on the trail, I watched other hikers climb up boulders toward a colossal overhang. By the time they had climbed still higher to spectacular Grays Arch, they looked as tiny as ants. Grays Arch is one of more than 100 arches in the Red River Gorge Geological Area, which has one of the highest concentrations of natural sandstone arches in the eastern United States—so many that Red River Gorge has been described as “Arches National Park with trees.”
Managed by the U.S. Forest Service and spanning 41,000 acres in Menifee, Powell, and Wolfe counties, Red River Gorge has multiple designations—National Geological Area, National Archaeological Area, National Natural Landmark—and Red River, which carved out the gorge, is itself a National Wild and Scenic River.
The river, with its rusty red color from natural iron deposits, meanders through the bottom of the gorge alongside a two-lane road with its own designation as a National Scenic Byway. And Red River Gorge manager Tim Eling of the U.S. Forest Service says there’s even another designation. The Clifty Wilderness, the most rugged and primitive part of Red River Gorge, is a federally designated Wilderness Area, comprising 13,000 acres.
There are geological wonders everywhere you turn—cliffs so tall and massive that rock climbers travel here from all over the world to take them on—and there are the arches, one after another, with names like Double Arch, Rock Bridge, and Sky Bridge.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, streams and rivers cut through sandstone, eventually leaving ridges, and later arches formed. The tops of the ridges were more resistant to erosion than the softer undersides. Over time, rain, melting snow, and wind created cavities in the undersides that we know today as overhangs or rock shelters. Eventually the walls beneath the ridge tops became so thin they collapsed, but the harder capstone remained, hence the birth of an arch. In time, the ridge top itself will collapse, too, but new ones are being formed every day. A cavity no bigger than a grapefruit could one day become a magnificent arch.
I did some math and figured that if you visited Red River Gorge once every season and hiked to a different arch each time, it would take you more than 25 years to see all the arches. I’ve still got about 19 years to go. It’s incredible that we have such a place in Kentucky that will keep us busy seeing new things well into our post-knee replacement years.
For more information, visit the Daniel Boone National Forest Web site at www.fs.usda.gov/dbnf and click on Red River Gorge under “Special Places.” Contact the Gladie Visitor Center at (606) 663-8100.