Red River Gorge: A Triplet of Trails

We arrived in the Red River Gorge on the evening of July 8, 2020. Finding a remote site within the campground, we set about making camp. Five minutes later, we were hastily flinging our gear willy-nilly back into the hatch of my Subaru Crosstrek. We were under attack and in full retreat. The assaulting army was small, winged, and wearing a yellowish striped uniform. Deer flies. Damned, dirty deer flies.

Unbeknownst to us, deer flies invade this area for approximately two weeks every year in late June/early July. We were there just in time for the summer swarm. Great. The coolest thing about deer flies is that DEET doesn’t really deter them, if by “coolest” I actually mean “worst”. Don’t waste your Deep Woods OFF!® . Unless you’re the only one with it. In a scramble to protect ourselves, Lisa found this on the web:

Using DEET works reasonably well against the deer flies only if you are the sole user and are willing to withhold it from your the rest of your party. Slather yourself with it and your friends will become easy pickings. Your fellow hikers will be savaged, but you will get a modicum of relief.

We got a good laugh from that (paraphrased) self-serving advice. We selected a new campsite that was located closer to others and the fly hoards were significantly less severe. We cooked up some ramen over an open fire and climbed into our tent to get some sleep.

The next morning we were up and out fairly early, despite our low-key itinerary. We had less than five miles planned, spread across five separate hikes. There is plenty of great hiking in the area; of particular interest is the Sheltowee Trace National Recreational Trail, which runs 319 miles through the Daniel Boone National Forest and into Tennessee’s Big South Fork Area. We, however, had just one day and wished to hit up some of the main features of the Red River Gorge – even if they did have convenient parking. We arrived at a cul-de-sac at the end of the unpaved Chimney Top Rock Road just before 9:00am.

Chimney Top Rock

We started off down a paved asphalt trail amid signs warning of the dangers ahead. This was a dangerous place the signs said; we resolved to stay aware. (While this trail could absolutely be dangerous, the viewing platform is fenced in.) The asphalt soon melted into dirt, and the trail began to wind through the Kentucky forest on its way to the gorge. We were working our way west-southwest along a ridge line, and the view began to open up to the north. Through breaks in the trees, the splendor of the Red River Gorge revealed itself to us. Rolling forested hills stretched out to the horizon where the Bluegrass State met a glass-blue sky.

It is only a quarter-mile to the viewpoint. The point, which sits atop the Chimney Top Rock, is a multi-level platform ringed with stone posts and timber rails. The view is nothing short of magnificent, looking out across a bend in the Red River. You can’t see the river from Chimney Top Overlook, but you can see a sweeping 180 degree view over a densely forested gorge. Opposite were cliffs of beige sandstone. A semi-circular arch was weathered into the distant crag, an enormous geologic cubby in the wall of the canyon. We gawked awhile and then headed back. Ten minutes later we were back at the cul-de-sac, where we sought out the Princess Arch Trail.

Princess Arch

Having found the Princess Arch Trail on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, we tramped down the path. Unlike the Chimney Top Trail, there was no asphalt here. Our route twisted and turned among hardwoods and through wind sculpted rocks that often looked as if a rare mountaintop wave had been turned to stone as it crested. Like Chimney Top, the Princess Trail descends only a quarter-mile to its destination. This hike is a lollipop, but we didn’t even see the return junction on the way out. Soon we arrived at the arch.

Spanning forty feet, Princess Arch sits nestled in the Kentucky woods. When you’re on the Princess Arch Trail you are actually above the arch and could potentially walk over it without noticing where you are. As with most easily accessible natural attractions, the area around the span is riddled with social trails, and it can be hard to stay on the official pathway. The arch is viewable from virtually every angle, and a spur loops around to the southwest, taking the hiker below the vault where one can clamber on the rock ledges and small shallow caves that lurk below. The stalwart stone span is impressive, looking at once sturdy and delicate as it arcs through the air among the gently rustling trees.

When we had had our fill of pretty, pretty arches we followed the spur back to the junction we had missed earlier and retraced our steps to the car. Our second trailhead (we considered Chimney Top and Princess Arch trails to have one trailhead even though they are a few yards apart) was back up Chimney Top Rock Road about a quarter of a mile.

Half Moon Arch

Half Moon Arch Trail is unmarked but easy to find. Use the GPS coordinates at the end of this post or look for a double set of bear-proof waste bins 0.3 miles before the road terminates at the cul-de-sac. The trail is across the dirt road from the bins.

We set off down our third trail of the morning. On this go-round we had a daunting four-tenths of a mile trek to reach our second arch of the day. The Half Moon Arch Trail was similar to the Princess Arch trail, a winding single track, and more rugged than the Chimney Rock Trail. Unlike our previous two jaunts, the Half Moon Arch Trail boasted some decidedly more fanciful surroundings, and we noticed a variety of colorful fungi flanking our path. Adding to the interest were sporadic berries and curious insects. One such insect was the robber fly. (This fuzzy little predator looks a lot like a bumble bee and preys on other insects, including our Red River Gorge nemesis, the damned, dirty deer fly. So kudos to them. )

The Half Moon Arch Trail offered up a lot of views to the north – and just to the north was Chimney Top Rock. It was great to get a detached view of where we had been a few hours before. Here from the south, the Chimney was a stacked stone prominence that jutted out into an undulating sea of dense vegetation. The cobbled limestone that buttressed the overlook appeared two dimensional from a quarter-mile away, as if it had been pained on cardboard by a middle school theatre crew. Zooming in, we could just make out the stone posts that ringed the observation platform.

In no time at all, we reached the arch. Rather than a sleek span, like the Princess, Half Moon Arch was an amoeba-like passage under a haphazard mish-mosh of crumpled stone. Above was a massive slab, weathered in a way that resembled the wrinkled skin of an elephant. We were able to climb around and through this arch as well, and we enjoyed exploring the area and photographing the span from all directions. It was disappointing to find some graffiti sprayed onto the stone – aren’t there enough highway overpasses in the world?!

This was not a rigorous morning of hiking. Even so, Chimney Top Rock, Princess Arch, and Half Moon Arch deserve your attention. Each has its own unique charms, and together they make a quick and easy trifecta of worthwhile jaunts. As for the flies? They were bad. At one point I had stopped to take a picture, and when I caught up to Lisa she was whimpering on the trail, chin to her chest, arms and hands covering her head, bobbing and weaving to escape the damned, dirty menace. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that they prefer to bite moving targets, so our walk back to the car was punctuated with great, long stretches of standing frozen on the trail, blinking like anime characters.

Fortunately, the deer fly season is short in the Red River Gorge area. The flies were a nuisance, but we enjoyed our time there regardless. Give some consideration to these little pests if you’re planning a trip to the Red River Gorge. If you do visit during Fly Week, go ahead and bring your DEET … just don’t share. ♦

Date: July 9, 2020
Location: Pine Ridge, KY
Trailhead 1: 37.825122, -83.617989 Trailhead 2: 37.821341, -83.615474
Distance: 2.1 miles (total)
Elevation Gain: 329 feet (total)
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Cherokee, Shawnee, Osage, and Yuchi.

3 thoughts on “Red River Gorge: A Triplet of Trails

  1. Pingback: Miguel’s Pizza: Red River Gorging | BIT|Hiker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s