Natural Bridge State Resort Park: Balanced Rocks and Tight Squeezes

I would like to preface this post by reporting that after our delicious lunch at Miguel’s Pizza (read here), and before we embarked on our climb to the natural bridge, we took a one mile out-and-back hike on the Sheltowee Connector Trail to see the Red River Suspension Bridge. This narrow pedestrian bridge carries the 319-mile Sheltowee Trace Trail across the Red River. The bridge was worth the steps, but the connector was crowded and not terribly interesting. Here are a few pictures:

The connector trailhead can be found here: 37.823097, -83.628077. This mileage is included in the stats at the end of the post.

On to our next hike. We missed the parking lot for the Natural Bridge trail. Had we parked where we were supposed to, our 1.7-mile hike would have been extended to an even two miles.

Our directions took us to the Hemlock Lodge, a pleasant hotel overlooking a small lake on the Middle Fork Red River. We parked at the end of the lot, mere steps from a well-marked trailhead that began as a paved walkway leading south along the river. We walked 100 yards on this tourist super-highway before coming to a flight of rustic steps in the woods. No, not the (reportedly) inter-dimensional kind we had closely encountered the previous day (read here). This path was clearly labeled “Balanced Rock Trail”, and a smaller sign cautioned us to “Be Aware of Hazardous Trees”. Considering ourselves duly forewarned, we started upward, scanning the woods for arboreal aggressors whom we imagined as the Fighting Trees of Quadling County from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. We hoped there would be no flying monkeys.

We climbed the stone steps through dense forest. To each side the lush undergrowth framed a well maintained trail. Within several hundred yards, we came to an amphitheater-like overhang eroded into a cliff face. It was fifteen or twenty feet deep, and the air was cool near the back of the grey, stone grotto.

As we continued, the trail snaked through the woods among massive, moss-covered rocks which were strangely pitted with round holes and wavy creases. Without spiraling into a lengthy geology lesson, this is Corbin Sandstone with honeycomb weathering and iron banding, and it is some seriously cool looking rock. I’ll let the picture explain.

Three-quarters of a mile along our trail, an impressive sight came into view. A large, ovoid rock, the size of a small yacht, rested upon another formation with only a relative few square feet in contact. As regular visitors to parks across the United States, we find balanced rocks everywhere. If you’ve visited some of these formations, you may have noticed that the interpretation of “balanced” can vary widely. Lisa and I took a hike in Utah that boasted a balanced rock; we aren’t sure we even saw it, because, although we passed several rocks on top of other rocks, nothing stood out as particularly precarious. Another hike in Pennsylvania led to a large stone that was certainly resting less securely than it might have been, but balanced? In Kentucky, the descriptor held … and we hoped the rock did, too. The balanced rock in the natural bridge area was definitely on tenuous terra firma. It looked as if it could be dislodged with a good shove. This perilously-perched pebble made for an impressive monument in the Kentucky woods.

Up we went, often via long, stone staircases bordered by wooden railings. Sometimes the stairs were wooden. Frequently our way was flanked by pitted stone cliffs that rose into the leafy canopy. Eventually the trail leveled and it became clear that we had reached the end of our climb .

We passed an octagonal structure just before the trail straightened into a stone path which cut through the trees like a river of beige rock. There was something different about this pathway, though. It took a moment to discern that much of the foliage surrounding the trail was treetops and not just underbrush. We were atop the natural bridge.

We walked the length of the bridge and gawked at the Kentucky landscape that spread out before us, then looked for the way down below. We found a stone staircase and, like trolls, clambered down under the bridge to worry any unsuspecting billy goats, gruff or not, that may try to cross above. What we found were more trolls. This time in the form of a bachelorette party who decided to stop in the most picturesque spot of our hike and yuck it up about the upcoming nuptials. I’ll address that bad behavior (and more!) in next week’s post.

At the bottom of the stairs, but before we reached the bowery under the bridge itself, we had to pass through a stretch of trail known as the “Fat Man’s Misery”. Apparently the Bluegrass State didn’t get the message that body shaming is not cool. Check your email, Kentucky and do better. So, before we reached the bower under the bridge itself, we had to pass through a stretch of trail we like to call “The Narrow Place”. Feel free to use that, KY. At any other time we would have celebrated the Narrow Place as a fun and exciting feature of this hike. Now, it just looked like a stoney gauntlet of coronavirus.

We waited for a large party to come through before entering the slot. We removed our daypacks and wriggled into the passage, which was probably forty yards long and easily only 18 inches wide in places. I had to shimmy sideways down the chute. At the other end, we stepped out at the base of the sandstone arch. Geologically, the Natural Bridge is an arch, not a bridge. Bridges are primarily eroded by water – this formation was not.

Natural Bridge State Resort Park’s span is truly a wonder to behold. It’s almost counterintuitive to imagine that this was created completely naturally, so sleek are its lines. The bridge arcs gracefully seventy-eight feet from one stone abutment to the other, uniform in width, and unmarred by knobbily outcroppings or significant irregularities. Sixty-five feet above, the underside is smooth and unblemished.

We took pictures and tramped around the base of the arch for a few minutes before passing under the span and heading down the Original Natural Bridge Trail.

We descended via flights of stone stairs before the trail resolved to a gently descending, double-wide path through the Daniel Boone National Forest. For a time, an effervescent, moss-lined creek escorted us down the draw, its bubbling song underscoring our hike. We arrived back at the Hemlock Lodge with 1.7 miles and 430 feet in the bank.

The Natural Bridge State Resort Park is popular and commensurately crowded, but well worth your time. Although short, this hike ranks among some of the most interesting we’ve taken. The climb is picturesque and the balance rock is worth the hike in and of itself. The Natural Bridge is a geologic treasure that shouldn’t be missed. the arch is awe inspiring from below and the stroll across the top is a rare and fun tiptoe through the treetops. The fun squeeze through the narrow slot and the sublime stroll back to the trailhead down the Original Natural Bridge Trail round out this quick and easy loop, making the hiker return on investment extremely high. There are plenty of other trails in the park so a longer hike can easily be had. And, if you’re looking to start at the actual trailhead, find it here: 37.777453, -83.677050.  ♦

Date: July 9, 2020
Location: Winchester, KY
Trailhead: 37.776463, -83.681063
Distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 444 feet
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 “Natural Bridge State Resort Park: Balanced Rocks and Tight Squeezes

  1. Pingback: Gifford Pinchot State Park: Am I Unbalanced or Is It Just That Rock? | BIT|Hiker

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