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Photos of the Popular Natural Arches in Red River Gorge, Kentucky
By Rick Bolger
With the exception of the Colorado River and related canyons in Utah, Kentucky's Red River Gorge has the greatest concentration of natural arches per square mile in the USA. It is in fact quite similar to Utah's canyonlands, and is often described as "Canyonlands with trees," due to the maze of cliffs, rock shelters, pillars, and other oddities. Bet you never thought of Kentucky as a hotbed of natural wonders.
1. Red Byrd Arch
Because of the way you have to approach it, Red Byrd looks to be a rather dark sort of arch, down in a hole. But once you are underneath it, the beauty of this arch is unmistakable.
A lot of arches are more impressive. A lot are more fragile, or larger, taller, wider; some are in more dramatic settings. But altogether, Red Byrd is tops. Big enough to impress, small enough to comprehend...a combination of shadows and light, foliage and falling water. Only a fool would fail to see the hand of God at Red Byrd Arch.
This is the arch I measured "officially" in April, 2000 for the Natural Arch and Bridge Society. Some said this was the largest span in the Red River Gorge; it is not. The span is now officially 56'. The "alcove" is 116' for those who don't know how to properly measure an arch, such as the United States Forest Service. I consider this to be a bench type waterfall arch, which means that it was formed by a waterfall slicing open a rock span along the side of a "bench." Please click here for a site describing the trip to Red Byrd Arch.
2. Grays Arch
I would say this is the most impressive in the gorge, because of its classic arch shape and open air feeling. It is a bit trampled underneath, but still quite beautiful. This is the arch you would point to as the most awe-inspiring, hardest to comprehend, etc. The opening is more circular than the rest, which creates this impression.
Because of the way the trail approaches Grays Arch, you can view it during the last 1/2 mile of your approach. You can contemplate this arch from a spot looking down at it, looking up, and sitting underneath. And it is well worth the time to explore all the vantage points and enjoy this arch. Many people make a wrong turn on the trail, and wind up on top of Gray's arch, which is interesting -- not to mention dangerous -- but reveals no view of the opening. Be warned that if you fall off Gray's arch, the sudden stop at the bottom is usually fatal.
Gray's Arch is approx. 65' high, with a span of approximately 80'. Because of the height, it seems to be larger than any other arch in the gorge, even though the span is substantially shorter than, for instance, Sky Bridge. Called a buttress type arch, because it extends off the end of a cliff arm and forms a buttress.
3. Whittleton Arch
FAR RIGHT PHOTO: Whittleton Arch.
Whittleton Arch is a lot like Red Byrd, only chunkier, less graceful, and a lot easier to get to. The hike to Whittleton takes you along a creek, then follows a short uphill climb to where this massive rock span waits, wedged into a ravine. In the photo accompanying this text, you can see a squarish boulder the size of a modest cabin with three trees growing on top of it. Make no mistake, this is a very big rock and these are substantial trees, which lends some scale to this span. In rainy seasons, a waterfall trickles off the top of the arch.
The author of the undisputed guide to the gorge, Kentucky's Land of the Arches, calls Whittleton "dark and foreboding" or something like that. Given the right weather conditions or time of year, I can easily understand how one could say that. I would suggest visiting Whittleton during the early afternoon, when it is well lit and hopefully less "ominous." Personally, I think these "dark" descriptions are a bit off, and I could easily justify rating Whittleton first.
Span is approx. 75'. Like Red Byrd, this is a bench type waterfall arch.
4. Double Arch
Not too many writers get excited about this one; perhaps it was the time of day that we were there. About halfway through the hike to Double Arch, you can look high up on the cliff and see the opening. We were there mid-day, and the cliff was well shaded, but sunlight streamed through the opening. It was like a beacon was stuck into the rock wall...quite stunning. You then climb around the end of the cliff arm, and gradually up to the arch on the other side. After the climb, you are presented with a sweeping view through the opening to a long cliff across the canyon. (Court House Rock?).
PHOTO: This shows the "back" of Double Arch, approaching from the trail below. Very cool. Please click on the photo to enlarge. Double Arch has a span of about 20'. It is a lighthouse type arch, formed when two cavities on opposite sides of a rock eventually connect completely through the cliff. "Double" refers to a second, smaller opening above the main arch; hard to see but an interesting feature.
5. Star Gap Arch
Please click on either photo for a page specific to Star Gap Arch. Star Gap Arch is very pretty in its form and surroundings, with a long, narrow opening. Star Gap Arch is fairly close to the road, but the last 1/10th mile is generally too difficult for non-hikers, seniors, etc. To walk across the arch is quite easy, and quite safe if you employ the proper amount of caution. The real kicker is getting to the opening. The guidebook says "backtrack and turn left." I wonder how many people have gotten seriously stuck doing this. After a brief recon, I turned "right" opposite the suggested path to the left, and found a moderate switchback down the rock to a narrow ledge path, which leads easily to a stunning vista at the arch. Because of the rock scramble involved, Star Gap gets few visitors and thus presents a good opportunity to sit and enjoy the surroundings in quiet repose.
Star Gap has a span of about 50'. It is a lighthouse type arch.
6. Angel Windows
This is a group of two -- perhaps three or four -- small arches. As arches go, Angel Windows are not what I would call spectacular, but the setting and surrounding rockhouses and other unusual geological features push them into contention as one of the most interesting features in the Red River Gorge. PHOTO: That's Ally standing in the largest Arch at Angel's Windows. Please click on the photo for larger images of Angel's Windows.
Before visiting the area, I saw a photo of the arches on a webpage -- photos with nothing to lend scale to the subject -- so I sort of thought these would be an "if we have time" sort of thing. Well, if you set out for Sky Bridge (the most photographed and promoted arch), you have to pass the trailhead for Angel Windows. So, on our first foray into the gorge (destination Sky Bridge) my impatience to "see something" made this our first arch of the week...and I was truly surprised by how fantastic these small arches and surroundings are. So now I would recommend Angel Windows as the "first stop" for any visitors...I can't think of a finer and more visually informative introduction to the region.
The largest arch at Angel Windows has a span of about 10'. It is a buttress type arch. As for the others, anything with a span of more than 3' is classified as an arch by the NABS. I did not know this at the time, so I can't say for sure how many of the dozen or so lighthouses and holes count as true arches.
7. Rock Bridge
This is one of the few Kentucky arch features called a "bridge" that actually is a natural bridge. It spans Swift Camp Creek, which at the time of our visit was really a small river, enhancing the experience greatly. Of all the spans in this list, Rock Bridge is the one that most challenges the imagination. It is almost as if someone built a stone bridge for a carriage path...why does it stay "up"? Once you are on the bridge, crossing the river, it even feels as if you are crossing a carriage path. How did it form this way? Most arches are within cliffsides...Rock Bridge is at the very bottom of the gorge...why aren't there more like it? It is easily one of the two most unusually formed arches in the gorge. (The other unusual arch being Henson's Arch, which isn't in the same league as Rock Bridge.)
The hike to this bridge is also one of the nicest, winding under a large rock house...past waterfalls, wildflower glades, and through a tall forest. This again is different from many of the arches in the gorge, where cliffside locations tend to be surrounded by more stunted trees.
Rock Bridge has a span of approximately 65'. It is a natural bridge.
8. Half Moon Arch
PHOTO: Half Moon Arch. Please click to enlarge photo. Here again the arch is secondary to the awe inspiring beauty of the surroundings; Half Moon Rock (also known as Chimp Rock) is a natural wonder with or without an arch. Like Double Arch and Star Gap, Half Moon Arch goes completely through the cliff, but it is much smaller and less dramatic as arches go. It also features a number of smaller arches (at least one additional "true" arch), lighthouses, and other assorted perforations in the cliff. Another interesting feature is that with a little imagination, one can easily see how this was likely a double arch in eons past, or perhaps the current arch formed long after the probable upper arch succumbed to gravity.
Note that Half Moon Arch is not on the Forest Service maps, likely because reaching it requires shimmying down a small ledge, then climbing out again on the return.
Half Moon Arch has a span of approximately 12'. It is a lighthouse type arch.
9. Sky Bridge
This is the longest span in the gorge, and one of the longest spans in the eastern US. It makes you say "wow." Technically, it is really two spans, but 99.9% of its bazillion visitors don't look at it that way. The trail takes you across the span, and it is somewhat surprising that the federales have not constructed an elaborate system of railings and walkways. The view is breathtaking, but it feels a bit too much like a tourist mecca for me to rate it higher than 9th. Anyone familiar with these geological wonders will wonder why Sky Bridge gets so little respect in this article. Sandy (my lovely wife) said that Sky Bridge was probably her favorite, and a heck of a lot of people agree with her. For the non arch nut, the other spans don't even compare. Personally, I found it to be too well traveled...and almost every square inch has initials or some other inane carving.
The round-trip hike is one of the most interesting in the region, but again is too busy to be enjoyed properly. I suggest visiting Sky Bridge on a weekday in February.
The main span at Sky Bridge measures about 90'. The second span is about 15'. It is a "completed" lighthouse-formed arch.
10. Princess Arch
Like Sky Bridge, many consider Princess Arch among their favorites, and will probably question my reasoning for relegating it to 10th. Unfortunately, Princess Arch is a lot like Sky Bridge in other ways, mostly that it is heavily traveled and carved up. It is set along the top of one of the smaller ridges, and is a "finished" or "completed" arch. The arch itself is quite dramatic, like a ribbon of stone connecting the arm of the ridge to the side of much larger ridge.
Please click on the photo for a closer look. The trail to Princess Arch has less than spectacular beginnings, with a number of professionally prepared monuments to the reckless idiots (mostly young males) who met their demise while scampering about on the cliffs. The trail then dives into a dark wood, leading down to the arch. In all fairness, my visit was during the early evening, and I plan to revisit someday during the afternoon sun in early spring. I can imagine that Princess Arch also presents a fantastic fairytale setting when the forest is in the full green of early summer. So someday, I hope to revise this passage and move Princess Arch to her rightful spot somewhere in the top five.
Princess Arch spans approximately 40'. It is a completed lighthouse type arch.
11. Castle Arch
This arch is another that should eventually be placed higher on the list, but unfortunately we did not have time for the climb. So we saw it as most do, from a distance, driving north just past the Sky Bridge access road. Castle Arch towers over the valley, and requires an off-trail scramble up the ridge. (I've been told that it is not as difficult as it appears). Formerly known as Castle Rock, the arch opened just a few years ago.
Castle Arch is about 45', a lighthouse type arch.
12. & 13. Turtleback Arch
Turtleback (really two arches) is located along a ridge top in the Swift Camp Creek section of the gorge. It is a mile or two beyond Rock Bridge, on a trail extension. The arch itself is so-so by comparison to many. The trail is notable for its precipitous cliffs, stream crossings, a trek through Bearpen Creek Narrows...quite something. Finally, the turn-off described in the guidebook is unclear, depending on what time of year you visit and what your interpretation of a "flowing stream" is. Anyway, I found it after following a couple of non-trails, and we arrived sweating, wet, tired, and hungry. For all the effort put forth, this arch should be rated higher, but it isn't as great as the others. On its own, Turtleback is a significant natural wonder, named for the curving ceiling that is said to resemble a turtle shell.
Turtle back arch spans 12' or so, and is a lighthouse arch with evidence of water forces working at one time.
14. Natural Bridge
This is located outside the confines of the Red River gorge proper, and is the focal point of a very fine Kentucky State Park. Like Sky Bridge, this is not a bridge but a very large and impressive arch formed by connecting lighthouses that opened larger through the passage of time. It is very pretty, and would rank near the top of this list except for the fact that sometime between our first visit (1993) and second (2000), the area underneath the arch was PAVED. This enhancement, combined with man's carved enhancements, relegates Natural Bridge to near bottom of the list. But let me add that for people passing through the region, with little time to visit, this one makes the most sense and provides a very inspiring respite.
I must note that we've seen Natural Bridge by two different approaches: First, by taking the "original trail" and hiking up to it. Second, by riding the skylift and walking along the top of the ridge. I can say without hesitation that the hike provides a more memorable approach to the arch.
Natural Bridge spans some 85' and is a completed lighthouse type arch.
15. Whistling Arch
This is an arch in progress. Although I rate this one lower, don't skip it; the trail is short, easy, and interesting. I also suggest walking a bit beyond the arch, on the southern side of the cliff, as an excellent view awaits just 30 yards beyond. The north side of the cliff features a fantastic rock house right at the arch. So why isn't Whistling Arch higher on this list? Too many outstanding arches!
Whistling Arch spans 15' and is a youthful lighthouse/buttress type arch.
16. Owl's Window
This is a minor span within Natural Bridge State Park. To view it, one must stop at the entrance to Lake Whatever and walk a few dozen yards north along the main road, and look northwest. It is small, but quite low in the cliff. One can imagine that if the "window" opens further, this could someday become one of the most impressive spans in the world.
Owl's Window spans 5' and is a "new" lighthouse arch.
17. Henson's Cave Arch
Like Rock Bridge, Henson's is the other formation that is unique in the gorge. This is actually a limestone span across a sinkhole. It began forming as one sinkhole, then another, with the hard limestone resisting erosion. The top of the arch is at ground level; a staircase leads down below ground to view the span.
18. Swift Camp Creek Trailhead "Arch"
These are a couple of minor lighthouses in a bench above Swift Camp Creek Trail, just north of where the trail meets the Rock Bridge loop trail. An unofficial scramble leads up to the cliff, which has a few interesting geological features. At the end of the cliff, the largest opening may just qualify as an arch.
More Arches? Here's Guilain Debossens' "Archmillenium" Website -- which is an outstanding website for natural bridges and arches worldwide.
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