Measuring Red Byrd Arch

Rick Bolger, April 2000 -- As published in SPAN, the quarterly newsletter of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society.

The intended highlight of a family vacation this past April was to conclusively measure Kentucky's Red Byrd Arch. With a lot of luck and foolhardy risk-taking, we were successful.

Unfortunately, April rains put our plans on hold for two days. Traveling around the Red River Gorge during one of the rainy days, I decided to check out the info center at the Gladie Historical Site. Hoping for a ranger, I had to settle for a kindly old lady and a hillbilly. "Red Byrd Arch?  Never heard of it." The three of us walked over to a topo map, and I pointed it out. My gracious hosts nodded, then became noticeably alarmed: "That's in Clifty Wilderness!" As if an older map might say, "Here be monsters!" The old man looked at my bulging waistline and asked doubtfully if I knew what I was doing. "You know they had a full search and rescue for some dumb kayaker down there yesterday."

When I left, I heard the lady exclaiming "Red Byrd Arch" and something like "hoo doggies" over and over while clucking and whistling.

After two days of sunshine, I decided to give it a try. With my wife Sandy and twin 9-year-old daughters in tow, we set out for Clifty School Road and the route to the Red River. We found it according to NABS directions, and made a fairly rapid descent to the river, counting a dozen or so major appliances along the way. We waded across the "minor drainage" listed in the directions and tried a couple of routes for the final few hundred feet to the River. I made it first, with one of my daughters keeping pace, and saw what I thought was the rest of our party through the trees upstream.

The river was flooded: deep, brown, loud, and moving way too quickly. While I was trying to size up the river, the person I thought was my wife climbed over a boulder -- and I don't know which of us was more surprised to see the other. We introduced ourselves to Jerry from Covington, KY, who kept looking at us in disbelief until he finally asked, "How...what are you...how did you get here?" After explaining our route from above (Jerry and his group were only familiar with the Douglas Trail along the river and the difficult crossing of Clifty Creek, as well as the impossibly confusing ridge top route from the west), I told him I was looking for an arch.

"Red Byrd Arch?  That's a pretty adventurous undertaking." Jerry said that he was also hoping to visit the arch, and explained that he had done so a few times and it was one of his favorites. Fortunately, he knew where the ford was: "You can't see it now...must be real deep...but I'll give it a try if you want to." Instead of pausing to give due consideration to the dangers involved, I took him up on his offer without hesitation. While my disappointed wife and daughters resigned to stay behind, Jerry and I hastily fashioned some long poles and I started following him across. Jerry's companion, a young man in excellent physical condition, flatly refused to go with us.

Having a lovely time, Jerry in the lead.

While Jerry explained that the water is usually knee high or less, he was soon in up to his chest. About midstream, with the current stronger and the water colder than any rational person would attempt, the stupidity and recklessness of my situation hit home. Holding my tape measure over my head, feeling around with a stick that the current pulled on like a tug of war, I somehow made it without incident.

Once across, Jerry motioned to the deep green wood and suggested that I enjoy the thrill of discovery. Staring at a few hundred thousand acres, I wisely declined and explained that it would be best to use his past experience. After a brief climb through thick rhododendrons and crossing under a beautiful rock shelter, he paused and insisted that I go ahead...and I immediately climbed right by the arch. At this point I realized just how fortunate I had been to meet Jerry, or the whole morning would've been a waste.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, a third member of Jerry's party bushwhacked out of the tangled underbrush; quite surprised to find a suburban soccer mom and two little girls casually enjoying a snack at this remote spot.

Temporarily STUCK in the Red River, unable to move.  Sandy sat calmly on the riverbank, happy to photograph my predicament.

Our climb brought us above Red Byrd Arch, on the west side, so we approached looking "down" at it. As we moved closer, in the deep green surroundings, Red Byrd looked to be a rather dark sort of arch, down in a hole. I would not call it a very impressive approach. But once you are underneath it, the beauty of this arch is quickly apparent. Because of the abundant rain, a waterfall was plunging into the bowl that is "behind" Red Byrd. The arch is wide enough to be well shaded underneath, but the sunshine was streaming into the bowl, turning the trees into gold and the waterfall into a sparkling silver shower. The water tumbled through the floor of the arch and into the lush forest below.

A lot of arches are more impressive. A lot are more fragile, or larger, taller, wider; some are in more dramatic settings. But on this sunny April day, I was hard pressed to think of one that was altogether more beautiful. 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.

The act of measuring Red Byrd seemed a sacrilege in light of its inherent beauty. With Jerry's help and a steel tape, we measured a true opening span of 56' (at the "back"), and just for kicks, measured the widest points under the arch at 116'. At this point Jerry looked me right in the eye and asked if I was going to "write some sort of article that would cause a lot of people to come out here."

On the return trek, the river seemed a lot more difficult to cross, and I spent a few minutes frozen in place, knowing that the slightest movement would upset my balance and send me whirling downstream. When I finally did reach safety, I had to downplay the beauty of Red Byrd Arch to my disappointed family...but promised to return someday during a dry spell.

Red Byrd Natural Arch in Clifty Wilderness, Red River Gorge Natural Area

This is a photo from "behind" Red Byrd Arch, or "inside" the arch, taken from just in front of the waterfall. This view is looking north, toward the River, perhaps 1/4 mile below. Sadly, this photo is too dark to depict the beauty of this place. If you have a photo and would volunteer it for this site, please send it along. In any event, I welcome your comments and feedback: rickbolger@yahoo.com


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