It was approaching mid-November and time was running out on autumn, not in a calendar sense, but in terms of an expectation of fair weather. The morning reports clearly said that the tranquil days of autumn would end at 3 PM that day as our first “winter” cold front of the season would introduce itself that afternoon.
A year ago, as I toiled my last fall as a practicing physician, and in the throws of the Covid pandemic, I had penciled in a trip during the first fall of my retirement to the Red River Gorge/Natural Bridge area of Kentucky to enjoy the vistas and fall colors that I had seen on numerous social media posts. The outing got pushed back a few weeks as we tried to time it with the delayed leaf change and some PTO days of two of our adult daughters. Luckily nature cooperated and the colors were still outstanding.
The plan was to hike up to Natural Bridge and to enjoy the vistas noted along Laurel Ridge Trail, but we wanted a route that was friendly to sexagenarian knees. We started on “The Original” Natural Bridge Trail whose trailhead is located at the south end of the Hemlock Lodge parking lot. This trail is 0.75 miles long, has an elevation change of 420 feet, and is a mix of excellent trail with mild grades interspersed with short runs of stone steps.
The footing was solid and I would rate the trail as moderate. The setting was outstanding and somewhat reminiscent of previous hikes in the Pacific Northwest. With ferns, mosses and rhododendrons, it has a rain forest ambience to it. (Maidenhair Fern, Christmas Fern, and Wood Fern)
Also like the Pacific Northwest, there was an arboreal cathedral feel to the ravine as we climbed, with trophy size hemlocks, tulip-poplars and white pines acting as the columns of the over story.
When we started the hike the skies were calm and clear but within minutes we noted that the wind had picked up. What we thought was running water turned out to be the wind working its way across the ridge, which was followed by a near constant leaf fall.
As we continued up the trail we got our first glimpse of Natural Bridge.
At this level the wind and the leaf fall picked up more.
We passed beneath the arch, awestruck by its size, and the fact that we had it to ourselves.
At this point we had to traverse “Fat Man’s Squeeze” as part of our ascent to the top of the bridge. It brought back a funny memory of my preteen childhood and a family trip to Natural Bridge Stage Park. As our large family climbed this same trail, my younger brother Tim, who had ventured ahead of the pack, came running back saying, “We have to turn back, Dad will never get through the Fat Man’s Squeeze”. Our somewhat stout father could only laugh. He successfully passed through it, although the anticipation did give him a modicum of anxiety. It appears that they have removed the sign that referenced fat men.
Footing through this pass was excellent that day but reports say that it can be a challenge after wet weather.
When we got to the top we were struck by two things: The vistas and the fluctuating wind gusts. The first photo was taken during a calm period and video that follows is from about the same spot seconds later. Sand, leaves and pine needles were airborne.
The wind added another dynamic to the experience, would wax and wane, but did not take away from our enjoyment of the vistas.
It could be perfectly calm on our ridge and we could see the trees swaying and hear the wind howling on an opposite ridge.
The trailhead for the Laurel Ridge Trail is located at the northern side of Natural Bridge. It is a flat and well maintained trail that takes you to Lookout Point and Lover’s Leap for additional outstanding views.
Early on the trail passes beneath the Sky Lift Ride, where another overlook is located.
As the name implies, the trail follows the ridge and meanders through a tract of 4 pine species (White, Pitch, Virginia, and Shortleaf), Mountain Laurel, Red Oak, Chinkapin Oak and Red Maple.
One of the more interesting sightings was this cluster of 4 small red maple trees, all under one foot tall, and within a foot of each other. The color variation amongst the trees was intriguing as one would be inclined to think that they came from the same relative gene pool and certainly were experiencing the same environmental conditions.
At Lookout Point you get a view back to Natural Bridge as noted in the opening photo. You also get an outstanding view of a valley with a pillar of limestone.
From Lookout Point the trail heads out to its terminus at Lover’s Leap. Here we had the good fortune of seeing these two black vultures sunning themselves atop one of the stone pillars.
At this point we reversed direction as the Laurel Trail is an out and back trail. Along the way we stopped for lunch at Lookout Point which is highly recommended. There is a safe sandstone ledge there that functions as an excellent bench with great views. We then crossed back over Natural Bridge and found the trailhead for the Balanced Rock Trail. Here, at the base of a pagoda, is another exposed rock formation that would function well as a lunch site.
The Balanced Rock Trail is a more vertical trail, involves many stairs, and I was glad we were taking it down rather than up.
It travels through mature forest, gets up close and personal with the stone bluffs, and at times is lined by rhododendron.
Featured along this part of the track are some prime specimens of mature trees including this very large white pine.
Eventually we came upon the namesake feature of the trail – the Balanced Rock. I especially appreciated the ferns and the mature tree that adorned the top. Isn’t nature grand!
Lastly, a series of photos of a very large Eastern Hemlock near the terminus of the trail. Hemlocks are one of the iconic species of the Red River Gorge area and one of my favorite trees. It is hard not to appreciate the majesty of these trees. An arboreal cathedral indeed! Although it is hard to tell by the photos, I am still on the trail as the park rules require.
Odds and Ends
As a father of artistic daughters, tie-dye was frequently in our conversation, but to be honest, I had never witnessed similar effects in nature so broadly before.
These I would call Cabernet.
Near the end of the trail we found this salamander inhabiting a stream bed that had just exited a cave. It may be a Seal Salamander but still working on the final ID.
In summary, this was another outstanding hike. As we had hoped, we were able to ascend to Natural Bridge and Laurel Ridge with out too much strain on our knees, and it was certainly a good choice to descend on the Balanced Rock Trail. I think that it would be great to visit in late April or early May to see the Mountain Laurel flowering or in late May or early June for the Rhododendron bloom.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Videos courtesy of Caroline Burns Grizzle.
Parking – at the Hemlock Lodge, Natural Bridge State Park.
Facilities – At the Lodge.
Trail Conditions – Excellent condition and well marked. The three trails that we did totaled approximately 3 miles.
Benches – Several within the shelters on The Original Trail heading up. Along the Laurel Ridge Trail the best “benches” are the exposed stone at Lookout Point and Lovers’ Leap. Along the Balanced Rock Trail there are several benches.
Kids – Kids 6 and over should do OK with both The Original Trail and the Laurel Ridge Trail. The descent on the Balanced Rock Trail could be more challenging do to the height of some of the “stairs”. Obviously there are cliffs so kids have to be supervised.
Dogs – prohibited on the trails in Natural Bridge State Park.
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are numerous hikes within Natural Bridge State Park and Red River Gorge