We opted to hike in Red River Gorge in the first full week of April when we saw that the Kentucky State Parks was hosting their Wildflower Weekend at nearby Natural Bridge State Park, figuring that the spring ephemeral wildflowers would be near their peak. We selected the Rock Bridge Trail due to its reputation for spring flowers, and the understanding that it would be a good experience for the young family who accompanied us on this outing.
Rock Bridge Trail is listed as “easy” on most reviews, but I suspect that is relative to the other challenging trails that are in the Gorge area. This was not a flat suburban ramble.
It is a loop trail, and from the western trailhead almost immediately heads downhill at a good grade, and then traverses down some rustic stairs laid into the mountainside or carved into the sandstone.
The setting is like a temperate rainforest, especially on this wet day, with the trail meandering through large rhododendrons and towering hemlocks and white pines, interspersed with a variety of hardwoods.
This massive Eastern Hemlock, its trunk adorned with heavy moss and a single mushroom, demonstrated the moistness of the valley.
The understory included an assortment of ferns, including Wood and Christmas Ferns.
Other interesting sightings on the forest floor included the colorful Partridge Berry,
and this fern ally, Shining Clubmoss, which was a new plant to us. Fern allies, like ferns, reproduce by spore production.
The valley offers background music of the sound of rushing water from the Rockbridge Fork of Swift Camp Creek,
which culminates with a chorus at Creation Falls.
Eventually both the creek and the trail reach Rock Bridge, which is pictured in the title photo. It is the only arch in Red River Gorge that has water flowing beneath it.
The goal of this hike was to see some of the spring woodland wildflowers that the Gorge is known for, and we did have some success, including seeing these:
Round Leaf Violet – the flowers may appear before the leaves unfurl and the leaves are more round than heart shaped.
Red Trillium – a large plant with a 1 to 2 inch flower that bends forward.
Marsh Blue Violet – features these lighter colored flowers, held high above the heart shaped leaves.
Halbred-leaved Violet – these are characterized by the bi-color heart shaped leaves and the streaks of purple on the flower petals.
Spring Beauty – the flowers may or may not have the pink striping noted in this specimen, and the leaves are narrow like a blade of grass.
After Rock Bridge the trail made a steady climb up out of the valley, again utilizing carved sandstone stairs to negotiate the large outcroppings along the way.
In summary, Rock Bridge Trail is an outstanding experience, with mature pines and hemlocks towering over a diverse understory. The environs host a great assortment of ferns, mosses, and woodland wildflowers, suggestive of a fairy wood. The trail itself is a mix of fractured asphalt, sand, exposed rock, and bare earth, but is relatively easily walked. It is in close proximity to stone cliffs and lively streams. It is family friendly and was well traveled, but not overcrowded, on this pleasant spring break weekday. The parking lot was overfilled and nearly everyone had kids with them. It was time well spent.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Parking – Gravel lot for about 20 cars at a nice picnic area.
Facilities – Yes, in parking area.
Trail Conditions – Excellent condition and well marked. The trail was 1.4 miles long. I would rate it as moderate due to terrain change.
Benches – One bench noted atop the ascent from Rock Bridge but there are rocks that could be resting places.
Kids – Kids 4 and over should do well and they will love the creek. Obviously there are cliffs so kids have to be supervised.
Dogs – Welcomed.
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are numerous hikes within the Gorge of various difficulties. Sky Bridge Trail is nearby and will be featured in a future blog post.