Military Wall | 0.25
Left Flank Wall | 0.25
Martins Fork Location | Google Maps
Red River Gorge Location | Google Maps
It is not uncommon for people looking over a map of Red River Gorge to glaze over Military Wall and Left Flank Wall when planing their next adventure. Their short lengths deceive most hikers into believing that these trails are uninteresting and not worthy of their time, but I’m here to say AU CONTRAIRE! This is the kind of adventure reserved for a lazy afternoon when you don’t feel like hiking 10 miles or traversing any extreme terrain. Anyone with an interest in rock formations will be surprisingly delighted by the larger than life rock shelters that exist along every inch of these trails. If you have a passion for history then you’re in luck as most of these natural shelters are well known Adena settlements from the Archaic to early Woodland Period with ongoing archeological excavations. Alongside many of the same cliff faces are arches that range from giant holes to tiny hand sized pillars, which you won’t find on any map.
Military Wall Trail
Our adventure begins at the Martins Fork Trailhead along Nada Tunnel Rd. This is the first major gravel parking lot one comes across after driving through Nada Tunnel. Martins Fork is a hub of activity almost year round as it contains a large cluster of rentable camping spots and cabins, mostly advertised for climbers. Though not something we will be tackling today, it might peak your interest in the gorge to know that many unofficial trails begin by climbing the ridge behind this parking lot. Leaving the gravel lot to cross the road towards the trailhead, we traverse over the Grays Branch Bridge. From here the Military Wall Trail is immediately on our RIGHT.
As you begin the short incline up Military Wall Trail, keep your eyes to the right on the cliffs that suddenly rise to prominence. At the top of the hill, the trail meets a small path on the right that follows beneath these bluffs. This is where the majority of the rock shelters on Military Wall reside. The first rock shelter has some wire fencing surrounding an inner courtyard where an endangered plant, the white haired goldenrod, thrives in scattered colonies. Blooming with bright yellow flowers during fall, this plant is mostly found in the moist and undisturbed soils underneath rock shelters primarily in the Red River Gorge Area of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Following the bluff line, we pass an ongoing archeological excavation surrounding an old saltpeter mine and just past that reach the largest of the cliff overhangs at the far end of the trail. This rock shelter filled with mounds of rockfall and debris is an Adena settlement known as the Military Wall Rockshelter. Archeological studies at this site have uncovered many artifacts including some well preserved plant remains dating from the Archaic to Early Woodland Period some 3,000 years ago. Cooking hearths full of ash deposits discovered here, yielded a variety of plant debris including nutshells and an assortment of wild and cultivated plant seeds like sunflower, may grass, chenopod, marsh elder, and erect knotweed. All of the evidence associated with the Military Wall Rock Shelter suggests that this site was used mainly as a food processing site. This coincides with findings in ridge top sites above the rock shelters where archeologists have also uncovered evidence of widely used slash and burn agricultural practices.
Military Wall Arch
After taking some time to explore this area, I headed back to the main trail to find the first arch on this trip. As soon as you round the corner from the rockshelter mini trail onto the Military Wall Trail, a handful of pocket caves appear on your right hand side. One of these caves has a long horizontal opening connecting it to a shallow slot canyon on the opposite side of it. This is Military Wall Arch. Unlike most arch openings that span across a cliff face, this one has eroded into the cliff itself. At 3 feet wide by 1.5 feet tall it looks more like a drive-thru window or the outline of a bull shark swimming around in the Caribbean.
Continuing along Military Wall, the trail makes another steep ascent past several rock falls where larger cliff overhangs once existed. It’s easy to see by the narrowing and widening of the trail, which areas have climbing routes and you might even be able to spot some old bolts. If this were the middle of summer, the cliffs would be buzzing with activity from the thousands of climbers that flock to Martins Fork. On its own, Military Wall contains 56 routes along its tiny 0.25 mile stretch. The area known as Martins Fork didn’t exist officially until the mid 2000’s when it was named in honor of Martin Hackworth. As a member of the Blue Grass Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society, he put up some of the first climbing routes while practicing rappelling techniques used for caving expeditions. He and Tom Seibert helped pioneer mountain climbing in Red River Gorge during the late 1960’s and wrote one of the first comprehensive guides to climbing in the gorge.
Emergency Brake Pillar
In the wake of the first rock climbing ban during the proposed building of the Red River Gorge Dam in 1963, Military Wall was the first climbing site approved by the U.S. Forest Service. The second generation of climbers at the gorge would experience a rollercoaster of events that would eventually change the sport for the better. Just past Military Wall Arch, the trail enters a sandy berth along one of the main clusters of climbing routes. Here, a small pillar hides in clear sight to the right of a shallow cave. Emergency Brake Pillar only becomes visible if you stand with your face against the cliff and look over your shoulder. Its opening is tucked between several crags and sits within a few inches of some of the last bolts put in at Red River Gorge.
In 2004, the Forest Service banned bolting in the Red River Gorge. During the same year, public and private climbing organizations began purchasing land surrounding Red River Gorge to create some of the largest rock climbing preserves in the country. The seeds for that idea took root after the climbing ban on part of Military Wall in November of 2000. While studying the area of Martins Fork for evidence of prehistoric habitation, archeologists made several significant discoveries along Military Wall, directly underneath 6 popular and nationally recognized climbing routes. The Forest Service closure of those routes to protect the archeological finds, sparked the movement that would culminate in the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition purchase of Pendergrass Murray Preserve and Rick and Liz Webbs purchase of the 360 acre Muir Valley Preserve.
Big Hole Arch
Just past Emergency Brake Pillar, the trail for Military Wall starts to get faint And turns into more of a user made path. It’s here that things get a little challenging. While the trail wanders off downhill, you want to stay as close to the cliff wall as possible. Maneuvering over several large downed trees and climbing over piles of rock fall, I was able to spot a part of the cliff that juts out like a promontory. This is the location of Big Hole Arch. The span faces out towards Martins Fork, but since its elevated 15 feet off the ground, its difficult to see until you’re right inside of it. A small trail tucked between the cliff and a massive boulder leads up the hillside to the entrance of the arch. On the climb up you’ll run smack into a small cave immediately ahead of you with the arch to your left.
If you’re familiar with rock climbing routes, look for Big Hole Arch on the far left side of the “Jungle Beat” and “Another Doug Reed” Routes. Big Hole Arch’s large interior space, fit with its own balcony has made it a popular hangout spot with climbers for years. The entire area around this ar ch still feels wild despite seeing some frequent visitation. There aren’t very many perfectly circular arches in the gorge, which makes Big Hole Arch one of the more unique spans in the area. There may certainly be some more hidden arches and rock shelters located deeper in the depths of Martins Fork, but we’ll have to save that for another time. After taking a handful of pictures and enjoying a rest at Big Hole Arch, I retraced my steps back Military Wall Trail to the Rough Trail Junction.
Left Flank Wall
Reaching the start of Left Flank Wall requires a very short stroll down one of the mainstays of Red River Gorge, the Rough Trail. After crossing Martins Fork a second time, the trailhead for Left Flank appears just a few feet away to the left of Rough Trail. Left Flank is split into two areas, the main interior wall within the ravine and the outer wall which runs parallel to Rough Trail. This interior wall is where a handful of the arches, windows and pillars exist. Reaching them involves walking the entire 0.25 mile of the trail until it ends at the head of the ravine. You’ll know you’re there when the trail narrows into a thin path at the large rockshelter past all of the climbing areas.
Split Pillar Arch
Getting here is one thing, figuring out where the formations are located is another. Out of the 5 possible arches, windows and pillars on Left Flank, I was only able to make out 2 of them. Much of the cliff protrudes out in fractured pieces, but Split Pillar is easy to spot amongst it all. Its located right along the main side trail just as soon you walk past the rockshelter at the end of Left Flank Wall. The fracture runs the entire height of the cliff, separating a 5 foot wide wedge of rock 30 feet high. If you look into the widest portion of the fracture right at eye level, you can see a tall gap almost large enough to stick your arm through. This is the arch portion of it.
Walking past Split Pillar Arch, the trail heads slightly downhill while the cliffs continue uphill and to the left. It took a considerable amount of effort to bushwhack my way up to the cliffs. Rhododendrons are notoriously difficult to try and push past as their flexible branches have a tendency to push you right back with twice the force. In case trying to walk over piles of leaves wasn’t hard enough, the soil in this area is soft and gives way with every step. Dark Pillar Arch is in this vicinity, located within a shallow cave, but the entire cliff is filled with pocket caves that fit the description. Not able to locate the formation, I move on to my next set of coordinates to find Short Life Window.
Short Life Window
Despite wanting to give up and call it a day from the difficulty I was having traversing this part of Left Flank Wall, I continued just long enough to discover Short Life Window. I found the small 3 foot by 2 foot window at the base of a rockshelter several feet above my head. One could easily walk past this spot and never know the arch existed. The span is carved out from part of a ledge at the outer edge of a narrow passage used to reach the rockshelter. Even with hardly a trail to follow to this spot, the area surrounding Short Life Window looks to be regularly visited and I even found an old bag of pre-mixed canned tuna at the site. The outer portion of Left Flank is right around the corner from here. Narrow Arch is in this vicinity, but with the luck I’m having this afternoon I decide to call it a day and save it for another time.
Martins Fork is an incredibly gorgeous area and I’m glad I was able to spend an entire afternoon exploring this little visited pocket of the Red River Gorge. All told, I encountered a whopping 2 other people while exploring Military Wall and Left Flank. Pretty soon the trees and shrubs will begin to leaf out and this entire area will become hidden again until this upcoming winter. As I head out, I make my way down to the creek in the center of the valley and follow that back to Rough Trail and the Martins Fork parking lot. Up next, I’ll be traveling to Southern Indiana to explore the caves of Trail 3 in Spring Mill State Park. Aside from all of the beautiful scenery, this park is filled with tons of pioneer history, including a historic village dating back to the early 1800’s. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!