Chimney Arch is one of many beautiful landmarks found within the Natural Arch Scenic Area of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Located along the Buffalo Canyon Loop Trail, this arch is often overlooked due to its appearance as a mere cavern. Although technically not a secret or hard to find, only one out of the four maps of this scenic area list the arch as a point of interest. So unless you do your research or stumble onto this beauty by happenstance, one would never know it exists. Having initially hiked the short trail to see Natural Arch earlier in the day, I was ready to head out into the backcountry to find this elusive landmark.
Trail Map | Buffalo Canyon Trail
Trail Map| Natural Arch Scenic Area
Backtracking my way along the Natural Arch Trail towards the last set of stairs, I stopped at the Buffalo Canyon trailhead to do a quick gear check. Hiking anywhere, especially through the backcountry during winter posses many challenges. Keeping yourself dry and free of moisture as one builds up a sweat is is an essential part of recreating in cold weather conditions. For this reason, I made sure to wear several layers of long sleeve shirts made up of breathable fabrics that not only wick away moisture, but dry quickly.
In the outdoor community, theres a common saying among backpackers that “cotton kills”. Some of my go-to base layers of polyester\nylon long sleeve shirts can be found in most big box stores. I’ll typically wear this under a bulky merino wool sweater, topped by a lightweight 850 down puffy jacket. I prefer these lightweight jackets due to their comfort and lightweight construction. Although windproof, most are not waterproof, which is why I always carry a waterproof rain shell in my pack at all times.
As far as bottoms, I’ve come to prefer wearing pants made of nylon\spandex blends over my thermal base layers. I’m no fan of the styling of outdoor clothing, but have grown to love these types of pants for their ability to block the wind, dry quickly when wet, and give me a little extra stretch when climbing over obstacles. It goes without saying that a good pair of hiking boots will literally go the extra mile in making your trips as fun and comfortable as possible. Theres a lot of debate out there wether to get a pair with a waterproof lining or a boot made of simple quick drying mesh. My preference is to go with the waterproof lining, which when combined with moisture wicking wool socks, keeps my toes warm even during shallow stream crossings.
Straight from the get go this trail heads deep into a wooded ravine of towering cliffs and dense rhododendron hedges that are so iconic to anyone with experience hiking in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I was pleased to find that this well worn 5 mile trail was easy to navigate, even under six inches of snow. From what I could gather, Chimney Arch is located roughly 1.2 miles away in the Big Cutoff area of Buffalo Canyon. A few early sections of this trail run pretty close to the edge of a steep hill.
It took painstaking care to slowly step one foot in front of the other so as to not mistakenly step over the edge. Everyone has their own walking pace and I generally tend to walk fast. One of the advantages of hiking during winter is the expanded views one gets due to the lack of tree foliage. Unfortunately, with all of the snow from the previous evening clinging to evergreen leaves and tree branches, its hard to see anything from a distance. I kept looking up, anxiously scanning the cliffs above me to see if I could spot the arch, afraid that i might walk right past it.
After the first creek crossing, the trail passes a long rock shelter surrounded by interesting rock formations. Some of the cliffs have perfectly shaped rectangular cuts taken out of them, that appear to resemble doorways. As the clouds began to part, the suns rays were warming up the entire area causing the snow to melt off leaves and branches. The sudden thumping sound the falling snow made as it hi the ground was startling at times. This area is known for having black bears and after my bear encounter in the Big South Fork, I take bear awareness a lot more seriously.
Checking my map, while calculating the distance I had traveled, made me certain that I was close. Rounding a bend in the trail, I could suddenly see a massive rock formation with small pinnacles coming into view. This must be the Big Cutoff. I’m always amazed to find buttress rock formations in eastern Kentucky, considering they are more prevalent west of the Rockies. Within a few moments I was standing in the entrance of Chimney Arch. The trail passes right in front of the landmark. Unless you take the time to wander inside the cavernous rock shelter, you would never notice the large chimney shaped opening in the ceiling.
This is not your typical arch and had I not known about it, I too might have just dismissed it as another rock shelter. There are wide ledges along the walls going all the way up to the top of the cliff. Some trail reports claim that you can climb the chimney to get a great view of the area from the forested cliff above. Tempting, but I’ll pass. If you chose to continue along the Buffalo Canyon Loop, you’ll encounter a number of interesting rock formations along the way such as Hanging Rock.
If you’re more into overlooking stunning vistas, head on out of the park onto Day Ridge Rd and go west for about two miles to the Panoramic View Trail. This 0.5 mile trail follows a wooded ridge to an overlook situated just over the Buffalo Canyon Loop with wide open views of rolling hills dropping off into steep canyons. For such a small area, I really felt that Natural Arch Scenic Area packed a little bit of everything to make my backpacking trip fun and interesting. If you find yourself in this corner of Kentucky make sure to put this park on your list of places to see!