Welcome to Part 6 in our series of hikes at Red River Gorge Geological Area, otherwise known as The Gorge. On previous trips here we’ve tackled hiking to Sky Bridge, Whistling Arch, Angel Windows, Rock Bridge Arch, Hidden Arch, and Tower Rock. Having hiked through the gorge a dozen or so times, I can honestly say that there has yet to be a trail that has left me feeling disappointed, in fact quite the opposite. The sights I’ve encountered here, have more often than not left me feeling mesmerized, and even energized to continue exploring. Which brings me to the trail with some of the most awe inspiring vistas in all of Red River Gorge, Trail #235 to Chimney Top Rock.
In order to get here, you must turn off State Highway 715 onto National Forest Road 10, also known as Chimney Top Road. Its hard to miss given the large posted trailhead sign. This 4.5 mile long gravel road cuts through a densely forested valley, while slowly climbing in altitude, until arriving at the Chimney Top Recreation Area. Although this road is usually open during the busy summer season, heavy rains can cause the road to wash out so the Forest Service periodically closes it off until driving conditions are safe. You can either hike the 4.5 miles to the trailhead, leaving your car at the gate or wait until the road reopens.
The trailhead marker to Chimney Top is located on the southern end of the recreation area, opposite the trailhead for Princess Arch, as well as an unmarked trail to a hidden arch not found on any map, Half Moon Arch. At only .25 mile long, this is by far the easiest and most accessible trail here.
The entire length of it is paved and theres even a bench to sit on and take a breather if your excitement gets the better of you. Its late May, which means mountain laurels are in full bloom, filling the air with a sweet perfume. The large clusters of tiny white and pink flowers can be seen all throughout the trail.
Along the way there are several smaller cut-throughs, leading to exposed cliffs with breathtaking views of the gorge in every direction. These can be dangerous due to the fact that there are no railings, so please use your best judgement. Chimney Top Overlook has been the site of most of the deaths in Red River Gorge, over 20 people have tumbled down these cliffs since the 1960's. Occasionally, even the best intentions to get a closer view of the canyon, has led to several experienced outdoorsman losing their balance and slipping down to certain doom.
One of these paths takes you to an overlook of a rounded sandstone pinnacle known as Half Moon Rock. This half moon shaped peak rising out of the Red River valley is by far one of the most photographed landmarks here.
Half Moon Rocks glory days reach back to the 1970’s and early 80’s as a popular climbing and sport rappelling destination. The effects of that overuse have left a lasting impact, causing most of its trees to die, while washing out the little precious soil left from its peak, creating its iconic appearance. As newer climbing destinations were discovered, its popularity waned, leaving this rock to quietly stand guard of the valley below.
One thing you can’t help but notice while hiking this trail are the large birds of prey soaring above, diving in and out of the canyon. On this particular morning, there are Red Shouldered Hawks circling above us, periodically getting but a mere 20 feet from our heads. Many species of birds nests in the surrounding cliffs, including the endangered Peregrine Falcon. These incredible birds can fly at speeds of up to 250 mph while power diving to catch their prey.
As you reach the end of the paved trail, you have to climb a few steps down onto the smooth sandstone cliff, with only a rustic wood and stone railing protecting you from a perilous fall. You are now standing atop Chimney Top Rock. That small element of danger only enhances the surrounding views that greet you. If you want a closer and more expanded view, a small wooden ramp takes you across a thin gorge in between the cliffs, onto the overlook.
Its a bit ironic that the actual rock formation really isn’t visible from here because, well… you’re standing on top of it. From here, all anyone can really see is an overhead view of some stacked stones that have weathered into the appearance of a chimney, but even that is hard to make out.
To get a truly good look at chimney top rock, you have to hike the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, in the valley below the cliffs, which can be reached via the Sheltowee Connector on highway 715 or the Rough Trail off Chimney Top Rock National Forest Road 10.
But my guess is that you’re really not going to care, as the scenic vistas in front of you leave you mesmerized. With age, I’ve come to appreciate that a few worn out cliches exists because they ring true. Standing here, soaking in this breathtaking scenery, sharing the experience with a handful of people I hold dear, I’m reminded that some of the best things in life really are free. See y’all on the trails!