Welcome to part 9 in our series of hikes at Red River Gorge Geological Area, otherwise known as The Gorge. On previous hikes here we have manage to tackle Sky Bridge, Whistling Arch, Angel Windows, Rock Bridge Arch, Hidden Arch, Tower Rock, Chimney Top Rock, Princess Arch, and Grays Arch. There is something new and exciting to discover within every square mile of this place, coming here never gets old. So many of the iconic cliffs and arches people come to explore at Red River Gorge aren't even officially recognized on any map, which makes heading off on the trails here feel like a true adventure. Now for this next hike, I have to admit that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
The D. Boon Hut Trail is located off of the Grays Arch picnic area, leading to a rock shelter with the remains of what is believed to be a camp used by the famed frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Although the trailhead is located just off the picnic area parking lot, making the 0.8 mile hike an easy trek, it also has another entrance via the Grays Arch Trail totaling 1.6 miles. Which brings us to this much longer story, on what happens when you do things on a whim.
Having just hiked to see Grays Arch, I had decided that I was not in the mood for a particularly long hike, and yet I was not ready to call it a day and head home. Hiking back from the arch towards the picnic area, I passed the junction for the D. Boon Hut trail along the Rough Trail and stopped to read my map. The trail seemed roughly the same length as hiking to Grays Arch, give or take a change in elevation, and I really didn’t want to walk past my car to go all the way around to the trailhead.
Throwing caution to wind, I found myself walking on towards D. Boon Hut before I could ever really make my mind up. Within the first quarter mile down, the trail had me hooked, and the thought of turning back never crossed my mind. After turning onto the western end of the Rough Trail from Trail 205, the path enters a clearing tucked under cedar trees used as a camping spot, overlooking a deep gorge. This section takes a bit of patience as there is really no easy way to climb down other than to either jump and hope you make the landing, or cautiously sit and slide down from one ledge to the other.
A small path just off the main trail leads to a large overlook, jutting out over the canyon. The views here are awe inspiring. A couple climbing up the ridge from the opposite direction stopped to inform me that hitting the trail counter clockwise as I had, was definitely the better choice. As the saying goes, everything went downhill from here. The next quarter mile involve a lot of scrambling down thin gaps in between boulders, while taking note of the steep drops just a few feet from you in every direction. Although there was definitely a small element of danger, its quite manageable if you take your time and watch each step.
On the hike down hugging the side of this cliff you reach the first of many stone shelters on this trail. Its deep cavern and wide open entrance make it an attractive spot for hikers to stop and have lunch. From here we begin our descent from the dry, sandy ridge top, into the lush and humid valley floor. The forest practically eats you up once you enter it.
Between the blooming big leaf magnolias, with their large white flowers, the hillsides covered in every different type of fern imaginable, and rhododendrons threatening to take over the trails entirely, this feels more like a jungle expedition than anything else.
There are several spots along the main trail where a short dirt path will lead you to clearings with wide views of the valley below. Pictures really don’t do it justice. Take note of all the tall cliffs to the right of you. I can only imagine there being a small cave somewhere on those sheer cliffs, leading to a lost civilization, tucked away in an isolated pocket of this forest. Soon the sound of water will creep in as the Rough Trail makes a final descent towards Martins Fork, and splits off onto the D. Boon Hut Trail.
A simple plant bridge spans Martins Fork, landing you in one of the most majestic places to stop and have lunch. Resting underneath the canopy of these enormous, ancient trees, surrounded by the sounds of the stream rushing nearby, is comforting in so many ways. We may come and go as visitors, but these trees will remain long after we are gone, standing to witness history.
Along the way to D. Boon Hut we passed another series of stone shelters on the left hand side that were very peculiar. They appear to look like enormous boulders, sitting in large potholes, where the soil has eroded to reveal small caves underneath them. A tiny stream wound its way around the boulders, disappearing into one of the caverns. Those unintimidated to tight spaces might enjoy a bit of spelunking in this area.
Finally, what we’ve hiked all this way to see, the D. Boon Hut! A small wooden sign marks the entrance to the rock shelter used by Daniel Boone, just up a muddy hill off the main path. To be honest, at first I was really bummed out.
This seemed like any other small cave I’ve seen on my hike all day long. Standing there throwing a small fit in my head, I noticed a dirt path leading away from this cavern and disappearing around the backside of the cliff. So naturally I followed it.
To my amazement, it lead to a monolithic cavern the size of half a football field, tucked underneath the edge of a mountain cliff. There was even a waterfall pouring down from the ridge top, splashing onto the boulders right in the very heart of it. The trail leads all the way inside the cavern, along the steel fence installed to protect the area from being disturbed.
Stone used for fireplaces and remnants of large wooden troughs in the cave are whats left of the niter mining operations that took place here during the civil war. A crucial ingredient for making gunpowder, niter mining consisted of putting sandstone fragments in boiling water to reduce them to sand. Cold water, poured through the sand, leached out the niter. Finally the cold water solution was left to evaporate, leaving nitrate crystals.
In the 1950’s, a small group wandering through the woods here, stumbled onto the cavern, and uncovered a small wooden board with the name D. Boon carved into it. Since then, speculation has circulated around the idea that famed Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone, may have used this rock shelter as a camp during his hunting trips in this forest. Its well documented that he spent a great deal of time exploring Red River Gorge, and made several trips here to hunt during winter, but further carbon dating of the plank and artifacts found here have yet to be conducted.
All we are left with is a magnificent cavern to explore, and our imaginations to fill in the blanks of what may have transpired here. Retracing your steps back to the entrance of D. Boon Hut, you’ll take a right to continue the last 0.8 miles of this trail, crossing a small creek, leading to a set of stairs.
Up and over the stairs is yet another large stone shelter with a perfectly eroded moon shaped circle on the face of it. Past this, you’ll find a hillside with a wooden trestle staircase leading up to Tunnel Ridge Road and the Grays Arch Picnic Area.