Length | 1.4 miles to Arch | 3.4 mile Loop
Welcome to part 8 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, and Princess Arch. As the summer season continues to roll along, the Forest Service here at Daniel Boone National Forest have fully opened every area of the gorge to visitors. One trail I’ve really looked forward to exploring is the legendary Grays Arch trail.
Whenever I exchange travel stories with other hikers and mention my love affair with Red River Gorge, this is usually the trail that people ask me about the most. This past winter, while delving into researching interesting new places to visit across the country, I picked up Derek Dellingers book, “America’s Best Day Hikes”. Lo and behold, the trail to Grays Arch was one of the first hikes mentioned in the book. Not only was I proud to see my adopted home state of Kentucky on the list, but I felt like fate was making its intentions known. Sometimes you just have to take what the universe gives you and go with it. From that moment on I knew that I would be paying Grays Arch a visit, very soon.
Finding the small road that connects Grays Arch Picnic Area to State Highway 15 takes some patience as the large sign for Tunnel Ridge Road suddenly appears hidden behind a bend in the road and you’ll drive right past it if your not on the lookout. Once you turn onto Tunnel Ridge Road, you’ll drive over a one lane bridge spanning the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, leading you down a seriously bumpy gravel road into Red River Gorge. On busy days, the picnic area is jammed packed with cars, so you might have to circle around till someone leaves or park in one of the overfill spots a short distance away.
This has to be one of the busiest trailheads in the entire park. Besides Sky Bridge, I haven’t seen so many hikers crammed onto a trail to this magnitude. Even so, each group is respectfully keeping a safe distance from one another while observing social distancing.
The first half mile of this trail is a pretty straightforward stroll along the sandstone ridge top, tucked high above between two small rivers, Martins Fork and Kings Branch. Walking in the shade of these towering oaks and pines is a welcome respite from the balmy heat.
Once you veer right at the trail junction for D. Boon Hut Trail, things start to get more interesting. The path leads you through a clearing thats has grown into a tall meadow with Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the bright orange, American Copper butterflies fluttering in every direction.
Upon reentering the forest, the trail begins a downhill descent into a lush canyon. As the ground level drops, the cliffs on either side begin to rise, exposing rock shelters. Some are tiny, with only enough space for a child to lay in, but as you make your way down, you begin to enter towering shelters large enough to fit whole groups of people.
These rock shelters help shield the ground below from the elements, helping to preserve fragile artifacts from the native peoples that once called this place home centuries ago. Its not hard to imagine since you can immediately tell a temperature difference when you walk into one of these. Due to the sensitive nature of the cliffs, the forest service frowns upon hikers using the shelters as camping spots, although I bet it would make for a memorable experience, to live as our ancestors did for millennia, even if its just for one night.
Sections of cliffs have over time been eroded into interesting shapes, like this gaping tunnel on the hillside next to the wooden staircase. A following set of stairs takes you deeper into the canyon just below the beginning of what will eventually form the backbone of Grays Arch.
At the bottom you’ll be greeted by the sound of water, drawing you towards a steady streaming waterfall emanating from the ridge beside the arch. This enormous rock shelter appears to have different levels to it, like floors in a building.
As the water splashes onto the rocks below, it gathers into a small creek, heading further downstream underneath a towering boulder that looks as if it was turned onto its side. From here, as your gaze wanders, you can spot the arch to the far left, just above the ridge you’ll soon be climbing.
Just ahead of our group was a woman, whom was celebrating her sixtieth birthday by hiking to Grays Arch, a tradition she has kept alive for thirty years. Having grown up hiking the gorge, she was a wealth of information, offering tips on nearby waterfalls and smaller arches that can’t be found on any map.
The rest of this path leads you up a slope with stone steps aiding the climb until you reach a flat landing below the arch. Getting to the next level where you can walk underneath the arch requires a bit of scrambling, between several boulders, up a slippery ridge. You can use the rocks below, as well as the face of the cliff besides you to help pull yourself up.
This arch is ENORMOUS! Its so tall and wide that it doesn’t even fit into the full frame of my camera lens. The lushness of the forest hides the true scope of just how large of a space is located underneath the arch. Hikers were packed onto every rock ledge and sitting atop boulders while picnicking, taking turns guiding the next group of visitors to make their way onto the arch floor.
From this area you can walk over to a ledge facing the cliff with the small waterfall to get a better view of the layers of stone that seem to make up different caverns large enough to walk into. Again, I was taken aback by the enormity of the place. If you walk around the back of Grays Arch theres a smaller path that leads through a boulder field underneath another mammoth sized rock shelter.
Little did I know as I stood there, that a couple of hikers were standing above us, on the very top of Grays Arch, looking down and waving. They had apparently taken a small cut through that veers from the main trail, scrambling their way onto the ridge above. Although many people do this, several deaths here have caused the forest service to hide these "visitor made” trails from the general public.
Hiking this trail had been on my mind for a long time, and I have to admit that it superseded any expectations I might have had. Its just such an epic looking place, I won’t soon forget my experience hiking here and sitting in the shade of this incredible natural wonder.
Now if you want to continue on to complete the rest of the loop, double back to the waterfall and veer right past the staircase, heading north on Rough Trail, joining the Rush Ridge Trail, while finishing off on the Sheltowee Trace Trail. It takes most people 3-4 hours to complete this strenuous and rugged trail.
To make your way back to the picnic area, just double back the way you came, up the double set of stairs. Near the end of the trail is an intersection leading down towards the D. Boon Hut Trail that can easily be tackled along with the short hike to Grays Arch. See y’all on the trails!