Having hiked a large portion of the marked trails in Red River Gorge to view some of the most spectacular natural landmarks in the park, I often curiously wonder about some of the secret trails within the gorge. Those familiar with the area know that the park is riddled with hidden trails leading to secret arches, waterfalls, and stone landmarks. With a little research and basic orienteering skills, even the most novice hiker can experience the thrill of finding one of the many hidden sights within Red River Gorge.
With that in mind comes a note of CAUTION: This is an unmarked trail, not registered on any official map of Red River Gorge Geological Area. This hike includes scrambling over exposed cliffs and rock ledges that have resulted in deaths and injuries. Do not venture out alone. Use common sense and do not attempt anything that would put yourself or others at risk. This is NOT meant to be an instructional article, but a recollection of my own journey. Do your own research before going out and attempting this hike!
Half Moon Arch is one of the most popular and easiest of the secret arches in Red River Gorge to find. Located within the Chimney Top Recreation Area, this exposed mountain top can be seen from the Chimney Rock Overlook and the Sheltowee Trace Trail. The site of some of the first established rock climbing and rappelling in the early days of the gorge, it is one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the park. There are plenty of websites out there with information and maps detailing how to reach this arch, but I’ve found that its actually not too difficult to find if you’re familiar with the area.
Our journey to Half Moon Arch began by turning onto Chimney Top Road, just off of State Highway 715. Drive roughly three quarters of the way to the end of this road and you’ll notice a small pull off with a set of brown trashcans lining the right side of the road. The trailhead to Half Moon Arch is located directly across the street from these trashcans. At first this trail resembles a small deer path climbing up a steep embankment, but once you cross into the woods, it widens out into a well worn trail.
This easy 0.6 mile hike crosses several commonly used campsites in the area. On this particular occasion, several sites were occupied with groups coming and going to the arch. After passing the campsites, the trail descend down a washed out hillside and drops you off on what will become the spine of Half Moon Rock. As the tree line thins out, you’ll begin to see bigger and better views of the surrounding gorge on either side, including a glimpse of Chimney Top Rock.
At this point, things start to get dicey. Upon reaching a tall rock ledge, carefully lift yourself up and over it to land on the rear hump of Half Moon Arch. From here, the path leads down a sloping ledge that makes up the top of the arch.
The ledge is barely big enough to slide your feet on sideways, while hanging on to the top of the rock and slowly sliding your body forward. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down as the cliff here is steep and a fall could prove to be fatal.
There is a small gap in the ledge that I had to carefully thrust my body over to reach the other side. Once you land on the opposite side of the arch, slide over to the right of the hump and you should notice a dirt path sliding down a large boulder leading to the hidden arch. Again, carefully hang on to the ledge above you while you make your way down the path. From here the arch will appear on the right hand side.
Half Moon Arch is actually bigger in person than I was led to believe by some of the pictures I saw online. The arch acts as a room divider between two large ledges with views of the forest surrounding the Red River Valley below.
I could hear other hikers trudging through the woods below me, not having a clue that I was several dozen feet above them. A few small paths lead further back behind the arch to small rock shelters on the cliff wall.
After spending some time at the arch I decided to head back up the ledge I originally slid down, to attempt a climb to the top of Half Moon Rock. I was standing here for a few minutes trying to wrap my head around how to climb this rock face, so I let a group behind me go forward so I could watch them do it first.
The hardest part was finding the right footing at the very beginning to lift my body up and onto the cliff. There are small, worn out divots all over this cliff to help you grip and stick the tips of your shoes into to get a firm foothold.
Once you’re able to climb up onto the rear of Half Moon Rock, the rest is a breeze, although still extremely dangerous. I scrambled along the well worn path following the rocky ridge line by ducking low to the ground in an almost crawl stance. Having a very real fear of heights, it was helpful to watch others go ahead of me to give me a sense of confidence in what I was doing. Trying to focus solely on reaching the top of Half Moon Rock and not on all of the surrounding sights was a struggle.
At the very top of the rock is a flat landing where I took a second to rest and congratulate myself for accomplishing such a daring feat. This dome is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking vistas in all of Red River Gorge. To the right is a clear as day view of Chimney Top Rock, as its meant to be seen.
Straight ahead is a majestic looking valley surrounded by Koomer Ridge and Rush Ridge. To the left, off in the distance I can make out several rocky ledges with other hikers lounging about. The feeling of being up here is exhilarating, probably due to all of the adrenaline pumping through my body.
The entire flat roof of Half Moon Rock is almost entirely devoid of trees. This is part of the ugly side of the legacy this dome has as a climbing destination. Decades of overuse contributed to the loss of most of the topsoil on the ridge, making it difficult for any plant life to grow. Im not sure if camping is allowed on the dome, but there were several locations with fire pits and half burned firewood up here. With little to protect campers from the elements up here, I bet its a challenging place to spend the night on anything but a perfect day.
At the very tip of the dome is a small ledge leading out over the edge of a cliff, much like the bow of a ship. This area is covered with hundreds of stone carvings detailing names and messages left behind by other visitors. As the soft sandstone that makes up this dome eventually breaks down into sand, it will literally scatter these messages into the wind. Theres something poetic about that.
I decided to skip on the whole vandalizing part and instead chose to sit out over this beautiful cliff, leaving only the imprint of my sweaty palms to dry out in the searing August sun. Until next time, see y’all on the trail!