The Original Trail built to take early visitors to see Natural Bridge in Natural Bridge State Resort Park is still the fastest and most scenic way to reach the arch by foot, 126 years after its construction. This trail was originally built to bring guests from the Hemlock Lodge to see the arch when the park opened as a private tourist attraction in 1895. Being one of Kentucky’s four original state parks, Natural Bridge stands of one of the states crown jewels and a must visit destination for arch hunters, serious hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. At only a half mile in length, this trail is deceptively strenuous and challenging, but well worth the effort.
Original Trail | 0.5 Miles | From Hemlock Lodge
Original Trail | 1 Mile | From Natural Bridge Rd
Natural Bridge State Park Trail Map | Kentucky State Parks
Natural Bridge State Park Location | Google Maps
Visiting Natural Bridge has been on my to-do list for many years. Having made countless excursions to explore the Red River Gorge, which lies adjacent to the state park, I had taken its existence for granted thinking to myself, “its not going anywhere, maybe next time.” As luck would have it, my journey’s throughout the gorge would eventually drive me further south to hike the Whittleton Arch and Henson Arch Trails, technically part of Natural Bridge, but positioned on the outskirts of the main park. With my curiosity growing ever stronger, I decided to make a weekend out of visiting the arch by renting a cabin, playing 18 holes of mini golf, and eating at some of the many delicious local restaurants in the area (The Brick Ice Cream, Miguels, La Cabana, Daniel Boone Coffee Shop).
The Original Trail trailhead technically starts at a large lot off Natural Bridge Rd near the Lakeside Trail. Starting here, the trail is 1 mile long and traverses a very strenuous and near vertical 700 feet in elevation gain. It is not for the faint of heart or those that are not used to “humping it”. To save yourself some time and energy, one can opt to drive to the halfway mark and start at the halfway trailhead behind the Hemlock Lodge. From here, the trail is only 0.5 mile with a mere 370 feet in elevation gain. Despite its short length, it is still a rugged hike filled with many incredible views.
Once you park, follow the paved service road that travels to the back of the lodge, past the hotel rooms, until it ends in a large courtyard where several trailheads are located. The Hemlock Lodge itself is constructed on the site of an old train depot used to haul timber out of the Red River Gorge to the main rail line in the town of Campton. Many of the areas trails, including the Whittleton Arch Trail, got its start as narrow gauge rail lines used to service the regions logging boom.
The steep limestone steps at the start of this trail give way to a crushed gravel path in the heart of what might as well be a tropical jungle. Moss carpeted cliffs dripping with moisture, underneath a dense canopy of big leaf magnolias, hemlock, and rhododendrons transport visitors into the hidden world of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
You’ll continue straight past a small trail junction for Battleship Rock and Rock Garden, to reach one of the first landmarks of this trail. Laying at the bottom of a 7 foot deep sinkhole is the entrance to one of the many wild caves in Natural Bridge State Park. The iron gate constructed to keep visitors from accidentally falling in also serves to protect the Virginia big-eared bats that call this place home. This was the first place in the entire state of Kentucky where the federally endangered species of bat were ever recorded to live back in the 1950’s. In order to add another layer of protection to the park and some of its rare species habitat, 1,200 of its 2,300 acres were dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1981.
From here, the trail begins to take on a steeper grade as it works its way to the bluffs below Natural Bridge. A small stream runs parallel to the trail, filling the air with the gentle sound of trickling water as it crosses through an expansive woodland meadow. Along the way are five shelters, three of which were built by the Civilian Conservation Coprs in the 1930’s. Its not uncommon to see these small stone huts packed with hikers taking a break from their journey up. Noticing the different styles and shapes of the shelters, I was reminded of the "Three Little Pigs” fairytale, as each has its own unique look.
The trail hits a dead end at the base of the cliffs below the arch and begins its toughest stretch. A climb consisting of a half dozen switchbacks criss cross their way up a series of narrow ridges for the last 0.18 miles. Pocket caves and small overhangs dot the route amid hanging gardens of ferns and sedges filling in the many crevices of sunlight exposed rock.
Despite being the most difficult part of the trail, there are beautiful sights all around and plenty of opportunities to stop and catch your breath. Sections of the path do suffer from erosion and are completely washed out in areas so it pays to take your time and watch your step.
Soon enough, I was able to make out the arch through the trees just as we climbed onto the last ridge. The approach to the arch is just as epic as seeing it head on. At 65 feet high and spanning 78 feet across the top of a solitary ridge, Natural Bridge has few equals in the state besides Creelsboro Natural Bridge and Natural Arch (located in the Stearns District of the Daniel Boone National Forest). Following the rustic wood railing, we make our way up in the center of the arch where a large picnic area is located. This is the spot where everyone hangs out and on a busy afternoon, it can get pretty crowded.
Looking out at the cliffs and wooded ridges beyond, one can make out hikers gathering on Lookout Point, a half mile away directly through the arch opening. I am left without words for how magnificent this arch is and why it took me so long to come pay it a proper visit. While we sit, enjoying a much deserved snack break and taking in the scenic vistas, we watch as hikers queue up to take the trip up “Fat Mans Squeeze”. This narrow, vertical passage located in the back of Natural Bridge was created by a fissure in the rock formation. It allows a space just big enough for one person to travel at a time, up to the top of the arch.
From our present location at the bottom of the arch visitors have a multitude of options for a day spent exploring one of Kentucky’s best state parks. The Original Trail, passing just in front of the arch, continues back down the base of the cliffs where it merges into battleship Rock Trail. This path passes through several mega sized rock shelters, overhangs, and wet weather waterfalls as it curves back to the Hemlock Lodge. Behind the arch, the path north leads onto the Rock Garden trail which is filled with some of the parks most impressive rock formations and dense jungle-like flora. Heading south will put you on the 3 mile Hoods Branch trail towards the ski lift parking lot.
As for us, we will be queuing up to climb up “Fat Mans Squeeze”, and venture onto the top of Natural Bridge. From here, we will tackle the 0.75 mile Laurel Ridge Trail to Lovers Leap, Lookout Point, and head back down the ridge through the Devils Gulch. Stay tuned for our next adventure in this gem of a state park and until next time, see y’all on the trails!