This is Part 5 in our series of hikes at Red River Gorge Geological Area, otherwise known as The Gorge! This time we tackled Trail 208 to Hidden Arch in the Koomer Ridge Trail Section which also lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. For those of you not familiar with Red River Gorge, do yourself a favor and read Part 1 Hiking to Rock Bridge Arch, where we lay out all the details for visiting The Gorge.
The Koomer Ridge Area is in a world all of its own. Located on the southern end of The Gorge, halfway between Slade and Pine Ridge, its accessible along State Highway 15. While hiking to Hidden Arch, you can also hike to Silvermine Arch from Trailhead 225 at the far end of the paved loop connecting all of the campsites here. Even during the off season, you’ll still find some hardcore outdoorsy people camping and picnicking in the park.
Its important to note that most of the parking spaces are reserved per individual campsite so hikers venturing out to Hidden Arch must park their cars in the lot near the entrance to Koomer Ridge or risk getting your car towed and impounded, leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere. Yikes! Once you park your car and gather your gear, follow the paved road past the gate towards the campsite. That is where we found Trailhead 208 to Hidden Arch.
Considering that its early February, the trail was covered in a heavy layer of leaf litter and at times was hard to see. We found ourselves occasionally relying on the diamond shaped trail markers painted on trees every hundred yards or so. Even then it wasn’t too difficult to differentiate between trail and forest. Some freezing rain earlier this winter was the culprit of many downed trees along the trail. Some had to be climbed over while others were very neatly cut away to let hikers through.
This would usually be the point where I share my wildlife sightings, especially that of songbirds, but this hike was barren of even the slightest ruffling of squirrels running about. At one point I heard the faint sound of a woodpecker working its magic, but I could not determine from which direction it was coming from. This part of Kentucky gets the occasional black bear roaming about. If you travel south several hundred miles along the Daniel Boone National Forest it eventually connects to the Great Smoky Mountains. Even though they are well into hibernation, its still important to practice trail safety and make your presence known.
After about 15 minutes we reached the trail marker directing us left towards the the arch, only 0.5 miles to go. Making our way down the hill I noticed another trail parallel to the one we were on and suddenly got nervous. Had we gotten lost? Did we stumble onto a homemade trail leading us to an unknown destination?! At this very point some trail angels appeared in the form of a middle aged couple spending the day wandering the Gorge.
They reassured me that we were on the right path and the scenery would change dramatically as we hiked our way down a cliffside. As a side note, they warned us to veer right when we reached the Trail 208/220 intersection to make our way back to the parking lot. A left turn would have taken us along the Koomer Ridge Trail, connecting to the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail running the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest, a distance of 273 miles.
After a few more minutes of hiking through heavy leaf litter devoid of any understory brush, we started making our ascent onto a heavily forested ridge line. Suddenly we were engulfed by evergreen magnolia trees and an understory of dense rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Lush green leaves were a welcome sight as opposed to the dull grays and tans of winter we has just hiked through. The occasional wild raspberry cane protruding out from rhododendron bushes would attach itself to my jacket every so often here.
Following several hairpin turns, the forest opened up to a natural staircase cliff with views of the gorge as far as the eye could see. The best Views I've encountered to date have to be from the top of Sky Bridge, if I had to pick my favorite. Maneuvering around several boulders to get a clear frame of view, my gaze veered down onto what could be non other than Hidden Arch, nestled on the footing of a large limestone cliff.
A wooden staircase, nestled within gaps in the rocks, lead the way down to a ledge bordering the arch. This arch is beautiful in an understated and diminutive kind of way, similar to Angel Windows Arch.
With its location hidden away on the side of a steep cliff, it baffles me how anyone ever found it in the first place. The opening is large enough to duck through with a wide ledge to sit on and enjoy an afternoon snack while taking in the views of the rolling hills beyond. Sitting here I could imagine how earlier peoples might have chosen to make these stone shelters a home.
The overhanging ledge above keeping the space dry and density of trees blocking chilled winds, seem to create a pocket of stable temperature within the shelter. With only a thin ledge to get in and out from on the side of a steep gorge, it could be easily defended, if not altogether hidden from would be intruders. Whistling Arch has a similarly massive shelter, large enough to fit an amphitheater.
After a long rest, we got back on the trail, descending down another set of stairs below the arch. The trail here shrinks to a little bigger than the width of two adults. We hug the cliff as it seems to rise higher and higher above our heads, imitating the trees on the face of the cliff, held simply by their roots. Weaving in and out of smaller shelters, I turn a corner to find a massive three story high cliff overhang.
It looks like its straight out of a natural history book. Although frowned upon and pretty much illegal, I found several spots where previous hikers had started campfires. One of the boulders at the base of the shelter had an uncanny resemblance to a cartoon bears head.
A short distance ahead is another set of stairs, beginning the journey uphill, back to the trailhead. So far, out of the half dozen arches Ive hiked to at the gorge, this was the most surprising.
The first half mile from the campsite to the wooded ridge is a little BLAH, especially in winter, but soon after the scenery changes dramatically. The trail along the cliff face is thin in parts and not for the faint of heart. At a few points, I found myself unexpectedly having to climb over boulders on all fours.
Upon returning to the campsite, you can easily merge onto Trail 225 to Silvermine Arch. If you’re worn out, you can drive over to the farthest campsite, past the shower house, and cut the hike in half by cutting through the last portion of Cliff Trail 206. Even if its just for the day, theres plenty to explore and enjoy in Red River Gorge!