|Length: 0.6 miles|
Welcome to part 7 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, and Chimney Top Rock. Even with all of those trails under our belts, we are still just barely scratching the surface of this 29,000 acre canyon wonderland. With over 100 natural sandstone arches, some of which are not mentioned on official maps, you could spend an entire lifetime here and still make new discoveries.
On our last trip here, we specifically drove out to the Chimney Top Area to spend the afternoon exploring. After taking the short hike to Chimney Top Rock and learning that there was a hidden path nearby to the secluded Half Moon Arch, we headed off to hike Trail #233 towards Princess Arch. Given the amount of time you have to spend at the gorge, it can be difficult to figure out which trails to hike. The two arches here can be hiked back to back in roughly 2.5 hours.
This easy 0.6 mile, out and back trail, is accessible on the north end of the parking lot. Its one of the more heavily trafficked paths, so it tends to get pretty muddy even after a light rain shower. At this point in the season, this trail is not only crowded with people, the overgrown understory layer of shrubs are threatening to close in on you at every corner.
Rhododendrons as big as SUV’s are filling every gap not already taken up by the similarly large mountain laurels, filling the air with their sweet perfume. Come here during late June to early July to see these same rhododendrons put on a spectacular show with their large white flowers. Craggy Gardens, near Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, is another place to witness a similar spectacle.
While one can't help but to get caught up gazing around at all of this natural beauty, take note to occasionally look down and watch your step. As the weather begins to warm up, not only do people venture out onto these trails, snakes begin to wiggle out of their winter burrows to stretch out among the cliffs and warm up. Copperheads are commonly found sun bathing on the many cliffs throughout Daniel Boone National Forest. More often than not, they keep to themselves until hikers inadvertently disturb them, leading to being bitten by their poisonous fangs.
The downhill path makes a few hairpin turns, obscuring your ability to see whats ahead until you reach the top of a ridge just above Princess Arch. Standing over this ridge, its easy to overlook the arch because it looks like any old stone cliff, until you see people disappearing underneath it. This is one of the few arches in Red River Gorge where the trail traverses over the arch, just like Sky Bridge.
The top of Princess Arch is studded with trees growing out of large, weathered holes, giving it the appearance that its wearing a jewel studded crown. While hiking the trail over the arch, you get far reaching views of the gorge in areas where the forest parts. There are no railings here, but the path is wide, so just stick to walking directly down the middle of the path.
Climbing over the hump on the rear of the cliff, the trail doubles back down a natural set of steps on the side of this ridge, which require a short hop down to ground level. Now walking back towards Princess Arch, I get a better appreciation for the feminine nature of this rock formation. The slab that forms the arch is thin and dainty, while also having a rounded hourglass shape, much like a woman figure.
While taking pictures, I glimpse over at a couple pointing at a thin crevice on the left end of the arch, just below the main opening. The woman was explaining that this small depression in the rock was commonly referred to Little Princess Arch. A little research on my part discovered that she was correct. Although its not officially mentioned, countless locals and regulars affectionately recognize it as the smaller sibling to Princess Arch.
Walking under the stone cliff, peering out at the cliff face behind the arch, one gets a bigger appreciation for the enormity of this rock formation. A small path winds back behind the arch, over large boulders stacked on top of one another, until arriving at a sheer cliff, disappearing hundreds of feet below. The forest is so dense, one cannot even see the bottom.
Despite the fact that Princess Arch is just a hole in a cliff, just like all of the other ones I’ve seen at the gorge, there is something unique about it. From the way it suddenly sneaks up on you, with the small garden growing on its crown through small portholes, to its deceptively dainty demure. It has a character all of its own.
The stone making up the arch has a smooth appearance, akin to a pebble pulled up from the bottom of a creek, its rough edges worn smooth by rushing water. Even the kids running about, crawling into the round crevices on the face of the cliff, pretending to be dwarves, are enjoying their time here.
As you depart following the trail down a muddy embankment, arriving at a set of stone steps leading back onto the roof of the arch, take a right turn and you’ll be back on the path that brought you here from the parking lot. On your journey back, take your time and smell the mountain laurels perfume as it drifts around you. Spring is in the air.