I first stumbled onto this place while researching a nearby trip to the Big South Fork earlier this summer. This particular part of Kentucky, near the towns of Whitley City and Stearns, is famous for its abundant arches, caves, and the states tallest waterfall, Yahoo Falls. Its quite common to see these small Appalachian towns swell with visitors every summer, seeking to hike the hundreds of miles of backcountry trails, the most popular being the Sheltowee Trace Trail. This National Recreation Trail stretches from the Burnt Mill Bridge Trailhead in the Big South Fork in Tennessee, some 333 miles north to Morehead, Kentucky.
Despite winter arriving early this year, with temperatures dipping below freezing and a fresh layer of snow on the ground, I decided to head off to Natural Arch Scenic Area as a short day trip. Open year round, this is a great place to visit in the off season to experience the peace and solitude of one of natures great wonders. Getting here is easy, this well established scenic area can easily be found using any map. Heading south on Ky Highway 27, just past the village of Greenwood, I took a sharp turn onto Day Ridge Rd and followed it for several miles until reaching the Natural Arch Scenic Area entrance.
There is a small Day Use Fee of $3 required to hike the trails here, which gets stuffed into a tiny envelope and deposited at the front kiosk. All of the money collected gets reinvested into the scenic area in the form of trail maintenance, facility updates, and efforts made to conserve the general area surrounding the natural arch. Although were standing in the middle of nowhere, this place has modern amenities that would give any state park a run for its money; beautifully paved overlooks, an amphitheater, plentiful restrooms, a playground and plenty of space for picnics and family gatherings. The rangers within the Daniel Boone National Forest take great care of this place, and it shows.
Opposite the parking area is a paved path leading to one of the best views of Natural Arch. This large overlook sits right on a sheer cliff, with commanding views of the entire area and the hollers beyond. If you’re not in the mood for a hike and just want to get a glimpse of something spectacular without getting dirty, this is as good of a view as any. Getting a glimpse at the arch tucked into the tall wooded ridge, with the entire area blanketed in snow is truly breathtaking. Since most visitors tend to come out only during the summer months, this is a sight that is rarely seen.
To get down into the valley and hike to the arch, just follow the marked path down towards the amphitheater, where the 1 mile Natural Arch Loop Trail #510 is located. The great thing about this trail is the fact that its mostly paved, which makes it easier to see in the snow. Just a short stroll past the trailhead are several overlooks peering out into the surrounding rolling landscape. A small side trail off to the right leads to a cliff facing northeast into a canyon. The view is eerily similar to those you would find hiking the Auxier Ridge trail in Red River Gorge.
Following alongside the overlook, it lead me back out onto a ridge that was heavily burnt by a forest fire several years back. Thankfully, the area is bouncing back with fresh new growth. Several feet from here the trail begins its decent down into the valley where the arch is located just past another sprawling overlook. This trail is a breeze by all accounts until you reach the stairs. There are two flights of stairs which would otherwise pose no danger to anyone, unless they happen to be covered in a thin layer of ice, which they are.
Maneuvering down the first set was slow going as it was completely shaded from the suns warming rays, making it completely frozen over. Once I made it down, the second set of steps just past a short corridor was in much better shape and easy to navigate. Continuing straight past the 5 mile Buffalo Canyon Loop Trailhead, I could see the massive opening to Natural Arch coming into view through the trees.
The enormity of this arch, rising 50 feet high right before me is absolutely striking. With the long staircase winding its way uphill towards the opening, it resembles an entry into an ancient temple. I’ve seen dozens of arches, in every shape and size, yet I can’t help but get pumped full of excitement every time I see a new one.
Much like I imagine the early inhabitants of this area must have felt when encountering it, I took a moment to just stand here and admire the beauty of this place. Its pretty hard to believe that a structure like this could be created entirely by natural forces. Thankfully, we have the science to explain how water can erode the pourous sandstone over a period of millions of years, in order to create these incredible structures.
Although the history surrounding Natural Arch is pretty close to non existent, I managed to find a few articles referencing the arch as being sacred to the Cherokee who once lived here. Archeological studies conducted here have also found artifacts from prehistoric peoples dating back thousands of years. Some even believe it may have had some religious importance, which went on to explain why the entire area underneath the back of the arch was surrounded by a wooden fence. I happen to think the rock shelter surrounding the back of the arch is even more impressive than the front. With its maze of stairs and walkways leading down into the forest, it looks like a small fort.
During the spring, the entire hillside behind the arch is noted as having a beautiful wildflower display. Just another reason to return here and admire this scenic area. Walking down through the back of the arch, you can continue the loop trail as it meanders alongside the base of the ridge and back out onto the arch opening. On your return hike back, look up near the opening and you’ll catch a glimpse of the small pinnacle that resembles a church bell tower.
As for me, I’ll be gearing up to hike the Buffalo Canyon Trail. This 5 mile loop through the dense forest surrounding the arch hides a landmark of its own, Chimney Arch. Come back and check out our hike through the snow and bitter cold to find this incredible arch and explore yet another area of the Daniel Boone National Forest!