Wandering through Red River Gorge in Kentuckys' Appalachian Mountains needs to be on every serious nature lovers bucket list. From its many natural arches, to its expansive vistas, and world class hiking trails, theres something here to please all of your adventure needs. Even with the growing popularity of Red River Gorge, it is still possible to take a peaceful hike and enjoy finding an arch while having it all to yourself. While Koomer Ridge is home to the only organized campground in the whole park, it hosts two of the least visited arches in Red River Gorge, Hidden Arch and Silvermine Arch.
Having hiked to Hidden Arch last winter, I put off visiting Silvermine Arch and somehow completely forgot about it. On a recent trip to the gorge to hike Double Arch Trail, I found access to Tunnel Ridge Road closed due to construction. Suddenly finding myself stranded with all of my plans out the window, it magically dawned on me that I had yet to see Silvermine Arch. Backtracking several miles south down Highway 15, I turned into Koomer Ridge to begin my journey.
Koomer Ridge can be a bit confusing to those not familiar with the area. Its winding roads leads past dozens of campgrounds spread out in the dense brush of the Daniel Boone National Forest. During the open season, its incredibly difficult to get a camping spot here as most are reserved months in advance. As such, all of the parking here is off limits but to those with camping permits. To hike the trails, you must park in the backpackers parking lot near the entrance. Just off this main lot, a small dead end road leads to a smaller campground with the 1.25 mile Silvermine Arch Trailhead.
Alternatively, I chose to walk the .75 miles to the farthest end of the campground along the main road in order to check out all of the activity buzzing around Koomer Ridge. The area was crowded with visitors in every stage of camp, from just arriving and planing their site, to preparing meals on charcoal grills and playing music, to those slowly packing up their gear while they break camp. Although these days I prefer the comfort of a bed and hot shower after a long days hike, I still fondly reminisce over the rituals of going camping.
Just across from this sections vault toilets, you’ll find the small Silvermine Arch Trailhead sign for Trail 225. The backpackers parking lot trailhead winds its way through the wooded ridge above the campsites and eventually meets up at this point, creating an alternate starting point to reach Silvermine Arch. From here, the arch lies a mere 0.75 miles away. It can be a little awkward walking through this section of the trail at first since parts of it go through several campsites. I always do my best to smile and greet others along the trail, sometimes asking about their day or what landmarks they’ve seen. It always breaks the tension of being approached by a stranger in the middle of nowhere.
Looking up this trail on several other hiking platforms, its a pretty common complaint among hikers that the majority of it is pretty uninspiring. Although I do not disagree with them, sometimes one has to appreciate the minor details in all things. For one thing, this trail is filled with at least a dozen different types of blooming wild mushrooms this time of year. The first cluster of Russula Pulchra I encountered stood out like a sore thumb, with its reddish-orange cap popping against the deep browns of the forest. Widely distributed throughout the eastern United States, they are increasingly becoming rare due to habitat disturbance.
The next mushroom I encountered is a relative of a widely coveted wild mushroom in culinary cuisine, Woody Chanterelle. Unlike its cousin however, this mushroom is considered mildly poisonous and should not be consumed. The last and most striking of the wild mushrooms I came across had to be this pristine Two Colored Bolete specimen.
This beautiful, showy mushroom with its red and yellow colors is considered to be an outstanding edible. Always remember to do your own research before going out and foraging wild foods. Many poisonous species of wild mushrooms masquerade as their edible cousins, sending many uninformed amateur foragers on a trip to the closest E.R.
A quarter mile from my entry point the forest slowly starts to give way to a craggy cliff with some spectacular views. This is where the trail starts to become exciting! After hiking past several switchbacks, along the cliffs edge, you end up at an incredibly long staircase descending into a deep valley.
Reaching the valley floor the forest transforms from a dry sandy ridge, into a wet and tropical jungle, reminding me of much of our hike along Grays Arch Trail. Passing one staircase after another, hugging steep cliff walls, I finally arrived at the base of Silvermine Arch.
Silvermine Arch is easily one of the most striking arches in all of Red River Gorge. The opening of the arch is actually the entrance to a much larger rockhouse, hidden directly behind it. Walking into the arch, it becomes apparent that there are several rooms here. The ground beneath the arch slopes down into a dark cavern at the foot of the cliff. Thousands of years of erosion have not only withered away at the cliff creating this natural arch, but it has also washed away the hillside beneath it.
If you were to continue just past the arch, the trail enters another massive rock shelter before disappearing into some thick underbrush.Making my way back through the arch, around the large boulders littering the ground, I managed to find a small trail leading up into the interior rockhouse. The tall, bowl shaped cliff surrounding the hollow interior space feels similar to that of being inside a colosseum. Even the very distinct layers of rock making up the height of the cliff look like spectator stands.
This whole area is moist with thick carpets of moss and dense colonies of ferns growing on every surface. High above, a thin stream trickles down into a small waterfall splashing onto the trail. Once up on the ledge overlooking the cavern, you’ll find a well worn trail leading onto the arch itself.
Although theres enough space to get up there, the brush is thick. After some creative scrambling, I made on top. There are so many different ways to see this area, it really is one of the more unique landmarks in Red River Gorge.
I was unable to find any specific information as to why this arch was named “silver-mine”. Perhaps, much like some of the other caverns in the region, it was used as a saltpeter mine at one point. Legend has it that in the late 1700’s, an Englishman named Jonathan Swift, discovered a pure vein of silver ore in a cavern just north of here within the Red River Gorge. Although it was never proven to be anything more than myth, it hasn’t stopped prospectors from occasionally venturing out into these hills in search of treasure.
So if you find yourself in the Red River Gorge Area, but want to avoid the crowd, make sure to venture out into Koomer Ridge. From here, its easy to fit Hidden Arch and Silvermine Arch in one afternoon. Not only will you enjoy the peace and solitude of a hike in one of our country most majestic places, but you’ll also get to enjoy finding a natural arch all to yourself! Until next time, see y’all on the trails!