This is Part 5 in our series of hikes at Red River Gorge Geological Area, otherwise known as The Gorge. On previous trips here we’ve tackled hiking to Sky Bridge, Whistling Arch, Angel Windows, Rock Bridge Arch, and Hidden Arch. Hiking season is in full swing now that the forest service has reopened the gorge following the several week closure due to the covid pandemic. I will say that highway 77 and 715, which make up the backbone of the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway, are looking really fresh after having been repaved last season. They’ve even added a few extra pull off spots to park on along the road, most of which are packed with hikers eager to hit the trails.
As most frequent visitors here know, there are a lot of points of interest at the gorge which are not on any map, and some that are on the map, but are hard to find in person. Tower Rock is such place. On the map, its about 1 mile east of the Glade Visitors Center, and yet its location has managed to evade me on a dozen trips here, despite using my odometer to trace my distance, and counting the parking symbols on the map.
This time with a car full of eyes peering in every direction, we drove at a snails pace until a little over .75 miles past the visitors center, across from a freshly paved parking spot, we found a tiny notebook sized sign reading, Tower Rock Trail 229, 3/4 miles.
I chuckled in disbelief as we peered over this trailhead that is almost invisible. The brown sign blends in perfectly into the muddy hillside behind it and the path itself appears like nothing more than a thin deer trail. Triumphantly crossing highway 715, we made our way into the Clifty Wilderness and disappeared into the fog laden woods, out of sight of any passersby. This 12,646 acre wilderness lays adjacent to Red River Gorge, also within the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest.
Entering this dense hemlock forest is like passing through an invisible portal, and into a world straight out of a kids fairy tale. As the sunlight fades behind the towering canopy into a speckled stream of diffused light, it slowly warms the cool air creating a light fog that seems to linger in place. The first thing anyone of us noticed were the oversized boulders strewn around. Stones ,the sized of small houses, are perfectly split across the middle.
Another looked like an upside down dome, buried partially into a hillside. A boulder, shaped like a tall pyramid, had a tree growing from the tip of its pinnacle. Each stone was adorned with a patchwork quilt made up of the 170 varieties of moss found in the area.
Their shapes along with the way in which they laid looked as if it were done intentionally, possibly by a yet to be discovered race of gardening giants, perhaps. All kidding aside, it was awe inspiring.
Hiking from the lowlands up the valley, there were small springs randomly sprouting from the middle of the trail, churning the dirt paths into thick mud. There was really not much one could do but hike right through it. Gaining elevation, the area soon began to dry out with the trail taking on a soft cushion due to the deep layers of hummus from hundreds of years worth of leaf mulch. We spotted dozens of reddish-purple wild mushrooms growing all along our path.
Almost a half mile in, we finally reached the base of Tower Rock. This ninety foot sandstone conglomerate pinnacle is so tall that its peak disappears above the tree line. Although not many people hike to Tower Rock these days, it was the sight of some the of earliest rock climbing in Red River Gorge. Remnants of a few main climbing routes can be seen in several areas where anchors have been left for others to use.
Following along the .25 mile loop around the base of the tower, you can catch a peak of several shallow caverns along the face of the cliff. One of these small caverns closer to the ground can be reached via a small trail on the backside of the pinnacle.
Its a steep and slippery climb across tree roots and half buried boulders, but the elevated view gives you a better idea of just how big Tower Rock really is. Some of the slabs making up the base are only a foot thick in areas that are beginning to wear through, creating small windows.
If you’re at all dumbfounded by how millions of years of weathering can shape these large cliffs into the shapes we see today, run your hands along the rocks to see just how easily it disintegrates with heavy friction. Your hands are left with a gritty layer of sandstone that’ll have you reminiscing of your last visit to the beach.
Although Tower Rock doesn’t see much traffic these days, I believe its totally worth a visit. Its a trail I recommend to anyone who wants to see a unique formation that helped to shape the history of how we engage with the wilderness of Red River Gorge. See y'all on the trails!