Nestled within a hidden cove in the farthest reaches of the Red River Gorge lies one of its largest and most impressive rock formations, Whittleton Arch. Visiting this natural wonder you’ll discover a massive skylight, created by a roof collapse in the ceiling above a sandstone rock shelter. The 4 mile out and back trail, follows along the historic Sheltowee Trace Trail as it meanders through the Whittleton Branch ravine, connecting Natural Bridge State Park to the Red River Gorge. Featuring a large wet-weather waterfall, stunning scenery, and one of the largest rock shelters in the area, this is easily one of the most popular hikes in the park.
Whittleton Branch Map | Daniel Boone National Forest
To reach the Whittleton Arch Trailhead, head south on Highway 11 from the Slade exit to the Whittleton Campground, just across from the main entrance to Natural Bridge State Park. You will have to park on the side of the road in the entrance area surrounding the campground managers kiosk. Despite its small size, this campground is constantly packed, so get here early to find a place to park. Its about an eighth of a mile walk to the back of the campground on the main road to reach the trailhead. On your way there you’ll pass up the trailhead to Henson Arch, another popular hike I intend to explore later on in the day.
The trail to Whittleton Arch was originally constructed as part of a narrow gauge railroad, connecting the main depot at Middle Fork (site of the present day Hemlock Lodge of Natural Bridge State Park) to Chimney Top Creek. With a total track distance of 14 miles, the railing transported logs harvested from the distant reaches of the Red River down to the main rail line at McCormick. Once the logging boom died down, plans were made to turn the logging railroad into a freight and passenger line. The Mountain Central, known locally as the “Dinky”, operated for twenty years, bringing a lifeline to the isolated towns of Pine Ridge and Campton until 1924, when Kentucky Route 15 was built.
If you love bridges then you’re in for a treat as there are a total of 5 bridge crossings on this trail, some of whose footings date back to the original rail line. Ideally you would think that your feet will be staying dry along this hike, but you’d be wrong. As the trail follows along the lower banks of the Whittleton Branch Creek, other smaller tributaries flow downhill onto the trail on their way to meet the stream. This often causes wash outs and has occasionally been known to create a landslide during periods of heavy rain. I got my first taste of trail conditions within the first 5 minutes of this hike.
Up ahead, bridge crossing number 2 is filled with several interesting rock formations, including a two story boulder appearing to slide down the hillside. The next section of trail from here transforms into a tiny lane traversing the contours of the sloping hillside. By far the most difficult part of this hike has been trying not to slide off the trail into the creek below.
You really can’t avoid the mud, its everywhere. On the way I pass a couple out on the trail bird watching for eagles. The Gorge is one of Kentuckys' biologically richest regions containing the states only nesting population of red-breasted nuthatches and a growing population of the elusive,ruffed grouse.
Shortly thereafter, I reached bridge number 3, crossing back onto the opposite bank of the creek. Despite the blaring sun blessing us with the first hot day of spring, the temperatures in this little valley are cool enough for me to occasionally see my own breath. With dense groves of rhododendrons and hemlock crowding the ridge tops above and cascading rapids down below, this trail has an uncanny resemblance to visiting the Great Smoky Mountains. Even bridge crossing number 4, with its half sawn log stretched out over a rolling creek, looks like something out of the Alum Cave Trail.
One of the best camping spots on Whittleton Branch is up ahead. A small path to the right, leads down from the main trail to the creek bed in front of a titanic sized boulder. Just behind this rock formation, a small creek winds down a separate ravine into a tunnel carved out into the hillside. Its a magical spot, even if you’re just enjoying a break from hiking.
Past this area the trail abruptly ends and begins a steep climb up several switchback, separating from the creek altogether. Originally the trail continued straight along Whittleton Branch, passing under a rockshelter to the Whittleton Arch spur trail, but decades of wash outs eroded the route to the point that it had to be diverted.
Within minutes of this exhausting climb, I reach the Whittleton Arch spur trail, breaking off to the right of the Sheltowee Trace Trail, which continues north and eventually meets up with Tunnel Rd and Ky 15. At the bottom of this hill is another great spot to take a scenic break on the banks of a small waterfall and natural pool. Directly ahead is bridge crossing number 5. Peering down as you cross, one can see the old trail and rockshelter which hikers can explore when the creek recedes during dry periods.
Entering the narrow ravine that leads up into the secret cove containing Whittleton Arch feels more like hiking through a tropical jungle than being in Eastern Kentucky. The abundance of moss covered stones, cascading mountain stream and lush evergreen vegetation welcome you to one of the most serene areas in the entire Gorge. Stepping into the clearing to get my first glimpse of the arch, I can’t help but to blurt out a silent, “Wwwoowww”.
Its hard to see from the trail until you wander into the behemoth sized rock shelter with a streaming waterfall at its entrance. When measured in terms of mass, this is the largest arch in Red River Gorge. Created when a portion of the rock shelter ceiling collapsed, it now forms a pleasant skylight near the back of the formation.
A small path near the trail leads up to the top of the arch and the creek bed Every arch has its own unique character and unlike most of the other rock formations here, Whittleton Arch is made up of limestone instead of sandstone. The differences are minute, but go to show that theres more than one way to create an arch.
Exploring every inch of this area from top to bottom, I follow the well worn path behind the waterfall to the boulder field in front of the arch. You can hike along the honeycombed cliffs for a short distance to several other beautiful overhangs. After a while, I scrambled over to one of the boulders across from the arch, sat back and enjoyed the trickling sounds of the waterfall while taking in the views of this incredible place.
On my way back to the campground, I’ll be heading over the footbridge across Whittleton Branch to hike the Henson Arch Trail. This short 0.7 mile trail leads to one of the more unique arches in Natural Bridge State Park located inside of a sinkhole with a streaming waterfall. Leave a comment below and tell us about your experience hiking to Whittleton Arch. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!