Natural Bridge State Park “Inner Loop


Balanced Rock/Hood’s Branch/Low Gap/Rock Garden/Original Trail Combo (Whew!)


Friday, April 17, 2009




Curses!  Drat!  Oh well…




My plans for today did not emerge, but in all seriousness, it didn’t really bother me.  That’s because when my plans don’t work out, I know that it simply means I was meant to see something different.  This was the case today and I was grateful, for this unforeseen twist would take me on a path to a place which may now be my favorite in this park – an area I’d previously missed.


Things had finally dried up a bit in terms of weather, and since I hadn’t hiked in a week I was really ready to get out.  So, in order to make up for lost time, I thought I’d take what has become – along with the Moonbow Trail at Cumberland Falls State Park - one of my favorite spring hikes:  the Sand Gap (what I call the “outer loop”) Trail here at Natural Bridge.  What I hadn’t reckoned on though, were the ice storms we’d had over the winter:  Sand Gap was closed due to some of the bridges having been taken out – a liability concern for the park.  I wasn’t to find this out till later, however.


The drive to Natural Bridge is just a little over an hour from Lexington, and I feel lucky for this because it’s one of the best parks in a state which has many.  When I arrived a little before noon, having parked at the activities center, I first stopped by a room in the center which had some examples of the wildlife to be found in the area.  It also had on display some of the plants and flowers - even going so far as to explain a little bit of the history of the area.  Quite a bit of work had been put into all this and it was very nicely done.


Having experienced this, I took off on down the trail which begins around the back of the building.  You’re basically on the edge of a ravine here which has a little stream running down, and it’s really lush and beautiful with an awesome network of wooden stairs and bridges which seems to travel in myriad directions all about the place.  The bridges, in particular, are all quite well made and it’s obvious that (along with the stone bridge which gave name to the park) they take the “bridge” in Natural Bridge State Park very seriously out here!



The trail really begins in earnest after this and, having climbed up a steep stairway, I took a left onto the Balanced Rock Trail which is part of this loop.  This spot is the first place which will provide a level spot in which to rest if you like, but don’t get too comfortable as you’re only about 1/5 of the way up I’d guess.  There’s a nice shelter with a rock overhang here.


Not too long after this, you’ll come to Balanced Rock which you’ll pass on your left (the picture below was taken looking back though, as it was the best view in my opinion).  You really can’t miss this one. Y’know, things like this just make me want to throw my hands up in the air and laugh!  They’re that cool to me!  That rock is just kinda…  hangin’ out!



As you continue an ascent, you might be impressed (as I certainly was) with how they’ve either input or just carved out little stone steps in between some of the rocks to make the climbing a bit easier.  For me, this just adds to the aesthetic effect.



When you come to a second rock overhang you’ll be getting close to the top, and you’ll find yourself in a cleared out area just to the side of the top of this ravine you’ve been climbing.  In fact, as you look across the way to your right, you may see some people over there - they’re on the other side of the Natural Bridge which you will presently come to. 


Once you’ve passed the overhang, look up and to your left.  You’ll see some metal steps ascending at the top of the rocks in what looks like a pretty precarious position.  I’m not sure if they allow you up there or not, to be honest – I’ve never tried.



I met a family in here - a mom with 2 young boys.  I’d guess they were somewhere between 7 or 8, maybe?  Anyway, they mentioned that they came out here every year as a kind of getaway, overnighting at one of the rental cabins.  They brought to my attention a place which I’d not been to yet or even heard about:  a place with a suspension bridge - and you get to it by driving through a tunnel?!?  How sweet would that be!?!  Next trip maybe…  [Turns out this bridge is where the Sheltowee Trace crosses over the Red River]


Once at the top of the ridge I began walking along the semi-circle it forms ( Natural Bridge is in the middle of this) and, getting to the bottom of a decline, I reached the intersection with the Sand Gap Trail – closed!  Those ice storms must have really created an incredible amount of work for the people who take care of this park.  I can only imagine all the time and energy they must have spent lugging out chainsaws to these paths and cutting through all the trees which must surely have fallen across at numerous locations.


At any rate, I continued on toward the bridge and a really nice gazebo shelter for the overlook that they’ve got up here.



At this point you can continue on across the bridge to the other side of the ridgeline, or you can go down some steps they’ve got to your left and see the underside of the bridge.  I descended.  I couldn’t quite remember where to catch up with Hood Branch, but I knew I’d find it eventually.  I had my guidebook too as I always do just in case, but that’s not nearly as much fun to me as trying to find a place on my own!


It’s when you get to the bottom of these steps, though, that you encounter a little space (maybe a tad more than a foot wide - maybe) through the rocks which you have to pass through – “Fat Man’s Misery”!  At this point, I’m pretty much throwing my hands in the air and laughing again even though I’ve seen this before!  Unreal!  You have to walk through it sideways (the second picture was taken looking back)!




At the bottom of the steps which you descended after passing through, you’ll have the bridge straight ahead and Hood’s Branch will head off to the left (actually Hood’s Branch is a 3 mile portion of this loop I took today which leads down to the parking lot for the skylift – ooops!  Didn’t I mention the skylift?  It’coming up…).


At any rate, as I started on this path, it quickly became clear that it was very similar to Sand Gap but with a couple of exceptions:  it’s about 5 miles shorter, of course, but it’s also not quite as peaceful because of all the people you’ll hear from atop the bridge. 


It will, however, take you around several ridgelines as it undulates anywhere between the bases of the mountains and the tops of them, and as you meander through all this you’ll be moving through absolute jungles of rhododendron – it’s got a real dense feel to it for much of this trek.


Once around the first ridge, it’ll get a lot quieter and give you a better feel for the forest around you.  You’ll also pass many little trickling streams which come down from various spots and many of these have little bridges over them.  There are, I’d say, nearly a dozen of these just on Hood’s Branch.


As I walked, a thought occurred to me.  At times I feel as if I’m not adequately describing the things which I pass.  I try to describe the most visible things, of course, but there’s so much scenery that I do pass which I don’t describe – and this isn’t because it isn’t memorable.  Every inch of every hike is memorable to me.



The thought, however, was that even though you’ll pass large areas where the scenery appears to be much the same, it’s these areas which provide the most depth in terms of your experience.  The popular spots are great in terms of a sensory experience, but I think there’s a level at which nature “speaks” to a person more deeply.  The areas which seem to be similar for long stretches may, in fact, be the areas where the things you are experiencing etch themselves more deeply into your being and bring you the peaceful feeling which so often overcomes you on a trip through the outdoors. 


Sorry, I’m not usually this deep as far as my thoughts go…  are my trips through the outdoors driving me insane?  Possibly…


Anyway, just before I got to the junction where the little loop for the Upper Hood’s Branch Trail came in, there was a wooden plank bridge (which went over… guess what…  Hood’s Branch!).  I stopped in the center of this for a while to watch some spiders.  Look at the incredible shadows they form on the water!



The shadow is much more visible than the spider itself, but these arachnids really seemed to be getting some exercise.  It appeared as if they were attempting to stay in place against the little current of this stream, and every time the water would float them down, they would kind of “skim” back up.  It was fun to watch.


After crossing the bridge I went left at the sign for Upper Hood’s Branch which was the area I had not previously seen.  Upper Hood’s is a loop and there’s another sign almost immediately after the 2 near the bridge.  This particular one is a bit confusing, however.  Since this trail is a loop, you can go either way, but this sign only points in one direction - it should point in both.

Lemme tell ya though…  this section of the trail really rocks!  Literally.  It takes you to a series of rock overhangs which today had trickles of water going over them – the Upper Hood Branch.  I sometimes take the names of the trails for granted but this one is named for this particular stream, and by the time I got to the point where the water was trickling down I was perspiring quite a bit.  Should I do it?...  yyy…  yyy…  yyyeeeeaaah!  Why not?  It wouldn’t hurt anything!  I walked underneath and cooled off.



There’s a large portion of this trail which is almost a continuous rock overhang, and it’s so awesome that the hawks must like it here too because at one point I startled what sounded like a huge animal in the brush - it was a giant hawk.  Usually I’ll see large birds flying around and I’ll think that they’re hawks, but they’ll almost always be turkey buzzards.  This one was definitely a hawk.


As you come around the back arc of this circle you’ll cross over another one of those nice bridges they’ve built around here.  This one spans what was, today, a nearly a dry streambed.  There’s also a point where you’ll almost think (at least I did) that the trail will end at a cave wall, but it won’t.  It’ll follow just to the left.  I’ll just be honest and say that I really could’ve stayed out here for a couple hours just taking all this in.  What a spot!



Right after this, there was one point where the trail went right up and through the root system of a downed tree.



Negotiate through some more rhododendron jungles in this pine forest, and you’ll soon be back by the sign at which you started this little circle.



You should really take some time to appreciate the pines though, because at times you’ll catch the most amazing scent from them!  Also entering my awareness in this section was a lone dogwood tree which provided a bit of color amid the sea of brown and green today.  I did see some wildflowers today, but not nearly as many as I usually do at this time of year.


Below is one of the ones I did see, however.  I believe this to be a trillium, only because I now have a "cheat sheet" of the flowers which I got via these digital photographs.  There was an illustrated wildflower chart back at that room I described above at the activities center when I first started, and I enlarged the picture of this chart so that maybe I can be a better presenter of the flowers I see.  Let's hope.  Anyway...



The path follows very closely along Hood’s Branch now as it meanders right along down and through the valley which the stream created.  It’s a gradual descent at first, in which you’ll catch more great pine forest scenes. 


Always interesting to me, as well, are the simple meanders of the streams which often outwit themselves by doubling over and tying themselves in knots:  what they call oxbows.  These sometimes form lakes in larger rivers and ponds in smaller streams.  It’s a really interesting phenomenon.


At one point there’s another nice little shelter at which you can take a breather, and at another point I noticed a couple people down in the valley below me.  I really should not admit this, but I was thinking:  “Hmmm…  I don’t think that’s part of the recognized trail system…  Those people probably shouldn’t be down there…”  Well, it finally dawned on me as I began to see more and more people on this “path” (far further down my path than I’d like to admit) that these people were on the skylift!  Duh!


The lift ascends from the parking lot below, and it will cross over Hood’s Branch in the lower part of this valley before taking you to the top of the mountain.  In fact, you’ll be able to see the rock cliffs on the other side of this valley on your right.  By this time you’ll also be hearing signs of civilization with the people on the skylift, the people on top of the mountain, and the hum of the machinery from the lift.


Presently you’ll start to descend more earnestly as said parking lot and a miniature golf course emerge into view.  Things get a little interesting here though because, once you emerge, this trail loop begins again all the way over on the other side of the parking lot at about the 1 o’clock point from the end of the trail.  When it restarts, the path will be known as the Low Gap Trail.


I took a little detour before continuing in order to get a closer look at the skylift station.  I don’t remember it, but my parents brought us out here when we were kids and, since I’d never taken the time to walk up to it on my previous hikes, I wanted to get a decent picture.  It actually looks a lot like the entrance you’d see to a ride at King’s Island.



After this, it was on to a somewhat confusing series of trails which started with the one called Low Gap.  This took me up and through yet another little ravine which might just be the namesake of this trail.  In fact, at one point it looks like the path follows directly along a drainage route so that, if it was raining, you might be walking right through a little streambed. 


When you reach the top of the ridgeline, you may notice that there are quite a few large boulders lying around, and there’s even a neat little area where the rocks are all almost totally covered in moss.  I was guessing that by this point that the Low Gap must have morphed into the Rock Garden Trail.  (This area, by the way, was getting really crowded – even for a weekday.  A party of about 20 people passed me at one point.)  There are also intersections along this section which will take you back up to Natural Bridge, but I continued straight on as I headed in the direction of Hemlock Lodge.  


The Battleship Rock Trail was the next but it, like the Sand Gap was closed today.  Yet again, and almost immediately after this, there will be yet another junction.  This one is for the Original Trail.  There’s another of the little shelters visible just a little way up this one which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934.  The CCC was started by Franklin Roosevelt to employ people after the depression, and it made me wonder…  President Obama has talked about the government employing people for infrastructure projects…  Will the CCC be “restarted”?


I took a left on the Original Trail and then an almost immediate right – the latter so that I’d go along a more natural area.  Going the other way would have taken me over a paved section and down to Hemlock Lodge.  I needed to go back to the activities center, although I’m almost certain you can get there either way.


Soon I was back at the exact spot where I’d finished climbing my first section of steps today.  Before leaving, I just kind of admired this little ravine for a while with the water trickling down and all the lush vegetation around me.  What a great park!




I simply took KY11 off the Bert T. Combs Parkway and followed the signs for Natural Bridge (it seems like they’ve got signs within a 50 mile radius of this place though!).  I went past the main entrance to the one which has a sign for the cabins on it (it’s on the right just past the Whittleton Campground entrance on the left).  I then just kept following the signs for the activities center and parked there.