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Sheltowee Trace


Natural Bridge State Park to Gray’s Arch Picnic Area in Red River Gorge


Friday, March 20, 2009



This is one hike I can recommend to just about anybody.   At about 6 miles (5 if you only go as far as KY15) it’s not terribly long, and the path is not that steep either.  You’ll also be able to enjoy traveling between 2 of the largest and most significant recreational areas in the state while taking in the sights along the very pleasant Whittleton Branch.  You can also visit Whittleton Arch, a large rock house along a spur trail about half way through.


I parked the car in a parking lot just across from the Whittleton Campground (closed at the time) on KY11, and as I did I noticed that I was in the company of quite a few others.   Whittleton flows underneath KY11 at this point and if you come this way you’ll cross it in your car on a very low little bridge.  This area, I imagine, could become easily flooded after a big rain.  Anyway, there were quite a few people fishing in it on this day.  There’s a picnic area here as well.


After carefully crossing the road, I walked all the way through the camp to the very back.  That’s where this trail begins.  The campground is very nice!  You won’t get much privacy, as the campsite’s are pretty close together, but the facility looks great and it, too, lies just along the banks of Whittleton Branch.  There’s a neat little log cabin here as well!  Don’t know if you can rent it or not…


As I approached the trailhead, my ears were greeted by a cacophony of sound emanating from a tiny little puddle of water by the side of the camp road.  Turns out that the sound was being made by some little toads or frogs!  It’s absolutely astounding to me how much noise these little amphibians can make!  I snapped the photo below just before the din ceased.  I assume this is part of an attempt by the males to woo the females, and while I don’t know if it’s working, I sure do know that it’s impressively noisy!


For almost the entire duration of this hike you’ll be following every meander of the stream on a fairly level plane, crossing a few different bridges along the way.  The area out here is well known for its nice bridges – a couple today were washed out, but all of them are quite well done and almost all are different. 


Y’know, if I were to characterize this hike I’d probably best describe it as a very pleasant stroll through the woods, and there were points out here where I just stopped and stood there for a good 10 minutes enjoying my surroundings amidst the pleasant trickling of the flowing water next to me.


…and speaking of trickling water – or a lack thereof – the stream kind of plays “peek-a-boo” with you out here.  Just before reaching the midway point where the spur trail for Whittleton Arch cuts off to the right, I noticed that the water was no longer with me.  It had stopped abruptly.  There was nothing but a dry streambed.  On my way back I realized why this was.  Looking at the picture below you can see the water flowing on the left, but not on the right.  The water must be flowing underground!  It was really interesting, too, because there’s one point where it looks like 2 streambeds intersect – one flowing and one dry.  Turns out these aren’t 2 separate streams as you might expect, but the same stream!  One side must be the old streambed and one side must be the new one!


As you branch off for the arch trail you’ll immediately begin ascending and continue for about ¼ mile through a forest of rhododendron and pine to eventually reach the arch itself, and as you make your approach you’ll feel the temperature drop about 20 degrees!  When I was there there was a trickle of water coming over the rocks and it was quite enjoyable to look around.  This would make for an interesting camping spot if they’d let you.  I’m not sure, but I doubt it…


Once you retrace your steps back to the main trail you’ll soon begin to ascend very slowly and gradually through a similar rhododendron/pine forest, this one is also accompanied by rock faces for a portion of the way. 

These rock faces contain some pretty amazing patterns, and there were some spots in which it looked like you might be able to do a little spelunking were it allowed out here.  In fact, caving has largely been banned due to a disease (fungi based) that the bats have gotten.  I’d see a notice regarding this at my turnaround point at the picnic area, and it was amazing to discover the quantity of insects these creatures can actually devour – 1000 mosquitoes in an hour – so I’d sure hate to see the bat population depleted.  They’re part of mother natures’ system of checks and balances!


There was another interesting bridge in this section too along with a little waterfall.  The bridge was basically a log split down the middle a la Incredible Hulk #217 in which the Hulk splits a tree in half to make a bridge for his new found carnival friends who are trying to escape the Ringmaster.  (I never really stopped enjoying comic books on occasion!)


Soon I heard the most horrible noise!  You’ll eventually level out for a while, you see, and as you look up along the top of the ridge you’ll spot a guard rail – KY15.  The sound of an automobile seemed somewhat incongruous after all the peace and tranquility of the hike.  Keep your eyes peeled here as the path will veer off sharply to the right and begin an ascent up to the road on a series of switchbacks. 


When you reach the road you’ll be looking directly down Tunnel Ridge Road which escorts you into the heart of the Red River Gorge Geological Area (you can park right here by the side of the road, by the way, if you’d like to follow this part of the trace in the opposite direction – toward Whittledon Campground). 


The trace will follow Tunnel Ridge for maybe 100 yards as it goes over the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, and then it’ll veer off left (the turn is well marked).  Follow this for about ½ mile on a level, well trodden path to reach the Gray’s Arch Picnic Area.  This area is fairly significant in that you’ll be able to reach a few different trails which lead to different spots of interest here in the gorge.


I headed back at this point, intending to come back soon to explore the stretch from here to the Red River Suspension Bridge.  In the meantime, however, I really enjoyed the walk back.  As I've mentioned before, I like out and back hikes the best because I’m often able to spot things which I probably wouldn’t have had I not traveled in such a manner.  The toads/frogs were still…  Um…  “Singing?”  When I returned and people were still fishing and picnicking when I got back to my car.  It really is a great spot!




I took exit 33 off the Bert T. Combs Parkway and headed south on KY11.  I passed the main entrance with the skylift and lodge and began to look for the entrance to the Whittleton Campground which comes in on the left.  Keep a sharp eye out for it, ignoring the tailgater behind you, and make an immediate right as soon as you see this.  You’ll cross over Whittleton Branch on a little bridge and there’s plenty of parking here along with plenty of space for picnicking.