“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorgeous Gorge: Kentucky's Red River Gorge

Winter is making its last call in the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. A late March snowfall provides the last salvo of a dying season, a desperate parting shot that can’t deny the already evident imminence of Spring. I awake to a one-inch frosting of brilliant white snow, the warm morning sun caroming shards of sunlight through millions of refracting snow flakes. The mountain laurel and rhododendron, enticed by the warm Spring afternoons, have already shed their drab gray-green winter color for the vibrant waxy green of reborn leaves. Champagne snow teeters delicately atop the vibrant waxy green leaves. The contrast between the dazzling white sparkle of the covering snow and the showy green is dramatic. I am on the trail quickly--these early spring snowfalls disappear in an ephemeral mist with the rising sun.

I love the unpredictability of Red River Gorge. An isolated natural hideaway awash with sandstone arches, cascading waterfalls, and sparkling mountain streams, the beauty of the area is courtesy of the frequent rains, snows, and winds of the southeastern climate. Over 25,000 acres of rugged valleys, streams, and mountains nestled in the foothills of the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, the Red River Gorge Geological Area (RRGGA) is a long drive from any interstate highways and a good day’s drive from a major city. Because of this, it is lightly used. Which is why I have this whole spectacular day in the gorge to myself.

I stop at a wide spot on Swift Camp Creek Trail, which accompanies its namesake waterway through one of the most inaccessible areas of the gorge. Alternately descending to the creek’s edge only to abruptly reverse its slope and head back up the mountainside, the trail here provides a grand vista of Swift Camp Creek bending around on itself. Halfway up the gorge’s near vertical walls, the trail sandwiches me in a blanket of shimmering, blinding snow. Below I can see the creek bubbling clean and clear over gentle riffles. The sun-speckled snow draws me on down the trail. I feel I could follow it for days; not an impossibility since this trail is only a small portion of the hiking trails in the gorge, a network that ties in with the 257-mile long Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, eventually ending in Tennessee.

This is a land of snow and water, which have combined with erosive effects to sculpt spectacular natural rock formations, including the largest concentration of natural arches east of the Rockies. My favorites are Sky Bridge, offering an expansive view from the trail on top of the span; Rock Bridge straddling Swift Camp Creek; and Grays Arch. Pristine mountain streams splash down the walls and stairs of the gorge into the Red River, part of the state's wild river system. I watch a tumbling rivulet undercut a snowy crust, the fragile edges turning from white to crystal, for a second reflecting the colors of the rainbow, then breaking into the rushing water and bobbing away. The snow is disappearing, Spring recovering from this last skirmish with Winter.

Despite its isolated location in the remote mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, in the early years of this century the gorge was occupied by an army of loggers who cut and shipped the area’s timber. Sawmills and narrow gauge railroads cut and transported the abundant hardwood to eastern markets. Logging camps housed hundreds of loggers and their families. Thousands upon thousands of magnificent oak, hickory, and poplar trees were felled and shipped out of the area and, by the end of World War I, the steep valleys and hillsides of the gorge were left shorn and abandoned. Period photographs show steep, clear cut hillsides with a few forlorn saplings and endless killing fields of ragged stumps.

In the ensuing eight decades, things have changed dramatically. The area became part of what is now the Daniel Boone National Forest in 1937 and the gorge slowly reverted to its natural state, its steep ridges and hollows again teeming with rhododendron, hemlock, wild holly, oak, hickory, and white pine. The sorry impact of the loggers is now hard to see. Their abandoned railroads, sawmills, and houses were overgrown or simply rotted away. The only evidence that remains of the gorge's former role as a logging center is the narrow Nada tunnel near the western entrance to the RRGGA. Carved out of the side of a mountain in 1912 to provide railroad access to the gorge, it now provides hikers, kayakers, and bikers access to the area.

The Red River Gorge now stands out as one of the most spectacular undeveloped mountainous areas of the eastern United States, something I savor on this cool spring morning as winter slowly loses its grasp on Kentucky. The sun rises to its midday zenith, extending its warming fingers into the bottom of the narrow gorge. The forest undergoes a rapid metamorphosis from blinding crystalline white to dripping verdant green and in a matter of minutes, I am transported into another world. As quickly as it appeared, Winter is gone.

(This article originally appeared in Backpacker Magazine)

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