Friday, July 29, 2011
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.
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.
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.
We checked into the main cabin and were assigned to one of the sleeping lodges. Our lodge consisted of a central common area with a large stone fireplace, chairs and a table. Four separate private sleeping rooms faced this central area. We unpacked in our room and found it simple but comfortable, sparsely furnished with a double bunk bed covered with fleecy virgin wool blankets, a small side table and a chair. Modern flush toilets are nearby but there are no showers and bathing consists of cold water sponge baths over a basin. But this high up in the mountains where the temperature has never reached 80 degrees even in the summer, we are not too anxious to get wet anyway. Before the night is over, we will be glad for the wool blankets on the beds.
We had barely had time to check out our room when some hikers spied a black bear wandering near the cabins. The camp was immediately abuzz with bear sightings. We decided to head out and see if we could find the intruder. What we found instead was that we were in the middle of one of the most remote and scenic areas of the Smokies. Panoramic views of gentle valleys, sweeping vistas of broad mountains, and encroaching emerald forests met us at every turn.
We were hot on the trail of the bear, spotted snacking in the middle of a large blackberry patch, when the clanging of the dinner bell summoned us to the dining lodge. The staff had prepared a sumptuous meal of roast beef and gravy, fried apples, mashed potatoes, and veggies all served family-style, with hot chocolate to warm us up. A dessert of hot peach cobbler topped the dining. In the middle of the feast, we glanced out the dining room windows and saw two whitetail deer staring back in at us.
After a full day of hiking, a delicious meal, and a stunning sunset, we close out the day rocking on the porch, gloating over those poor unfortunate souls caught in the traffic jams and whirl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge down below.
Tough to leave? You know it, but we have reservations for only one night so we load our backpacks and head down the mountains, six miles back into civilization and the modern world.
(This article originally appeared in The Nashville Tennessean)