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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lots to do in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

I drag myself into Hemlock Lodge, at Kentucky’s Natural Bridge State Park, with a direct aim for the water fountain. After a hardy guzzle to satisfy myself, I fill one of my empty water bottles partway and exit out to the overlook, which runs the length of the lodge, over the tree-filled valley, the lake and the swimming pool.

I want to collapse. I’m exhausted. My muscles—from my feet to my shoulders—are complaining. I can wring perspiration from my shirt, I’ve sweat that much.

Some yahoo is out here talking on his cell phone. But I don’t care. I lie flat on my back, head on the concrete, legs straight out. He can step over me if he needs to get past. After several more swallows of water and a few minutes of “All she kin do iny more is stay home. It’s sad,” and “Oh, Ah know she is. It’s sad, sad. Are you goin’ ta the sale at the haa school?  What tahm’re you gonna be there? Ah was thinkin’…” I lose consciousness.

I just hiked nine miles, in mid-July heat, the last two without water despite starting out with two full Camelbacks. I didn’t ration it well.

I arrived here this morning from Lexington, where I spent the night with my cousin and her family. Mark, my husband, is fishing on Lake Erie, having just last week agreed to fill a spot that opened at the last minute. Soon after he got the call, I started planning my jaunt.

It started at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy where I experienced a relaxing yet energizing, three-hour yoga workshop, then to my cousin’s for the night and ultimately here to Natural Bridge State Park.

I arrived at 10 a.m. grabbed a park map and planned out two days of hiking. However, even freshly showered, I doubt my body will recover enough overnight to crave a hike of much distance tomorrow. Natural Bridge State Park lies within Kentucky’s Red River Gorge area, and I check the map for short trails from 715, the road that rings the area.

Morning comes and I find myself on a zipline tour. Earlier, driving from the lodge, desperate for something to do other than hike, I stopped at a rest area near the Mountain Parkway and found a flier.

Flying through the forest canopy for more than an hour builds an appetite. I lunch at Rock Bridge picnic area, three miles in on a gravel road from 715. Afterwards, I lock lunch residuals in my car and hike to Rock Bridge. The trail is tight with greenery on both sides until it opens up along a dry creek bed, which I cross. And there it is: the Rock Bridge. So beautiful, with ferns on top and vines dripping down. Mesmerizing, with sunlight filtering through the trees. A perfect spot for a wedding proposal. I wish Mark were with me. Experiences mean more if they’re shared. 
Three months later I do return to Red River Gorge with Mark. We drive through the single-lane rock tunnel, and I tell him how in July I had to wait five minutes to enter because I was behind a large truck, which inched its way through, sending out painful scraping noises the whole way. We hike to Natural Bridge (a shorter way than I took myself), Rock Bridge (which wasn’t as romantic this time—must be the lighting) and every other arch I’d seen on my own.

We hiked to (and walked across) the suspension bridge, Sky Bridge, Haystack Rock, Double Arch and more, and that’s not nearly half the area. We stopped at the visitor center, and ate at Miguel’s Pizza, where you can find something to fill you no matter your dietary restrictions.

The Red River Gorge is gorgeous, it’s close to home, and it offers lots to see even if you don’t hike. Whistling Arch and Angel Windows are just a quarter mile from the road. A lift at Natural Bridge State park takes visitors to the top of the arch—no hiking required. The view across the verdant valley reminds me of the Smokies.

Mark and I will be back. We have more than half the park to see yet.