Red River Gorge 101

RED RIVER GORGE 101
Hiking the Double Arch / Auxier Ridge Loop
April 2005



-Scott "cliftyman" Duvall

After a two year hiatus I decided it was time to visit Red River Gorge once again. The last time I went I was a naive young man, this time I was a naive young man, but with a little more hiking experience. I took two friends with me this time, Brad and Waylon. Waylon brought his Chihuahua , Louie, along as well. The reason behind the trip was that Waylon was planning on moving back closer to home near Louisiana and I wanted to give him a going away present by showing him the best of old Kentucky. Ever since he moved to Kentucky I've been telling him about all the wonders of Eastern Kentucky and I tried to show him the best of Western Kentucky, but I knew no stay in the Bluegrass State would be complete without a visit to the Gorge.

Sunday afternoon at about 2:30 we were parking at Auxier Ridge Trailhead. We checked our gear and headed out. The first thing I noticed was the forest didn't look the same as it did three Octobers ago. It looked like fire had once again ravaged the Gorge and the damage was apparent. I was shocked when I drove past the overlook past Gray's Arch trailhead. The valley there looked like a wasteland. It's amazing how nature can change itself. The Auxier Ridge trail condition was about the same, no better no worse. Since it was Sunday afternoon we met several people hiking out. Everyone was talkative and happy. Some students from UK came right up to us with smiles on their faces and started overflowing with enthusiasm about how awesome it was to be out there, how the trail was incredible and about how bad it stunk that they had to be back in class on Monday! While hiking I pointed out all the major landmarks to Brad and Waylon and they were impressed with my knowledge of the Gorge. I told them "I've been on kywilderness.com five years" and explained I didn't know much about the Gorge but the major landmarks and a couple of off-trail places have been drilled into my brain (I've spent hours thinking and drooling about going to all of them!). We came to the open spot on Auxier Ridge where you can see both Double Arch and Raven's Rock and we took a break. I lay down on the warm rocks and watched pigeons attack a buzzard, Waylon fed his dog Louie and Brad just took in the grandeur of the fading sun shining through Double Arch. The last people we saw that day were a family of folks from Kentucky . The husband was hilarious, he stopped and talked about how his kids "wanted to fall off every cliff they came too", and how they were going to be "the death of him". His wife came by about a minute later with the kids holding a pamphlet with pictures of the major landmarks in the Gorge. I guess the pics weren't descriptive enough because she asked me and I kindly told her what was what and where she was. I was conducting a small study as we hiked; I was trying to guess where everyone was from as we hiked in. It was pretty easy to tell who was from Kentucky and who was from North of the Ohio river, or at least I thought it was. I've always been fascinated by dialects and its nice to see folks from so far away enjoying Red River Gorge. Well at least it's nice to the see folks who actually appreciate it and don't trash it. We met many of this type on Sunday and I saw license plates from as far away as Montana , California and New York during our stay. I personally think the closing of Tunnel Ridge Road past the Auxier Ridge Trailhead worked wonders for this section of the Gorge. It was much better than when I was there last time (crowd wise and trail condition wise).

After a brief rest we were off again and I was in new territory. Last time I came to the Gorge we hiked to Courthouse Rock and back. This time we had a loop in mind so we descended the cliff face by way of the wooden steps near Courthouse Rock and descended to the valley floor below Auxier Ridge. We got off track for a while, we missed the turn off to the left and walked towards Courthouse Rock, after following a foot-trail that ran about 6 inches from a 60 foot drop we decided the trail we were on probably wasn't a forest service path so we doubled back and found the actual trail. I was actually more impressed by the bottom of Courthouse Rock than I was the top; the rock formations down there are very cool.

We began our descent into the valley to camp at Auxier Branch. The forest floor was sparse with little undergrowth. Nice size trees were abundant, the trail was easy and wildflowers, redbuds and dogwoods were in bloom everywhere. At one point when the trail wrapped back around to the west going directly towards Double Arch I saw an intense beam of light shooting through the cliff above. We caught Double Arch at the perfect angle at the perfect time. There were too many trees to take a shot with the camera; it was one of those images you just have to file away in memory, more beautiful than any camera can capture.

Eventually we noticed the Hemlocks rising around us, the sounds of rushing water and we felt the blast of cooler air that signaled we were nearing Auxier Branch. We decided against the campsites right next to the trail and dropped our packs to scout out something a little more secluded. We found some established sites with fire-rings nearby and camped at one of them. The campsite we selected was very nice with tall steep sloped ridges going straight up, large boulders in the branch and huge hemlocks surrounding us. We cooked some food and I looked for some mushrooms. ( Hickory chickens, dry land fish, whatever you want to call them, and no I couldn't find any) That night the sound of flowing water lulled us to sleep. The moon was nearly full and moonlight shone through the Hemlock branches all night. The whole setting was eerily and lonesomely beautiful.

The next morning we cleaned up the site, filtered some water, ate some breakfast and headed up towards Double Arch. I really enjoyed the hike up the ridge; it really got the juices flowing, kind of like having a pan of cold water dumped on you in the morning to wake you up. Once again we noticed the huge difference between the valley, its climate and forest and the ridge and its climate and forest. When we got within about 1/8 mile of the spur going to Double Arch the sun shone on us over the top of Auxier Ridge, we had to immediately shed our long sleeves and dress like it was summer once again (it was about 15 degrees cooler in the valley).

We took the spur to Double Arch and Brad commented this was his favorite part of our three day trip. Hiking below the cliff-face approaching Double Arch was wonderful and the weather was great. On the left we had multi-colored, fortress-like sandstone palisades and on the right we had an immense valley with Courthouse Rock, Haystack Rock and Auxier Ridge overlooking us.

We eventually reached "Snakehead Rock" and we dropped our packs to walk up to Double Arch. I found Double Arch a little scary. It's practically a window out of the ridge with nothing but your common sense stopping you from falling 100 feet to early retirement. We took several pictures and simply enjoyed the view. We then decided to get on top of Double Arch where we were greeted by 360 degree un-obstructed views of the entire valley, including various landmarks and the cliff face rising off the south end of the ridge Double Arch is in. While we were up on top we heard a turkey gobbling in the distance several times.

After enjoying Double Arch we proceeding to our exit from the valley. After a nice lung-expanding climb up some switchbacks and some wooden stairs we were at Tunnel Ridge Road . We hiked the mile back to our car at the Auxier Ridge parking lot by way of gravel road. We passed a group of older gentlemen on the road and besides a tent we saw from the Tunnel Ridge Road overlook those were the only people we saw Monday morning. We did try and find Star Gap Arch on our way back. We turned right on what looked to be a road blocked by telephone poles buried in the ground with a yellow sign saying "no motorized traffic", only to find the trail pandered out to nothing. We passed a dirt road "turnaround" which I later found out was the entrance to the forest road that will take you to Star Gap Arch.... we'll give that a try next time I guess.

After hiking about 7 miles we were ready for day two in Clifty Wilderness. By taking Brad, Waylon and our faithful companion Louie on Auxier Ridge Trail they had completed what I like to call "Red River Gorge 101" and they loved it. I'm hoping to take that beginner's course many more times myself, because I think it's perhaps one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in this fine state. The loop is what I'd consider a moderate hike, and it could almost be classified as easy if it weren't for the hike out of the valley at the end of tunnel ridge road (which isn't really that bad unless you are wearing a pack). Get outside and play!



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