By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
STANTON, Ky. — I said good-bye to 2014 and rang in 2015 drinking champagne on my couch with my husband in Ashland. It was a quiet end to one busy year, and the start of another.
New Year’s morning, I headed to the Red River Gorge to spend New Year’s Day hiking with my dad. For me it was the perfect way to start 2015.
Over the next seven months I will be working on a revision of Hiking Kentucky by Michael H. Brown, a Falcon Guide. There will be 81 hikes in the new edition, due out in the spring of 2016. I plan to put boots on every one of them I can, so a day hike on Jan. 1 seemed appropriate.
Winchester is the perfect meeting place for my Dad and I. It’s a mere 1.5-hour drive for both of us. I live in Ashland, while Dad lives in my native Cincinnati, Ohio.
Many of my other hiking friends and family come from Lexington and Louisville, so this area is a great spot for many of them to meet me too! The Winchester exit is also the spot where most northeastern Kentuckians do a U-turn anyway in order to access the southeasterly Mountain Parkway. (A fact my now-retired road worker father gets audibly disturbed by every time.) There are back roads that can avoid this step, but for the interstate driver, there is no other way.
After ditching a vehicle in Winchester, we hop back on to I-64 east for the short (approximately 30 minute drive) to the Red River Gorge area of Daniel Boone National Forest. Natural Bridge State Park is in the same area, so there are tons of hiking options in the surrounding area.
On New Year’s Day, Dad and I met up with eight other hikers at a trailhead in the Gray’s Arch area off Tunnel Road. The group was one of four that gathered across the state for a series of “First Day Hikes” organized by the Sheltowee Trace Association. Each hike included a walk along the Sheltowee Trace.
Kentucky’s longest hiking trail, the Trace is more than 300 miles long! Recently expanded, it stretches from within Big South Fork Recreation Area just inside northern Tennessee to north of Morehead.
On Thursday we hiked a robust 6.1-mile loop that followed parts of the Sheltowee, Rough, Pinch ‘Em Tight and Gray’s Arch trails. Gray’s Arch is one of the Gorge’s most popular sandstone arches. STA member Billy Sherlin, an experienced regional hiker, led the hard walk, bringing along his wife and the family German Shepard.
Gray’s Arch is 50 foot high and spans a distance of 80 feet, forming a buttress of the end of a cliff. During wet seasons a waterfall is often visible alongside the arch, spilling over one of the carved sandstone walls, pitted with additional nooks, and rock houses. It’s a beautiful place to sit and crane your neck in curious amazement at a true natural treasure.
From the Gray’s Arch Picnic area, the arch is visible via a short .25-mile walk down the Gray’s Arch Trail (#205) to Rough Trail (#221). The walk takes you along a ridge top trail of mixed pine and hardwood trees, peppered with huckleberry and blueberry bushes. In the winter, you can take in unobstructed vistas of ridge tops.
Gray’s Arch is visible first from an overlook along the Rough Trail, but for those up to the challenge of descending and ascending numerous wooden and stone staircases, the arch can be experienced from far below on the forest floor as well as from directly under it’s massive belly as well.
The trail I described above can be extended into a longer, more scenic hike by adding additional sections of the Rough Trail, Sheltowee Trace, and Pinch ‘Em Tight (#223) trails. The walk took our groups just over 4 hours. Although we could have all walked the trail much more quickly, we found plenty of excuses to dawdle along the way and socialize.
We told stories of close encounters of the wild animal kind, shared leftover Christmas cookies and oohed and awed over each other’s clever new gear. We stopped to eat lunch and spent a while at the Pinch ‘Em Tight trailhead’s pit toilet facilities and at a table witnessing a handmade camping stove demonstration.
All together, the day was a great way to celebrate an adventurous new year!
Directions From Ashland:
Take I-64 west to Winchester, exit 69. Turn left at the end of the ramp. Then turn left again to follow I-64 East one exit to the Mountain Parkway.
Take the Mountain Parkway toward Natural Bridge State Park, exit 33.
Turn left and go back under Mountain Parkway, then turn right onto Rt. 15. Follow this road back across the Parkway and up the mountain about 4 miles to a gravel road on left. Turn left here on Tunnel Ridge Road (there’s a sign). The Pinch ‘Em Tight trailhead will be on left. Another .25 miles up the road, is the Grey’s Arch Picnic Area and Grey’s Arch Trailhead. (Travel time: Approx. 2 hours)
For more information about the Sheltowee Trace Association visit www.sheltoweetrace.org or like it on Facebook.