Cary Jobe, Art Meripol
Bloodroot adds to the explosion of wildflowers this season.
The Red River Gorge is a place where mighty sandstone arches rise to the heavens and forest niches hide delicate wildflowers that grow nowhere else on the planet. This rugged region of geological wonders astounds visitors from other places, but it is beloved by Kentuckians and known the world over to rock climbers, partly because of its many overhanging cliffs. “When you fall, you fall into the air,” famed local climber Dario Ventura told me. “It’s safer.”
Easy for You To See
A National Wild and Scenic River meanders among more than 100 sandstone arches―the largest group east of the Rocky Mountains. Picture the magnificent sculptured rocks of Utah’s and Arizona’s national parks, surround them with a lush forest, and you get a sense of what the Red River Gorge looks like. It is laced with trails, including one that connects to the 260-mile Sheltowee Trace. That’s Shawnee for “Big Turtle,” the American Indian name for Daniel Boone. The gorge fascinated the Kentucky adventurer.
I’m no Daniel Boone. I’m exploring by car, with easy hikes and a gentle climb here and there, but it fascinates me too. You don’t have to be a world-class climber to enjoy it. It’s accessible to almost anyone.
That doesn’t diminish the wonder of it. I feel as if I’m discovering a long-lost treasure when I drive the 46-mile-long National Scenic Byway that passes through a one-lane former railroad tunnel into the gorge. Spring decorates the woodlands with wildflowers. To see some of the rarest ones, I only have to roll down the car window. White-haired goldenrod grows near the tunnel entrance and a few other locations here―and nowhere else in the world. A river 30 feet wide, with water the color of faded roof tiles, edges close to the road. In the past, several proposals to dam it brought staunch opposition from groups ranging from the Sierra Club to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. (The judge joined a protest hike to help save it in 1967.) Finally, it became the state’s first National Wild and Scenic River in 1993.
With rich soils, useful native plants, and the ready-made housing of scores of rock shelters, the gorge boasts a history of habitation dating back thousands of years, but you can almost count on one hand the residents who live here now. Most are as resilient and sturdy as the rock cliffs that poke out of the forest.