Sky Bridge, one of the most visited arches in the gorge, clings to a mountainside.
Cary Jobe, Art Meripol
Adventure on the River
This morning I stop to have coffee with Judy and Ken Braden. They give me a tour of the spacious house they mostly built themselves, entirely from lumber they cut at their own sawmill. “My wife grew up here, and I knew this is where I wanted to be the first time I saw it,” says Ken. He traveled the world as an Army special forces master sergeant. Now they operate Red River Adventure, a kayak and canoe guide and livery service. He takes paddlers 7 miles upriver. It takes about three hours to float one of the most scenic sections.
Some stay the night in a comfortable cabin on stilts that Ken and Judy built at the water’s edge. We climb the stairs to the deck to admire the view and check the current, which is slow today. “It’s a Class I river. Most of it is shallow, but you can get wet,” Ken says.
Walk This Way
The earliest inhabitants of the gorge didn’t have to build any housing at all. “Some of the rock shelters range from 5 feet to as long as a football field,” explains Johnny Faulkner, archaeologist at Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center. I spend the rest of the morning at the center beside the byway viewing an excellent orientation film, talking with some of the specialists who interpret the National Geological Area for visitors, and listening to Johnny tell about the ancients who dwelled here. “Three thousand years ago, people were here, growing squash and grinding nuts and seeds in hominy holes,” he says. “They had small gardens. They were some of the first farmers in America.”
Later in the afternoon I take a meandering walk along a section of the Sheltowee Trace, which crosses the river on a swaying footbridge, and hike to a couple of the most visited landmarks along the scenic byway. The side trail to the top of Chimney Top Rock gives me an amazing, 360-degree view of the gorge. Beneath a warming sun, I follow another mile-long path that leads to one of the most dramatic arches in the gorge. I can hear the wind whistling through Sky Bridge when I reach the largest opening, as big as a theater stage, in the rock that tethers the bridge to a mountainside. I’m sweating from the walk. The cool air blowing through the rock feels as welcome as a blast of air-conditioning.
In this wild place, it’s easy to pretend you’re Daniel Boone, but like most of the tourists who visit, I slip away at the end of the day to rest the night in comfort at the lodge at nearby Natural Bridge State Resort Park.