The Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and Kentucky is a place unlike any other in the South--it's a landscape you need to see for yourself.

Kentucky's Natural Arches

We Southerners share a deep pride in the glories of our land. We regard the Smokies as our home mountains. We claim the Everglades as our own wetland wonder. The Mississippi, that sprawling giant, courses along a storied route through our heartland and our history. Far fewer among us, though, realize that our region possesses another landscape marvel, just as fantastic but far less celebrated. The South's arch country is a geological rarity, a surprising jewel of nature's careful creation.

Known as the Northern Cumberland Plateau, this upland region slants through north Tennessee northeastward into Kentucky. Part of a tableland laid down by ancient seas, then lifted up during the uneasy ages of our Earth, it appears today as anything but the level bed of an ocean floor. Blanketed with thick forest and cut through by a web of streams, creeks, and rivers, the area features some of the most astounding gorges and dramatic formations in the entire Eastern United States. Here, the plateau boasts more natural arches than any place outside the famed arch land of Utah, and the best time to study these wonders is when winter has stripped the trees of their leaves and laid bare the surrounding vistas. Follow us to some of the area's best and most accessible sites.

Two for One
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area contains a number of arches across its 100,000-plus acres in Tennessee and Kentucky. Best known among them are the Twin Arches near Jamestown, Tennessee. Located less than a mile from a trailhead off the unpaved Twin Arches Road in the western part of the park, the two stand end to end, carved from the same narrow finger of mountain ridge and crafted by the same headward erosion. Rainwater, pouring off both sides of the ridge's more resistant sandstone cap, splashed into the softer stone below. Aided by wind and ice in cold weather, water gradually pierced its way through, fashioning an ever-larger opening.

The results are spectacular, especially at this time of year, when the arches grace the ridge like a crown. The nearly perfect South Arch, larger by almost half than its neighboring North Arch, arcs to a height of 70 feet and covers a span of more than 135 feet. In the sandy soil around its base lie massive boulders, including some car-size pieces of rock chiseled off by the elements, a solid reminder of the ongoing process.

Still at Work
Nowhere are the lessons of geology more visible than at Split Bow Arch, located on the east side of the recreation area near Stearns, Kentucky. Here, a seasonal stream fed by a waterfall flows directly under the arch's 51-foot span. Wooden steps also climb through the gaping opening, affording an unusual vantage point within its 33 ½-foot height.

Split Bow was formed when similar flows spilled through a crack in the once-solid ridge. Over time, the water widened a joint in the rock until it split off the arch, leaving it a high, thin bridge of stone, almost obscured by tall trees.

The Split Bow Arch Loop Trail begins at the Bear Creek Overlook parking area, less than a mile from the arch, and winds alongside the ridge. During winter, long dagger-like icicles persistently cling to the rock cliff, securely shadowed from the weak sunlight. Here, along the sandstone wall, the effects of weathering have produced what look like decorative medallions sculpted freehand by an artist--a small-scale example of nature's continuing efforts.

A View From the Top
Farther to the north, the Daniel Boone National Forest counts more than 100 such formations in its 26,000-acre Red River Gorge Geological Area. Many, such as Gray's Arch, lie along area hiking trails, but a winding drive along State 77 near Slade leads up to the high spots--literally. Chief among them, the Sky Bridge is a mere stroll from the parking lot. The sturdy span measures 75 feet long and 23 feet high, and the trail, which runs past it, leads in short order to a glorious overlook. The view here is that of an eagle poised above the Red River--hundreds of feet below--and the rugged, sheer cliffs that enclose its gorge.

Kentucky's most visited arch anchors Natural Bridge State Resort Park, only a handful of miles from the geological area. Several trails connect the arch with the park's Hemlock Lodge, and the shortest path is only ¾ mile. Natural Bridge sits astride a ridge that drops away on both sides into wooded valleys. At 65 feet in height, it is one of the tallest in the area, and its 78-foot length makes it one of the longest as well. So precise is its form that from a distance, such as Lookout Point, it resembles the careful construction of an engineer. In late afternoon, though, when the low sun strikes the sandstone, it warms to a rich color known only to nature, glowing like a kind of molten rainbow.

When You Go
While winter is definitely the best time to view the arches, it does require certain precautions. Hikers should prepare for changeable--and sometimes challenging--elements by wearing layers of clothing and sturdy boots. Also, take heed: Cold conditions can sometimes leave trails and steps icy and slippery.

For information about area arches and other natural attractions in Tennessee, call the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area at (423) 286-7275 and the Pickett State Park at (931) 879-5821.

To learn more about similar sites in Kentucky, call Big South Fork (see above), the Daniel Boone National Forest at (859) 745-3100, or the Natural Bridge State Resort Park at (606) 663-2214.

Campgrounds and cabins are available in many of these parks and forests, along with locally run motels and inns in nearby towns. Two good possibilities are the Newbury House Bed & Breakfast at Historic Rugby in Tennessee ([423] 628-2441 or 1-888-214-3400; $85.02 double occupancy for a room with private bath, rate includes breakfast for two) and the Hemlock Lodge at Natural Bridge State Resort Park ([606] 663-2214; $42.95 double occupancy, rates run higher in the spring, summer, and fall).

For more information on area lodging and attractions, call Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association toll free at 1-877-868-7735.

"Visit the South's Arch Country" is from the November 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.