We have spent several days exploring the beauty of Ohio's waterfalls and recessed caves (click here to read all about it). Now, we're heading south to hike Kentucky's parks & Congaree National Park. Our first stop is Natural Bridge State Resort Park in northeastern Kentucky along the Red River. Next, we explore the trails of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Finally, we boardwalk the swamps of South Carolina at Congaree National Park.
Natural Bridge Trails
The Natural Bridge is a sandstone arch standing 65-feet tall and 78-feet long. This area has long been a tourist destination because of its natural beauty. But also because the Kentucky Union Railway purchased the land in the late 1800's and cultivated it for that purpose. It was later donated to the state park system. There are over 18 miles of hiking trails leading to the Natural Bridge, including a portion of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. The Sheltowee Trace is a 319-mile backcountry trail. It runs through the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big Fork National River and Recreation area. The Daniel Boone National Forest surrounds the Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
To see the Natural Bridge, you can park at the Hemlock Lodge and acquire a map of the trails. From the Hemlock Lodge parking lot, we hop on the Original Trail to climb up to the natural bridge. This hike is less than a mile on a well-maintained trail that includes regular trail shelters. It is a steady incline to the bridge where your first glimpse of the arch is from below. We cross under the bridge and making a hard left on the Rock Garden Trail follow the narrow squeeze and stairs up to the top of the arch.
Enjoy the gorgeous view from atop, and I highly recommend continuing along the Laurel Ridge Trail past the Skylift to the lookout point. If you're feeling adventurous and are in good shape, continue down Devil's Gulch and descend the hundreds of wooden (sometimes wonky) steps to the Battleship Rock Trail below. This trail will return you to your starting point, making a loop. This is a park with many visitors. Be prepared to share the space. It was possible to get off to yourself along the Devil's Gulch because the trail here is more difficult, which usually scares people off. This park is scenic and worth an afternoon of exploration. Click here for a map of the trails.
Gateway to the West
The following day, we head south to Cumberland National Historical Park on the Kentucky-Tennesee-Virginia border. The Cumberland Gap is referred to as the gateway to the west. It provides a natural path through the Appalachian Mountains to the land west. This park is rich in history as the Gap has been used by Native Americans, early settlers, civil-war armies, and migrating bison.
Both Union and Confederate forces occupied Cumberland Gap in turn because of its strategic importance. Native Americans of the Cherokee (in the south) and Shawnee (in the north) tribes used the corridor (a known game trail) for hunting. It became known as the Warrior's Path, among the English speakers, because of the many attacks between the two rival tribes. Later, as settlers began to use the Cumberland Gap, it became known as the Wilderness Road.
There are more than 80 miles of hiking trails in the Cumberland Gap Park. While there, we stopped at the visitor's center to get educated and then drove up the Pinnacles Road to the overlook. You can see all three states and the Gap clearly from up here. From there, we hopped on the Ridge Trail. This is a wooded- ridge hike of the Appalachian Mountains. The trees occasionally open up to the South. This provides a glorious view of the hills, settlements, and valleys below.
The Ridge Trail intersects with the Sugar Run Trail where we make a left. This hike is lovely with striking ledges, creeks, tall deciduous trees, and Rhododendron thickets. To complete our loop of roughly 5 miles, we make a left on the Harlan Road Trail and follow it back to the Ridge Trail. The Harlan Road Trail is not very interesting and has some upward elevation to it - a bad combination. However, you may not think you're too bad off when you remember that this path was created by soldiers pushing artillery up the mountain. It's humbling to think of the hardships once endured here. As I look around, I try to imagine a scarred land devoid of trees and men in uniform laboring up a muddy road deep with ruts.
Congaree National Park is 11,000 acres of protected floodplain old-growth forest. Most old-growth forest in the United States has been lost to settlement and logging. This park is a rare gem. It is has something that most people of this age will never see - really old trees. The ecology here is unique and supports much biodiversity.
A great way to see any park is to hike it. So many folks simply go to the visitor's center and take the scenic drive. Get out of your cars and explore! If you think the park is amazing from your car, I guarantee that you will be even more impressed if you take a hike. Also, next time we visit this park, it will be via the Congaree River. You can rent canoes or kayaks in the area.
This land was once the home of Native Americans, including the Congaree people. The explorer Hernando DeSoto passed through this area in 1540, observing the people of the village Cofitachequi. During the Revolution, Francis Marion a.k.a. "The Swamp Fox" used the swamp to hide and ambush the British. African-American slaves hid in the swamps seeking freedom. After emancipation, freed people bought farms on this land.
We stopped at the Hampton Visitor Center to get educated on the history and natural history in this area. Just behind the visitor's center is a wonderful hike. The boardwalk is a 2.5-mile loop through a forest with beautiful examples of bald cypress, tupelo, sweet gum, loblolly pine, oak, beech, maple, and palmetto. Grab a trail guide before you go. For a map of Congaree National Park, click here. For other great road trip ideas, click here.
- Always check a park's Web Site for alerts before making a trip. Sometimes there are closures that may impact your plans.
- Check out the paddle opportunities at Congaree National Park. Start here.
- If you plan to camp at Congaree National Park, you must make reservations beforehand. Backcountry campers can obtain permits from the visitor's center during business hours. Details here.
- There may be water across the Boardwalk Loop Trail at Congaree. You may want to bring some sandals, or you can just take your shoes off.
- Take the time to learn the history and natural history of a park before you explore. It makes it more interesting.