Everything they said is pretty much true. I came to that conclusion sitting in a kayak in the middle of a pond in the heart of the Red River Gorge contemplating how long it would take to drift about a hundred yards across the glassy water without lifting my paddle. The awe-inspiring beauty. The relatively undeveloped landscape. The serenity. The ability to disconnect and connect to what matters in what is now part of The Kentucky Wildlands.
I’d been hearing about this part of Kentucky for some time and had even worked on helping to promote it. The only thing is, I hadn’t actually experienced it for myself. That is, as a true vacationer or someone who normally never contemplates such things as how fast a kayak can glide across a fishpond. Which I likely would not have been doing if we’d chosen any number of other places to go to get away.
Except for the rowdy chorus of frogs announcing happy hour each day, this is a place where you can hear yourself think. A good book in the hammock or on the cabin’s front porch overlooking a forest - that’s my idea of a great vacation. Then topping off the end of a perfect day with a glass of wine around a campfire - it doesn’t get much better. Three days of this routine? Pretty heavenly.
First impressions tend to stay with you. No matter what picture you have in your mind about a place before experiencing it, it’s almost always a surprise when you finally see if for the first time. Many times, the expectations you’ve built up in your head exceed the actual experience. But that’s definitely not the case here. To say we were surprised driving into the Red River Gorge area and seeing the landscape surrounding Natural Bridge State Resort Park is putting it mildly. Nothing quite prepared us for the spectacular view, stone cliffs and arches that stretch on for what seems like hundreds of miles when you ride the Skylift and stand atop Natural Bridge. Despite the 90+ degree temps, we hiked trails that took us to even more breathtaking overlooks.
On the fourth day of our trip, we headed about two hours south to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest, arriving in time for a hike along the Sheltowee Trace. It’s fitting that the trail’s name means “Big Turtle”, which is what the Shawnee called Daniel Boone when he was adopted into their tribe in the late 1700s, particularly since Boone himself trekked these same rugged paths. Amazingly, much of the trail and the pristine forest, notwithstanding a few stairs and turtle-shaped trail markers, look virtually the same as they did more than 250 years ago.
The highlight of this day, though, was not to come until almost midnight when the full moon was scheduled to hit the mist rising off Cumberland Falls to create the world-famous moonbow (a lunar rainbow), a unique natural phenomenon occurring only a couple places on earth. People had come from all over to hopefully catch a glimpse of this rare occurrence, according to the parking lot filled with cars from as far away as New Jersey and Texas. Having witnessed the force of the falls during the day, we saw how they created a very different impression and appearance by night.
The whole atmosphere seemed a little mystical and supernatural with a heavy air of anticipation (not to mention humidity) and suspense as the crowd waited for the moment when the clouds might break enough for the moonbow to appear in the mist. Professional photographers and visitors with their phones were all focused on the falls at several different overlooks throughout the park in the hopes of capturing an image of the moonbow. It soon turned into what was almost a party-like atmosphere as everyone patiently waited.
By 1 AM, it became evident that the fog had gotten heavier and the moonbow was less likely to appear that night. Someone said the moonbow had finally broken through the night before at 4 AM. So, despite getting a few shots of the fall’s mist with what looked like a little rainbow-like coloration, we decided to call it a night, as did most of the other folks there, many having already left.
We returned to our cabin after 1:30 AM, a little disappointed but glad we had been able to be there to experience all the fun moonbow enthusiasm and camaraderie. We had opted to stay in one of the state park’s rustic but modern cabins located in the woods for two nights rather than in one of the historic DuPont Lodge rooms, which ended up being a great choice and the ideal spot for a quiet night’s sleep.
The next day we hit the trail to Eagle Falls running along the opposite side of the Cumberland River from the state park lodge and cabins. Even though the heat index was going to reach near 100, we were able to stay cooler under the forest canopy and while passing by several caves. Quite a few stairs, the higher elevation ascent and some rock climbing at the end towards the falls (particularly in the extreme heat) made us somewhat question the trail’s moderate rating. But, sitting at the base of Eagle Falls, feeling the cool spray of the water and taking in the view of the Cumberland River to one side, the massive boulders and forest to the other, made every step more than worth it.
Later that day near dusk we took another trail that wound through the forest along the Cumberland River. We were particularly attentive to any sounds that could indicate that a bear could be nearby, as we had seen the warning signs posted in the lodge. Fortunately, we didn’t have any encounters, but walking through the forest at that time of day when the shadows were long and the sun had dipped below the trees made us a little jumpy and glad to get back to our cabin.
Except for venturing into Corbin’s historic downtown one afternoon for coffee and some original fried chicken from the original, very first KFC, for the most part our trip was spent in what seemed like a still somewhat untamed wilderness. We certainly felt we were off the beaten track and more remote than we’d been in a good long while. It even felt like we’d stepped back in time a little.
So, on day six, when we checked out and drove out of the park past the falls, we kind of hated to be heading back to the schedules and responsibilities waiting for us at home. No doubt, though, we truly had a real get-away, the kind of vacation you don’t need a vacation to recover from. And incredible experiences I’m sure we could not have had anywhere else.