Geology of the Red River Gorge, KY

Within the Daniel Boone National Forest located in eastern Kentucky, the Red River Gorge Geological Area, as its name notes, is an area of unique geological formations. Natural stone arches, sandstone cliffs, and other curious rock features make the Red the most interesting place in the Midwest for both aesthetic and scientific study of geologic processes. Geology is a science that deals with the history of the earth and its life, especially as recorded in rocks.  The effects of erosion and vast spans of time are on display at the gorge; both sides of the brain will be stimulated when crossing over a natural bridge or standing below a stretching arch.

Here is an overview of the changes that took place in the region over millions of years:

  1. ancestral Appalachian mountains are slowly ground down by erosive forces
  2. sandy material is carried west by rivers
  3. sand is buried and transforms into Corbin sandstone
  4. region uplifted
  5. modern Red River and its tributaries erode through the ancient deposits creating the gorge

I went to the Red River Gorge in early January for color (I had read rhododendrons stay green despite cold temperatures) and topography (the area is popular with climbers . . . which would mean cliffs and a varied elevation). Choosing hikes based on mileage and available time, I unintentionally found myself on trails that led to arches. Learning later that there are an estimated 150 natural arches here, I don’t think I could have avoided this particular feature even if I wanted to. The winter setting in the forest – bare trees and pale grey tones – was surprisingly perfect to view these formations that would, in other seasons, be engulfed by plant life. The sun cooperated, at times, to cast a golden glow on the sandstone.

Understanding how the rock formations were created is an element of the fun while hiking among the ridges, valleys, cliffsides, rock shelters, bridges, and waterfalls. For example, Double Arch is a lighthouse type arch, formed when two cavities on opposite sides of a rock eventually connect through a cliff. While it may not be possible to know the science behind every feature of this landscape, having a few extra pieces of information can make for an enjoyable, casual scavenger hunt.

Recommended hike: Auxier Ridge Trail to Courthouse Rock, returning via Double Arch Trail. Off-trail highlights of this hike include the passageways and various crannies at the base of Courthouse Rock and the stair-like path leading to the top of Double Arch.

Red River Gorge Trail Map

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