Monday, August 5, 2013

Running the Red

Typical Red River Gorge scene.
My donation to the student charity auction this year was a day running trails in Red River Gorge, Kentucky.  After scheduling difficulties caused by my own travel and my students' bar exam study, I finally paid up yesterday.  A__, K__, and Y__, three great current or former students, as well as my former colleague P__, and I left my parking lot at 4:30 a.m. to drive four hours to the Gorge.  It was pouring rain in Indianapolis, an inauspicious beginning.

Maybe 50 miles from town we left the rain behind.  Dawn arrived not long after leaving Louisville heading east on I64.  When we stopped for gas and breakfast in Lexington I realized a huge benefit of traveling with students:  they considered Denny's to be fine dining.  (I've *always* considered Denny's to be fine dining, but most of my peer group has left me behind in that regard.)  The sky was turning blue and the day began to look glorious.

We reached the Gorge at about 9 and spent a while searching for the right trailhead.  Though perhaps vaguely frustrating, the search was not wasted time; we enjoyed two eerie passes through the 1/4-mile long, single-lane, claustrophobic Nada Tunnel, with bare rock walls and ceiling.

Nada Tunnel.  Not my car, though.
On our return pass we realized the road we were seeking did not intersect our current route but passed overhead just as we were driving through the tunnel.  

Direction flub #2:  the guidebook said three miles but meant five.  At three miles along the Ridge Road we launched for our first run, not the five-mile loop we sought but an easy ~one mile out-and-back from the Pioneer Trailhead to the top of a cliff with our first view over the Gorge.  A fun warm-up and the first fall, producing P__'s skinned knees.  The cliff was good for oohs and aahs and the short run was well worth the wrong turn.

The Auxier Ridge trailhead was 2 miles further down the road.  Here we launched for a planned 5-mile loop, climbing and then following the ridge, crossing the valley to "Double Arch," and winding our way back.  This run offered something of everything.

Auxier Ridge.  Random Google photo, so no idea who that is.
We followed single-track through the forest, took a rocky descent and then an ascent on the other side, ran for maybe a mile along a narrow ridge with cliff bands on either side, crossed a lush valley of steamy rainforest with a stream paralleling the trail, and reached a turn-around at a dramatic hole in the sandstone cut by the elements over centuries or millennia.  At the arch somebody's GPS registered five miles, and we had a couple remaining to the car.

Double Arch.
[An amusing aside:  there is a website that explains the difference between a natural arch and a natural bridge.  It is maintained by a society devoted to these phenomena.  Only on the internet!]

The hills were starting to wear on the group when we emerged to a gravel path that appeared to lead to civilization.  P__ and I enjoyed our few fast strides of the day while racing to ensure this was the right direction.  It was, but the car was past several turns and rolling hills.  Y__ found us not too much later and I and P__ headed back to encourage A__ and K__.  In total this loop was nearly seven miles of decidedly non-trivial trail running for our second run of the day.  This was shaping up to be an epic outing!

We lunched at Miguel's, the classic climber hangout in Natural Bridge State Park, eating pizza and cookies and killing two hours with relaxed conversation.  Just up the road from Miguel's was a lodge and our third trail-head, this one for the popular Natural Bridge trail system.

The "Original Trail" was well-developed, including 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps shelters, well-maintained, and frustratingly crowded.  The sights were worth it. Natural Bridge is like Double Arch magnified 10x and set well above the valley floor.

Natural Bridge, Natural Bridge State Park, Kentucky.  (Red River Gorge)
The trail ascends and crosses the bridge, where we snapped a group photo before heading to Lover's Leap, a magnificent cliff with a commanding view.

Lover's Leap.  Or "Lovers Leap."  (The correct name may be punctuationally challenged.)
We descended narrow stone stairs and returned to the car.  Just over two miles with plenty of climbing, descending, and scenery.  The crowds placed this run behind Auxier Ridge in terms of preference.

We were now approaching 10 aggressive miles over three runs after a 4:30 a.m. start from Indianapolis and our band was starting to tire, but it was not yet 4 p.m. and Y__, at least, who has spent the last year as a Cross-Fit junkie on a protein ("Paleo") diet, wanted more.  K__ and A__ soaked blistering feet in a cool stream while P__, Y__, and I sought out Whittington Arch from the trailhead just up the road from Natural Bridge.

There is a moment in every long run at which some combination of mental relaxation, food absorbtion, hydration, and stimulants, together with external factors like temperature and terrain, produces an equanimity of mind and fluidity of motion that makes me want to run forever.  That happened on the Whittington Arch run, our fourth and final for the day.  This trail was under dense tree cover and followed a stream gently uphill.  The ground was soft, even slightly muddy in places.  The crowds were all back at Natural Bridge; we passed only two groups of hikers.  The arch was really a cave with an outlet near the top and a huge vaulted ceiling from which a trickle rained 100 feet to the ground. 

Soaked in sweat anyway, we took cool showers before climbing the side of the arch for a view over a three-sided canyon filled with lush greenery.  Y__'s GPS reported 10.5 miles for the day; we headed further away from the car to ensure a 12-mile total.  The trail disappeared into the trees striated with light and shade and when the call came to turn around I was genuinely saddened.  

Back to the car; towel off; and change clothes.  We stopped at an unremarkable brewpub near the University of Kentucky in Lexington and a Graeter's Ice Cream shop across the street.  I was home and in bed by 11.

I think I may auction this trip again next year!


  1. Outstanding. Makes me want to go for a run, and that's not something I often say these days.

  2. Fantastic! Next year I'll bid. Oh, and send Graeters.

  3. Great idea. Wish we had someplace that fab to run close by.