Dense forest and rugged cliffs in the Kentucky Highlands on the eastern side of the Bluegrass State act as a siren's song to outdoor lovers. The Daniel Boone National Forest features over 520 miles of developed forest trails, 269 miles of which is known as the Sheltowee Trace. In the Red River Gorge Geological Area, wind and water have spent more than 70 million years sculpting the largest concentration of rock shelters and arches east of the Rockies. One of these ancient rock formations lies within the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, where a hike or skylift ride takes you to the sandstone arch. For a dizzying view, walk the 78-foot-long bridge, which spans a narrow ravine 65 feet below.
Hikers will find that most of the nine trails, ranging from half a mile to 81/2 miles in length in the 2200-acre park, will lead to the Natural Bridge. The original trail, built in 1890s by the Lexington and Eastern Railroad, is the shortest and easiest route. It climbs over 500 feet through sycamore, hemlock, yellow poplar, and white pine trees, where thickets of rhododendron, the flash of indigo bunting, and scarlet tanager wings brighten thick greenery. Along the way are two rest houses, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Since the trail ends beneath the span, hikers must go up a natural fracture to reach the top.
The longest trail takes four to six hours to complete, and there are no shortcuts. All trails are closed at night, and hikers are warned that about 40 people a year fall from the cliffs in this area, mainly those who get too close to the edge.
The Natural Bridge State Resort Park is one of 17 state resort parks where most guests have a choice of lodge rooms, cottages, or campgrounds. The Hemlock Lodge has 35 rooms with private balconies that overlook the pool and Hoe Down Island. Ten fully equipped cottages are tucked away under the trees. A fork of the Red River winds past one of the two campgrounds where 82 campsites have utilities and 12 are primitive. Although the lodge and cottages are available year-round, campsites and most activities are seasonal (earliest: mid-March-October 31; www.naturalbridgepark.com).
Outside the park, you don't have far to go to visit a unique attraction. The Kentucky Reptile Zoo lies just to the north, behind the rest area at Exit 33 off the Mountain Parkway. Make a left from the rest-area driveway onto L&E Railroad Road, pass the Welcome caboose, and follow the signs (rural road).
Steps lead up to raised wooden buildings resembling barracks without windows. Behind glass shields are coiled snakes such as an East African green mamba, a red-necked spitting cobra, and a Malayan pit viper. Twelve species of rattlesnakes, five copperheads, and two cottonmouths represent North America.