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Beauty and Death Are Both Found in the Red River Gorge

By Johnny Molloy • Jul 8, 2018 at 4:30 AM

I have recently been working on a hiking guide to Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest, a 700,000-acre parcel of lands rife with geological features – overlooks, natural arches, caves, clifflines and waterfalls.

The Red River Gorge is a special place within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Located east of Lexington and within easy driving range of Cincinnati, Ohio, the Red River Gorge is home to more than 80 natural arches, far more than any other place east of the Mississippi.

Within Red River Gorge are Chimney Top Rock and Princess Arch, two Daniel Boone National Forest hiking destinations that most anyone can reach. And since the two destinations begin at the same trailhead, it is just as easy to see both as it is one. The panorama from Chimney Top Rock affords a spectacular view of the Red River, Half Moon Rock and other standout outcrops amid the thick forests draping the gorge.

Ironically, both these seemingly easy and simple destinations have been the scene of numerous deaths. In fact, a memorial stands at the beginning of the trail to Princess Arch. Red River Gorge visitors die yearly from falls off the seemingly innumerable cliffs within the forest, many at Chimney Top Rock, despite warning signs along the way.

The view at Chimney Top Rock is bordered by a wooden fence but visitors simply go around the fence for a better view or picture. Or they show off. Or they walk around at night. They follow user-created trails, not knowing exactly where they lead.

Yet other deaths involve experienced and competent hikers and climbers raising their challenge to the next level -- only to find that next level is actually down. But most of the accidents involve drinking and/or drug use. And this seemingly innocuous overlook becomes a place of death.

A recent death here includes one man rock hopping on the edge of Chimney Top Rock, trying to span a chasm between two stone spires. Another man died after drinking then stepping out beyond the bounds of the fenced view. Over 20 people have died here at Chimney Rock since 1960.

In other parts of the Red River Gorge visitors camp on the edge of an overlook and the next morning they are gone. Recently a group of four hikers walking at night fell off a cliff one after another like lemmings. They all survived but much worse for wear, terrible broken bones all around.

These accidents can be avoided with common sense and restraint, both over which the personnel of the Daniel Boone National Forest have no control. Is it really better to plaster the wilderness with an excess of warning signs or to close off destinations such as Chimney Top Rock altogether? As the saying goes, “You can’t legislate out stupidity.”

Therefore, exercise caution while on these two nature walks and you can safely enjoy their offerings. The inspiring view from Chimney Top Rock makes the numerous deaths here seem unimaginable. It is my favorite overlook in all the Red River Gorge.

It is but a short distance to Princess Arch. The slender span stretches 32 feet wide and 8 feet high. The far side of the arch overlooks a drop off. It, too, offers beauty that contrasts with lives ended at this very spot.

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