Overview. This is a nice way to enjoy a half day at Natural Bridge State Park, home to Kentucky’s largest natural arch. Rather than taking the Original Trail with its steep ascent to the top, this hike spread out the elevation gain while including a nice walk in the woods along Hood’s Branch.
Route Type | Point to Point (can be looped)
Total Distance | 4.5 miles
Overall Difficulty | Moderate with Strenuous Sections
Natural Bridge State Park Map from KY State Parks
Trailhead. There is ample parking at the trailhead along with a picnic shelter, snack bar, restrooms, and boarding for the Sky Lift - the easiest way to the top. [map]
Trail navigation. From the trailhead, follow Hood’s Branch Trail to mile 1.6 where you have the option of adding Upper Hood’s Branch to your hike. We opted out and continued on the trail toward Natural Bridge where you’ll be under the arch at approximately mile 3.2. From there, you’ll squeeze through a pair of rocks to finally reach the top of Natural Bridge. Continue on Laurel Ridge Trail past Lover’s Leap (great view of the arch),Sky Lift, and Devil’s Gulch before descending Needle’s Eye. The descent on Needle’s Eye is very steep, so be sure to keep young children in check through this section. Once the steep descent is complete, move east (left) on Battleship Rock Trail, turn right on Rock Garden Trail (see ‘Make it a loop’ below), and finally a left onto the Original Trail to Hemlock Lodge.
Make it a loop. To make this a loop, turn left onto Rock Garden Trail and then right onto Low Gap Trail to return to the trailhead.
Counterclockwise. I like to hike this loop counterclockwise for two reasons. First, it puts the highlight moments toward the end of the hike which is always a good rule of thumb. Second, it’s easier to do a steep descent late in the hike rather than a steep ascent early in the hike.
Hemlock Lodge. This is a classic state park lodge that has a restaurant, gift shop, and hotel rooms for rent. If you’re hungry, you can enjoy the lodge (buffet available) or head across the street (make a left out of the park exit) to Miguel’s Pizza.
WARNING - No dogs allowed. Kentucky State Parks prohibits dogs at park facilities. If you’ve brought a dog or three with you, head across the street outside of park boundaries to enjoy the many trails of Daniel Boone National Forest where dogs are welcome.
CAUTION - Cliffs. Be careful to avoid getting too close the edge of cliffs, as this is the leading cause of serious injury and death when hiking in Red River Gorge.
CAUTION - Poisonous snakes. While the gorge is within the range of timber rattlesnakes, copperheads are the most common poisonous snake encountered. Stay alert on the trail, as snakes are commonly found taking in the warmth of the trail. Give them a wide berth or wait for them to move off the trail.