Friday- 19.9 miles
Saturday- 15.4 miles
Sunday- 12.9 miles
Overall, this trip was the most physically demanding thing I've done. It was a lot of mileage over 3 days. The rain on Friday morning and Sunday morning was really discouraging. It takes a lot of mental patience to hike big mileage with wet shoes and socks. It gets a little easier every time, but this trip was not without tears and frustration.
I had been looking forward to this trip all week! 3 days backpacking in the Gorge! I prepared for this trip well and was ready to tackle this long distance endeavor with much confidence. I was also excited to try out my new tent- a NEMO Dagger2. I bolted out of work Thursday afternoon and made it down to a new campground called Lago Linda. I think most everyone else there were rock climbers. They had a huge field for cheap tent camping and also wooded sites with hookups. Best of all, they had a shower house. Early Friday morning, I walked back from a nice, clean shower and got to breaking down my new, spacious tent just in time for the rain. I drove only 20 minutes to Heidelberg park where I met my shuttle driver, Donna. It was raining steadily by the time we got to the trailhead. It was supposed to stop raining completely around 2pm, so that gave me hope. I thanked Donna and off I went down the familiar single-track trail that was once a logging road. The sounds were lovely. The raindrops fell softly and the pine trees glistened in the overcast light. The birds were abundant in this area and I enjoyed their songs and the splash of my feet hitting the mud puddles. The forest was green again- spring was here! Red bud and dogwood trees were dispersed throughout the budding forest. I made it down to Gladie Creek and got my feet wet at the crossings. I had given up on keeping my feet dry at that point. I was happy to be home in the Clifty Wilderness- well-kept trails with scenic views of the cliffs in the distance. About 4 miles in, I scrambled down to find a giant rock shelter with a deep-looking cave. This was the cave and rock shelter my dad told me about. He and my mom had camped under it over 30 years ago. While I do not condone camping in such an illegal place, I thought it was really cool to follow in their footsteps and find the timeless hidden treasures of the Gorge that they had worked so hard to find before. I took the Trace over to the Indian Staircase valley and climbed up up up to Indian Arch- a beautiful icon of the Gorge with an expansive overlook of Indian Staircase and the Gladie Creek valley. I decided to push the mileage today and take the 1-mile side-trip to Adena Arch, which also had a killer vista. I cruised through the next 5 miles on the Cloud Splitter roller coaster. This time of year was great because I could actually see the tops of the cliffs through the bare trees. I could see the towering Cloud Splitter Arch and bare sandstone face hundreds of feet above the trail. Glad I wasn't planning on climbing up there today. I finally saw 2 other people once I crossed the suspension bridge over the Red River. The trail followed the Red for a few muddy, flooded miles. It met up with Chimney Top Creek and I had to go through a creek crossing. Since my feet had dried out this morning, I was planning on crossing barefoot with dry-ish shoes and socks in my hands. Well I failed. I dropped one of the shoes in the water. So I just put it on and crossed with one shoe on and one held in my hand. I knew there were 4 more crossings within the next half mile, so I just kept walking on the flooded trail with one shoe on, and one barefoot. I kept going and got to the bottom of the last big climb. Up to the Pinch-em-Tight ridge. I had to put my waterlogged shoe back on at this point. I saw a lot of other backpackers once I reached the ridge-top. I cruised down the sandy trails and finally reached Tunnel Ridge Road. I was only 2 miles away from the campground. I trudged down the trail next to a trickling Whittleton Branch. I passed a few evening hikers and one of them had caught up to have a conversation with me. He was a climber from California who was interested in the Sheltowee Trace Trail. I finally got to the campground and said hi to Billy & Angie who had just gotten there with their camper, kayaks, and 5 dogs. You know they're going to have a great week! I finally reached site A-7 and was glad to see a familiar face. Frank had thrown down for the site too. We talked and set up our tents and tried to make a fire, but the wood was wet. Frank went to bed early and I walked over to sit at the roaring fire that Billy and Angie had. I also got some wonderful trail magic! I had been thinking about dinner the whole day (like I always do when backpacking) and had been wondering if Billy would have some hot dogs on the grill. Hot dogs just sounded so good after hiking 20 miles. Sure enough, Billy and Angie were making hot dogs for dinner when I walked over and they offered some to me! Thank you so much guys! Gotta love the tramily (Trail-family)! I went to sleep exhausted, listening to whippoorwills.
Saturday morning, I slept in and took a shower. I knew I didn't have to be on the trail early. The rest of the Hiker Challenge group would be dropped off at the Red River suspension bridge around 8am. Donna dropped off 6 hard boiled eggs to me for breakfast. More trail magic! I packed my pack, ate some eggs, and across the road I went into Natural Bridge State Park. This was probably my least favorite part of the trail. So many man-made stairs! (A fellow hiker actually counted the number of man-made stairs in the Natural Bridge State Park- 600-something!) I'd rather have 3 miles of switchbacks than to gain 600 feet of elevation in 1 mile. The view from the top is great, but certainly not worth the climb on an overcast day. I cruised through the Sand Gap trail and made it to the turn off for Twilight Arch and overlook. I felt good and like I had enough energy to bushwhack down the quarter-mile trail and take a few pictures. I hopped back on the Trace but only to take another side trail in a few minutes. I climbed down under the Trace to see White's Branch Arch. Its a very peaceful place and today it looked just the same. I hiked on to the Sandlot- where the Trace meets Big Bend Road. I sat down and leaned against a tree to have lunch. I had a tuna sandwich with hard boiled eggs. It was quite a filling combination. Two day-hikers parked and made friendly conversation with me. After hearing of my previous day's mileage, they offered me water bottles. Which was much appreciated because I was drinking water faster than I thought I would. Crazy amount of trail magic on this trip. Thank you gray Toyota Tacoma day hikers! I hiked down Big Bend Road and my feet were starting to hurt from the pounding of the pavement. One Challenge hiker eventually did catch up to me- Brad. He said he was going fast so he could train for the Rugged Red- a noble aspiration. The other 2 hikers who caught up to me were Nora and James- right from my neighborhood in Cincinnati. They passed me eventually and I was left by myself to walk past the dogs. I just walked by and didn't pay any attention to them. They barked loudly and came close to me, but no bites. I walked up to the field in White Hollow and felt relieved. Camp for the night. It was a really serene setting- woods, creek, lush fields, and twittering birds. I set up camp and then explored around. When the sky turned dark, the half moon cast a beautiful light on the dozens of headlamp-illuminated tents. We could see the stars for a little while, but as I walked back to my tent from the campfire, the wind picked up. A few hours later, the sky was dancing with lightning and thunder was shaking the ground.
I slept pretty heavily through all of this and woke up around 7:30am, rested. It was raining pretty steadily and I was so not ready to get out of bed. The wet tent was super discouraging. I packed it up and it weighed 10 times more than a dry tent. Thank goodness I could leave it for Steve to drive to the ending point. My pack for the last day probably weighed under 12 pounds. I'm not sure my body could have physically withstood another day with a 25 pound pack. I started up the trail with tears in my eyes. I think I was just emotional about having to cross more creeks and walk on more pavement with inevitably wet feet. Hours and hours and miles and miles before I'd be done. The Challenge was a challenge for sure. I knew I could do it, I just felt emotionally overwhelmed with having to withstand the strenuous hiking and sore muscles. I caught up with a few fellow Challenge hikers at the big creek crossing. We all looked at it drudgingly as the rain poured into the creek and on our heads. The first of us to cross was a guy who took off his shoes. It was up to his knees, but he did a pretty good job at not falling. I was super appreciative of Misty for letting me borrow her trekking pole. I feel like I would have been toast without it. The rest of us left our shoes on and just hoped they would semi-dry-out on the road walking later. Misty and I made conversation as we hiked up the super steep New Virginia Road. I struggled on this hill. I just didn't have the strength to power up this thing without stopping. Turning around, looking at my surroundings, I saw a green, wet forest. I could see the next ridges over and the fog in the valley between them. It was peaceful, but didn't really give me hope that I was going to start enjoying myself. At the top of the hill, the paved road went by an open-faced barn. It would have been a fantastic place to take shelter and to rest for a minute. I just didn't think it was worth trespassing for. On and on down the paved road I walked and walked. Finally the sun came out. I took off the rain poncho and the breeze felt pretty good. I put on my hat and welcomed the sun. I stopped at the Country Convenience Store and chatted with Steve while Rhonda made me a bologna sandwich. I tried to dry my shoes and socks in the sun while eating at the picnic table with other hikers. 5 more miles to go. It was fun seeing the other Challenge hikers drive past in their cars. They were done! I was almost last, I think there were 3 behind me. For some reason, the road miles kept getting easier and easier as the day went on. Finally, I saw that blue Heidelberg bridge over the Kentucky river as I rounded a corner. The last house I passed had a sleeping dog in the yard. To my surprise, I was able to keep quiet enough to not wake it up. I remember when that dog had barked at me last year. I walked through the Heidelberg Park parking lot and high-fived Misty and Brad. We made it! I picked up my 10-lb tent and my 5-lb drop, said farewell to Steve, and hopped in my car. My after-hike meal this time was at the awesome Rock House Cafe. I had a perfect hamburger and french fries. Alas, no alcohol sales on Sundays. Until next month...
Saturday- 17.0 miles
Mason has joined me for this one. My pack weighed almost nothing thanks to that weight distribution! (by almost nothing, I mean about 16 pounds.) We got down to Black Bear Lodge in RRG at 1 am because I forgot to put the 5lb drop bag in the car. I realized this after driving for 45 minutes. We couldn't go without sleeping bags, so we had to turn around and add 1.5 hours to our drive. So frustrating. Off to a rocky start. We got a few hours of sleep and rushed over to the Park n Ride to catch the shuttle. The shuttle ride was beautiful. It was going to be a cool, sunny day- perfect hiking weather. We started off hiking on old forest roads until we met back up with the official trail on top of a ridge. This part of the Trace was becoming more and more Gorge-like: rhodo, mountain laurel, rock formations, and higher and barer ridge-tops. Mason seemed to be enjoying himself- hiking as fast as he can in front of me, of course. It was really an enjoyable part of the trail. We endured a short 2 miles of road walking, and then back into the forest and into Clifton Creek. The trail was actually in the creek. I avoided getting my feet wet, though. We found a nice spot to stop for lunch and listen to the babbling brook. The creek bed is a sea-green blue-ish shale that makes the water look blue. The water itself is really quite clear. We passed another sign that we were nearing the Gorge- a rock shelter. This one had graffiti in it and a stream of water going over the top. Mason itched to move on, but I stayed for a minute and took pictures. We had a few more miles of road walking until we reached Corner Ridge. We were on pretty exposed land here. It was super windy. At least it was sunny, that's all I can say. We passed some farms and houses and walked through a major intersection. Back to country roads again and to the Corner Ridge Trailhead. I was so exhausted, I decided to look for a campsite to pitch the tent and come back for the 5lb drop later. I wasn't sure where the fire would be as I missed the campsite we were supposed to take. We ended up walking about a quarter mile down the trail- I didn't realize thats how far it was from where we were supposed to set up. We passed out for a few hours and woke up stiff and sore. My foot had a twinge in it- that did not feel good. I started to walk back towards camp and felt my foot giving me some real pain. I thought it would be better eventually that evening. We sat around the fire for a few minutes and got water before hobbling back to the tent. It was kind of a restless night because the moon was so bright and there were some really loud, creaky trees nearby. But, I heard the whippoorwills! The sign of spring in the Gorge!
After hearing a few other people go by, we woke up and packed our packs and headed down the trail still in a haze. The pain in my foot was awful! I just couldn't imagine hiking 10 miles on it. I was seriously struggling! There were some other "pros" to bailing on the second day, so we went back to the trailhead to wait for Steve to come get us and bring us back to our car. The sunrise was beautiful over the Hess' Hickory Farm. I got out my camera and tried to capture the dew shining on the bright green grass. I don't feel defeated easily. I know I will have a great time making up this section when my foot heals. Hopefully its nothing too serious.
Miles 97-108. 12.5 recorded miles. The “Heidelberg Death March”.
The rushing creek was a soothing sound that lulled me to sleep. Somehow my aching feet and back were healed by the restful sleep I got. I started hiking at 10am and had to cross the creek with my shoes off to get back to the trail. I started walking on a dirt road only to come to another creek crossing 30 minutes later. This beautiful part of the creek was lined with an overhanging rock shelter and some ruins of a suspension bridge. The sun reflected off the water and made some cool dancing patterns on the sandstone walls. I dried my feet and put my shoes back on and continued hiking uphil. The dirt road turned to a gravel Jeep road. At a quite inconvenient part of the uphill hike, I encountered about 20 Jeep off-roaders making their way into the valley. I stoped and let them pass and waved at them all. It looked like SO much fun. I would love to go off-roading sometime! There are SO many trails around Kentucky because of all the logging and oil wells. I kept hiking and finally came to the top of the ridge where I knew I wanted to stop and have lunch. I also knew that somewhere at this point there was supposed to be an arch called “Sheltowee Arch” right off the road. I looked for any sign of a trail that would go down to the arch but it was way too steep. Finding this arch would require some bushwhacking and I didn’t have the time or energy to spare on this trip. After lunch, I kept hiking and came to beginning of the the paved part of the road. I waved at the horses as I walked past and looked on my GPS to see that I had 10 miles to go today. 10 miles on paved roads with minimal shade and no clouds in the sky in 90 degree heat. Yikes! I can’t believe I’m insane enough to do this! Somehow it was easy to just put one foot in front of the other and my sun hat and sun glasses really made a difference. I found myself taking lots of pictures. These people’s backyards were gorgeous!! Views of the bluegrass mountains in the distance. Rolling hills with wildflowers and singing birds. The decaying barns and trucks made for interesting centerpieces to my pictures. I watched my GPS for mile marker 100 so I could take a selfie. I passed a few other packs of dogs, thankfully without incident, and finally saw a roaming little cat. I’ve been seeing all these dogs but never any outdoor cats until now. (I’m an animal person, but cats especially.) I walked on the hot sunny road all day and was getting pretty thirsty. I rounded the corner and came upon Conveniently Country, a small grocery store run by a nice lady named Rhonda who wants to open a hostel on her land for the Trace hikers. I told her it was a good idea and that businesses catering to tourists around the Red River Gorge and this area are booming. I got a grape soda and a vitamin water and sat outside in the shade with her dog. He was a really nice, lazy dog. The next five miles blew by as I passed more countryside houses and bluegrass landscapes. I just kept one foot in front of the other and before you knew it, I saw the railroad tracks and the blue bridge of Heidelberg- signaling I was almost to the car. I got to my car and put on my sandals and went to take pictures of the bridge and the Kentucky River. My feet and legs are so sore. Definitely the worst I’ve ever felt from hiking. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a better shoe than mine for walking dozens of miles on paved roads. Hoka One One. They look rediculous (There were no color choices. So naturally, women’s One One’s are bright purple and pink.) but are so cushiony and shock absorbent! I only had one small blister on my pinky toe and I’m so happy it’s not worse. People who hike this section: choose your footwear wisely! Tennis shoes are better than hiking boots for these road walks. This section was challenging mentally and physically and I feel pretty bad ass for doing it alone. Honestly I would do it again if the weather was perfect. 💙
Miles 84-97. 13.7 recorded miles.
Another “wow” day on the Sheltowee. Every section of this trail gives me something that makes all the hardship worth it.
I drove down from Cincinnati at about 630am (gross) and met my shuttle driver, Donna Lucy, at the Heidelberg Park where I will end this section tomorrow. Donna is a true blessing from heaven. I like how her car says “trail nanny”, but “trail ANGEL” is a more accurate description of her. She was basically the nicest person I’ve ever met. We talked the whole 1 hour car ride to Natural Bridge State Park and probably could have talked the whole day. She dropped me off at Hemlock Lodge and off I went up a steep climb to Natural Bridge. I was out of breath a few times from the elevation gain. I made the side trail to go stand on top of Natural Bridge and get a vista of the Red River Gorge. I met a nice backpacker named Andy who said he was making up his August section of the hiker challenge and he was going to meet up with the challenge group tomorrow and do the next section. Off I went on my favorite trail section in Kentucky: the Narrows. I hiked through the almost spider web-less forest and out to the Twilight Arch vista. I’ve never encountered another soul at this spectacular vista. It is on my top 3 favorite vistas for sure. I ate lunch and began to dread the heat as the temperature rose. I hiked back out to the Sheltowee and skipped going under to see the massive White’s Branch Arch. I needed to save some time and energy- plus, I’ll be there next month with my family. So begins the hardships of today. Road walking. Only the truly insane backpackers thru hike this trail with all these road walks. My feet are killing! I hiked out of the state park and out of the forest trail and hiked on a gravel road for about 2.5 miles. Some shade, but still uncomfortably hot. Then I came to a paved road with lots of residences... and loose dogs. 😖 I already have a fear of biting dogs to begin with. A few weeks ago, a lady backpacker and her dog got bit when she was hiking on this road by the loose dogs. I’ve been really nervous about this day for fear of being bit. I walked for a good few hours, baking in the sun, and could not stop thinking about cold Gatorade or soda. Plenty of water weighing down my pack, though. Better drink that... Only a few cars passed. One guy on his motorcycle stopped and talked to me. It was Mr. Gross. Steve had told me about him so it’s funny I actually ran into him while hiking. He’s nice enough. He warned me about his pack of dogs guarding his house, RV, and 700 acres of land. He told me all their names but I only remembered Pepper’s. He said just talk to the dogs and don’t go towards his house and that the dogs won’t hurt me. Well this didn’t make me feel a whole lot better because I knew for a fact one of those dogs was the one that bit Angie. I pass 2 houses with dogs that came out and hollered at me. The first time I froze and stopped for a few minutes to see if they would go away. I was so scared I really teared up. I wanted to keep going but was nervous about them charging at me if I started to move again. I really had no choice. So I started talking to them and walked slowly. They got close, but no bites. The second house, I thought I could be sneaky and walk quietly, but a tiny beagle saw me and the other dogs were alerted. These dogs were thankfully called back by the owner. I kept going, mace in hand, in the open position. I saw Mr. Gross’s RV and my stomach got butterflies. Like I expected, all 6 dogs came into the road barking up a storm. I just looked straight ahead, didn’t make eye contact, and walked slowly on. I think I saw them try to jump up to me so I tucked my arms up so they couldn’t bite my hand. I felt a cold, wet nose on the back of my leg... but that was it. Once I had walked about 50 yards away from his driveway, the dogs turned around. Wow. I was so relieved. I actually had a flood of emotions and starting crying and my breathing sped up. I couldn’t believe I made it through. I looked at my GPS and was even more relieved to see that I had 1 mile to camp. I had walked 8.75 miles on paved or gravel road and when I saw the Little Sinking Creek, I wanted to stick my feet in so badly. I followed the Trace back into the forest and came upon Little Sinking Cave. It was awesome. There’s a little natural bridge that goes over some water in the cave. That was a treat since now I can check it off my arches list. Next to it were 2 more cave rooms. One was dry and I went back a little bit with my headlamp. There were some cool stalagmites/tites (hanging from the ceiling) and a sinking hole that lead to the other cave room. There were also bats... as soon as I saw them I left. I felt bad I had disturbed them. The other cave room you had to crawl down into. I didn’t go down, but I could see and hear rushing water down there. It was a very cool place. After exploring, I kept hiking about 100 yards on trail and then saw a flat spot that I could set up my tent. I took it. It was a short distance to the creek so I was very excited to go for a cold swim. Rushing cold cave water was definitely a reward for all that hot road walking. I’m aching all over but I hope I can drink my water and make my pack lighter for more road walking. Hoping for cooler weather for the 10 miles tomorrow. Kentucky is a beautiful place and I wouldn’t want to road walk in any other state. 💙 Now time for Pad Thai...
Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail
This trail is 333 miles long running from Morehead, KY to Oneida, TN. These blogs are about my experiences backpacking this trail. I've hiked every section at least once and was a class of 2019 Hiker Challenge participant.