While this is not a motorcycle adventure, considering the time I’ve spend there, I can’t help but feel compelled to share the awesome natural beauty of eastern Kentucky. Over the Christmas-New Year holiday, I caught a brief respite of remotely warm weather, so I snuck in my 10 mile ride around the neighborhood at dawn and then booked it down to the gorge in the Jeep. I had this hike planned as a motorcycle adventure way back in the fall, but when my Shepherd fell ill, I had no choice but to delay. With morning temperatures starting in the upper teens, it was forecast to reach the freezing point in the gorge, while never reaching the mid-twenties in Dayton. Photos of Auxier ridge have so often caught my attention on Instagram, I had to see it for myself.
Parking the Jeep at the end of Tunnel Ridge road, I pulled on another sweatshirt, a neck gaiter, and grabbed my backpack for a 4 mile, round-trip hike out to Courthouse Rock and back. Stepping out onto the trail, the fire damage from recent years was ever so present. From photos I’ve taken from down on KY-77, I was aware that fire had recently taken down large sections of the forest around Nada tunnel, but until writing this, I had no idea it had destroyed nearly 3,000 acres. While unquestionably unfortunate for the local ecosystem, the 2010 fire cleared large sections of foliage that has in turn revealed majestic vistas of the surrounding cliffs, rock shelters, and sandstone monoliths.
When I set out on my hike, my goal was to see Haystack Rock, and the Wizard’s Backbone. From satellite photos, the prominence of Auxier Ridge is unmistakable, but the ground level photos are extraordinary. Finally reaching the inner depths of the trail, I was inexplicably drawn to a singular peak off in the distance to the east. Taking a side path off the main trail, I realized I was looking at the backside of Raven Rock. I’ve often been caught by surprise by a brief glimpse of the sheer face of Raven Rock peeking out between the trees along KY-77, seeing it at elevation is equally impressive. Having seen it from that distance, I’m now laying plans for a more intimate view on a future visit.
Breaking through the trees on the west side the ridge, Double Arch slowly began to reveal itself as I approached an opening around Haystack Rock. The unobstructed 180 degree view near Haystack rock is one of the best I’ve seen in the gorge. While I absolutely love the vista from atop Half Moon Rock, Double Arch in the distance, dotted with splashes of evergreen, pushing up from the gray, leafless, tree canopy, makes Auxier Ridge a solid competitor.
Having scrambled around the cliffs at my Grandmother’s house, hiking and climbing around the gorge has always been somewhat of a test of wits against the fear of heights. While I don’t normally feel the perilous “falling” sensation in the pit of my stomach at elevation, I admit peering over the edge at Haystack Rock was a stark reminder of mortality. Conversely, shuffling along the rolling edge of Wizards Backbone, it was a much different experience; it felt more like an amphitheater hidden of the gorge, than a menacing fall hazard. While I had different lunch plans, some cold cut sandwiches and a six-pack of Ale-8 would make for a fantastic summer picnic on the western slopes of the Wizards Backbone.
Looking back east across the ridgeline, I noticed the gravel roadway in the distance. Turning from gravel to asphalt just before a sharp bend in the road, I recognized it as KY-613 from my first off-road adventure in the gorge. I never noticed how prominent the Tarr Ridge cliff lines were from the ground; again, a testament to Auxier Ridge trail, but more so visiting the gorge during the winter months.
Finding my way back into the trees, I stumbled upon a series of staircases lagged into the sandstone rocks. In the distance Courthouse rock stood alone, surrounded by boulders, rock shelters, and tenacious pine trees. Treading down something like four flights of stairs, I made my way to the base of Courthouse Rock, in search of the climbing route along the east side of the cliff. As I suspected, there was no way I was going to scale the “gully” along the side of the cliff solo. While I suspect it is highly doable, the thought of re-enacting “127 hours” wasn’t leaving my imagination. At that point, it seemed like a good time to head back up the stairs and enjoy my gas station lunch, and then finally backtracking to the trailhead.
Once back to the Jeep in the parking lot, I had about an hour to kill before I needed to head home to beat the impending snow. Considering my locale, I figured it was worth a try to attempt to steal an aerial photo of Nada Tunnel. Tracing along the end of Tunnel Ridge Road, I glanced at the GPS on my phone, to see if I was near the ridge that runs along the north face of KY-77, I looked over to find a sparsely traveled trail. Pushing through some pervasive rose bushes and fallen trees from the 2010 fire, I finally made my way out onto the point to snag a photo of 77 bending along the cliff faces. Unable to make out the mouth of the tunnel through the trees, I waited for a moment to hear a car pass by, that way I could follow the car to the tunnel. Despite the cold weather, the wait wasn’t long before a van came along. I snapped photo of what little I could make out of the tunnel, just as I noticed a hand emerge from the driver’s side window as the van pilot took the obligatory photo of the icicles lining the opening of the tunnel; only to find themselves momentarily stuck on the ice. In a really bizarre coincidence, it turns out I actually knew the driver of the before mentioned van; in this case, the roadside photo proved to be much better than the aerial view. Its days like this one, I wish I had a drone; maybe next time.
With the alarm going off on my phone, I trekked my way back through the brush to the Jeep and headed home. Auxier Ridge was everything I hoped it would be; majestic views, winter wildlife, and a quiet walk in the woods. A six hour drive for five hours of hiking in solitude, time well spent. Photos simply don’t do the gorge justice; I hope that yet another preview persuades more folks to visit this part of the Bluegrass State.