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Natural Bridge State Park, KY

The namesake Natural Bridge from Lookout Point.

Call it Arches National Park of the East. On second thought, just call it Natural Bridge State Resort Park, the epicenter of hundreds of natural bridges, 20 miles of trails just within the park boundaries and a deep forest its Western counterpart can’t touch.

“You really need to experience Natural Bridge,” says park naturalist Tyler Morgan, who declines to search for the right adjective to describe the place. “No matter what I say, you’re not gonna know what Natural Bridge is about until you see it.”

For starters, there’s the namesake Natural Bridge, a 78-foot long sandstone span that’s within 10 miles of some 200 natural arches (many of these arches are in the nearby Red River Gorge or on private property.)

The hike to Natural Bridge is requisite; from Hemlock Lodge, take the ¾-mile Original Trail – a route people have hiked to the bridge since the 1890s. Take the trail through Fatman’s Squeeze to the top of the bridge where you can take in expansive views of the landscape. Continue on to Lookout Point where you can view Natural Bridge from the rock outcropping and then head on to Lover’s Leap for another overlook. Return to the bridge and back to the lodge via the Rock Garden trail to take in the dense forest, filled with a dizzying variety of trees, flowers, mushrooms and birds. Regular naturalist programs give you a jump start on getting in touch with your inner geologist and your inner botanist. Caves are gated but tours are available six days a week.

Don’t make the mistake of overlooking Whittleton Arch, bigger than Natural Bridge but barely visited in comparison, two miles up the (270-mile) Sheltowee Trace Trail from Whittleton Campground. Also accessible from the campground is Henson’s Arch, a limestone sinkhole with an arch spanning the top.

Know there’s still some sanity in this world – most natural features aren’t cordoned off with fences, ropes or Do Not Enter signs (bring your own good judgment to keep it this way). There’s actually a ladder to climb down into the Henson’s Arch sinkhole where you can cool off on a hot summer day and look for salamanders.

“You could spend days here,” Tyler says, “It’s not just Natural Bridge, you can go to the (Red River) Gorge … you won’t be bored.”

Where it’s at: About two hours from Cincinnati or Louisville; from I-64 in Lexington, KY, travel east about 15 miles to the Mountain Parkway east (exit 98) and drive 33 miles to KY-11 (exit 33) and turn south; go about 2.5 miles to Natural Bridge State Park.

Contact: parks.ky.gov or (606) 663-2214

Digs: Camp at the Whittleton Campground ($14 and up, 888-459-7275) or rent a room in the lodge or a park cottage ($59.95-$129.95, 800-325-1710)

Grub: The park’s lodge has the Sandstone Arches restaurant or try Miguel’s Pizza, a stone’s throw up the road on KY-11, (606) 663-1975

Gear and Outfitting: Miguel’s (606) 663-1975 sells a few items, mostly for rock climbing; True North Outfitters provides gear, guide services and even has a hostel ($14 a night), www.truenorthoutfitters.com or (606) 668-3745

Brew: Powell is a dry county, friends. Console yourself with an Ale81 (ale8one.com), a soft drink only available regionally.