Above It All on the Natural Bridge in Eastern Kentucky
By Carly Becker
Pulling down the visor on my motorcycle helmet, I surveyed what was ahead of me. I had been riding my sport bike all day on wonderful twisty backroads, and I had finally arrived at the Whittleton Campground, in the Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade, Kentucky – my destination.
A Few Ruts
Campsite A40 turns out to be one of the most secluded in the whole campground, and required me to ride my Ninja 400 offroad briefly, across treacherous ruts and slippery rotting leaves.
No one else was around, and while the prospect of dropping my motorcycle or getting hurt was on my mind, I’d already come this far.
Taking a deep breath, I rode down the gravel driveway caked with leaves and came to a careful stop with my rear brake at the end. I made it. This was the kind of adventure for which I was there. I just must be willing to try.
I was starting my journey in Northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio, where I start all of my journeys. I loaded up my 2021 Ninja 400 sport bike with Kriega luggage and took off down Route 177 to Butler, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Millstone
When I pulled up to my first stop, a café in Butler called The Kentucky Millstone, a kitchen worker poked her head out and asked me if I were lost; a local told me to order the biscuits and gravy as I was walking in the door; and the owner immediately asked my name – it was clear this was a small town and I was an outsider. I decided to listen to the local and ordered the biscuits and gravy and a delightful little homemade Twinkie. Due to the excellent service, the comforting tea and the delicious food, I would return anytime.
Willow Farm Center
The Willow Farm Center farm store is a regular stop on Route 10 for motorcyclists to rest before tackling the curves of Route 22 or visiting Big Bone, Kentucky. The shop never seems to be open, but they do stock the outhouse in the back with toilet paper regularly.
After cruising down Route 165, I made it to Biancke’s Restaurant in Cynthiana. As soon as I walked in, I knew it was an old restaurant for an older crowd, and the clientele and menu backed up that notion.
They were known for their cream pies, and I was not disappointed with my choice of butterscotch. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Hot Honey Ham Sandwich (the “hot” in this context referred to the temperature, and not the spiciness as I was expecting) but the service to correct the issue was excellent.
The Remainder of the Ride
A variety of “Kentucky Two-Lane” roads – a playful jab at the unmarked narrow roads that are only a bit wider than one lane – led me to my destination.
Mt Sterling is a great place to stop for gas in between Cynthiana and the Natural Bridge, although I didn’t get to enjoy any of the restaurants or shops in that small town.
The Natural Bridge State Resort Park offers two campgrounds – Whittleton and Middle Fork – and I chose to camp at Whittleton because it had a trailhead within the campsite for the Whittleton Branch Trail and Whittleton Arch.
Although, I ended up running out of time and didn’t hike these trails after all.
Really Alone This Time
After successfully making it to my campground, I excitedly pulled out my cell phone to text my husband that I made it, only to have my heart sink when I realized I had no cell service.
I’ve been on trips before where I didn’t have the ability to communicate while riding, but this was the first time I had ever been on a trip where my home base didn’t have Wi-Fi, such as my trips to the mountains in Tennessee.
I had always been able to come back at the end of the day to debrief with my friends and family and send pictures and videos that I had taken. This bothered me more than I thought it would.
I knew I needed to at least tell my husband I made it so he wouldn’t worry, so I asked the local man in flannel who ran the campground.
He suggested I could get access to Wi-Fi at the Hemlock Lodge, about a half mile down the road, so I decided to put all my gear back on and traverse the rutted gravel again to go there.
Hemlock Lodge and Sandstone Arches Restaurant
While I didn’t stay in one of the 35 rooms available at the Hemlock Lodge, I did utilize its lobby (for the Wi-Fi), gift shop and restaurant several times. Balconies allow views of the lake, pool and breathtaking mountain scenery.
The Gift Shop contains standard souvenir-style gifts, as well as snacks and common over-the-counter medicines. I purchased a coffee/tea travel cup and a variety of stickers.
Sandstone Arches Restaurant
Upon entering, the Sandstone Arches restaurant doesn’t look particularly appetizing with its bland decor, but everything I ordered there was excellent.
I didn’t expect that this would be my favorite restaurant over the trendier – and frankly, cooler – places on this trip, but it was. Note that the restaurant closes a few times a day for an hour, so double check the time before you arrive.
Searching for Cell Signal
It became a theme of the trip – deciding where I spent my time. I wanted to be at my campsite, where I could lay in my hammock, poke at a fire, and otherwise relax in the outdoors with the sound of gently flowing water – but I was unable to communicate with anyone there.
I could go through the inconvenient ritual of putting on and then taking off all my motorcycle gear to sit inside somewhere, just to be able to send a few text messages. To say nothing of the fact that I had to ride over the dreaded off-road path every time I came or went.
Hiking On a Motorcycle
The reason I came here was to test out what it was like to camp and hike off the motorcycle. I had picked the campsite because it looked like it was within walking distance of the trailhead, but it turns out their warning that the map was not to scale was unfortunately accurate. I refuse to ride my motorcycle without gear, so I had to carry my hiking gear on the bike and swap them out at the trailhead.
Kentucky’s Natural Bridge
The Original trail (which dates back to the late 1800s) led me to the bottom of the Natural Bridge, a 65-foot-tall arch that formed from the erosion of sandstone over time.
Looking Up in Awe
Once at the bottom of the Natural Bridge, you can look above at the massive sandstone arch. You can then climb a claustrophobically-narrow staircase and pathway known as the Fat Man’s Squeeze to reach the top.
At the top, I found myself staring for miles into the distance, 65-feet in the air with no handrails. While on this narrow sandstone path spanning a 75-foot-wide gap, I was struck with an eerie but peaceful feeling of vulnerability. It always intrigues me how, in a world obsessed with safety, control, regulation and distrust, natural areas like this are left wild, for people to experience as they are.
I followed the Rock Garden and Low Gap trails to the Sky Lift parking lot. In the gift shop, you can purchase a ticket to the Sky Lift, a variety of souvenirs and a selection of homemade fudge. The Sky Lift itself – similar to a ski lift – swoops from the bottom of the State Park over a mile span up to the top of the Natural Bridge, with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and rock features.
Riding – Red River Gorge Scenic Byway
After eating at the Sandstone Arches Restaurant again (a feast of fried fish and side dishes this time), I set off on a scenic motorcycle ride along the renowned Red River Gorge Scenic Byway.
The Sky Bridge is another rock formation (although not as large as the Natural Bridge), accessible by the Sky Bridge Trail #214, a loop trail that is partially paved and travels both underneath and on top of the sandstone bridge.
Devil’s Canyon Overlook
The Devil’s Canyon Overlook is located on the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway. It overlooks mountainous landscape and rock formations in the distance.
The historic Nada tunnel along Route 77 is over 900 feet long and was created by blasting sandstone with dynamite. It is only wide enough for one vehicle and was completely devoid of light inside. Riding through it on a motorcycle was a rather frightening experience that I won’t forget.
Daniel Boone Coffee Shop
I was famished after my ride and saw the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop as I was returning to my campsite. I’m glad I stopped in, because everything I ordered – from the Earl Grey tea to the soft pretzel and beer cheese to the muffin – was delicious.
The biscuits and gravy I had when I returned the next morning were even better than The Kentucky Millstone’s (don’t tell them I said that).
Daniel Boone Coffee Shop also has a gift shop with an outdoorsy feel. Natural products, camping equipment, and hiking and rock-climbing stickers line the shelves.
Folk music played on their speakers, lending a tranquil, subtle atmosphere throughout.
I braved the off-road section of my campsite yet again later that evening to go to the famous Miguel’s Pizza, which is highly regarded and often listed as the best pizza in the country.
I was pleased to find it to be just about as good as everyone makes it out to be.
You can choose whether you’re hungry enough for a full pizza or just a couple of slices. They are also known for breakfast, although I didn’t try it.
The atmosphere is dominated by talk of rock climbing, as many rock climbers stay the night – or more permanently – behind the restaurant.
Nearing the end of this experience, it was apparent to me that communicating with my loved ones was more important to me than I had realized.
While I didn’t miss social media, the news, online shopping or streaming video, I did miss that simple form of communication to text or talked to the people I care about most and let them in on the amazing things I was doing solo.
While I prefer to travel solo, I guess I don’t like to be truly alone. That scary off-road section became an accomplishment and a depiction of how important meaningful connection truly is to me.
Carly Becker is a professional writer by trade, she designs and develops online courses for a Children’s Hospital. She writes for her motorcycle travel blog, 2 Wheels 1 Girl and for motorcycle travel magazines. One of my articles is being published in Woman Rider shortly, and I have accepted a position as a contributing writer for Girl Moto Media. Read Girl Moto’s Spotlight article about her.