I Spent the Summer on Lake Superior and All I Got Was This Stupid Sunburn

The first thing I want to tell you about Lake Superior is that she is not a lake; Superior is a sea. She creates her own weather patterns and kicks up squalls out of nowhere. On the Bayfield Peninsula, surrounded by her on three sides, it feels a little like she completely engulfs us.

My first glimpse of her was near Whitefish Point in Michigan in the Winter. The bay was completely frozen. The first time I swam in Superior was in August, a year or two ago, in the coves of the Pictured Rocks. The water was cold and ridiculously clear. I had hiked out with my brother. We had a strange, beautiful beach completely to ourselves. That’s one way Superior is apart from other lakes and rivers—she is big enough, and cold enough, and far enough north that she can make you feel like you’re the only person left in the whole of the world.

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Lake Superior from Oak Island

I’ve spent three and a half months this year up on her South Shore and I will be very sorry to leave. I believe we can learn a lot from nature. I believe that the experiences we have are more important than the things we memorize in a classroom.

I also believe I am incredibly lucky to have lived in a world where I can see six bald eagles in any one day, where the cliffs are red and the water is green and stories of the First Peoples not only survive but are told and woven into the culture of the area.

One of my first weeks here I laid back on the dock of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and let splinters of wood poke into my back, let my hair hang off the dock and reach toward the water. The dock was the only real refuge from the mosquitos, so about a dozen coworkers-turning-friends and myself gathered on it. The sun sank lower in the horizon and warmed the skin on my face with that distinct sweet orange glow. A breeze tugged lightly on the sun-bleached ends of my hair. I thought about life, and my time in college, and all of the good things that had happened and all of the bad, and how I wouldn’t erase any of it and risk this moment.

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Some losers I don’t know on the Oak Island dock

Someone asked me how I could stand to be so far North, so far away from the city, any city. Am I not bored?

On a calm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget that Superior is dangerous. Spend enough time with her and you’ll get only just a concept of how changeable she is.

On June 30th, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled into work. I joked around with some coworkers in the boathouse, and then fitted the participants who would be joining on us on a lovely guided kayak tour with wetsuits.

The wind had already changed direction several times.

At Meyers Beach, the launch point for the mainland sea caves, you can sometimes see 30 miles across Superior to Minnesota’s North Shore. That day Minnesota was obscured completely by a dark cloud, contoured at the top and moving rapidly North.

The water was the stillest thing I had ever seen—gray and not even a ripple. A fog bank rolled towards us. Five miles offshore, the bank swallowed Eagle Island.

“We’re going to wait to launch,” the lead guide told me quietly. The fog bank continued to roll toward us, and now it looked like the darker storm cloud was headed toward us too.

A sheet of 25 knot wind hit us like a slap in the face. The whole lake shivered. We had to shout to be heard. In the time it took us to carry one boat up the 47 stairs at Meyers Beach, the Lake had picked up from glass to 2-4 foot waves. Just to reiterate here—the Lake in less than 10 minutes went from still to potentially dangerous.

Lake Superior is a siren; she lulls you in with her song of sea caves, crystal water and untouched cliff line, and then she reminds you who you are. You are a human, and you are infinitely small on a sea that you don’t understand and that is not yours.

So no, I wouldn’t say I am “bored”.

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Waves building as that storm blew in #thosewitecapsder’aye

It’s funny though, because I expected Lake Superior in all her storied fury to make me feel weak, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Insignificant, sure, but almost never did I feel weak.

Time on Lake Superior has made me feel strong and smart and more capable, not less. I respect the Lake and my size in comparison, but being on the Lake, feeling the waves and the water push, and pull, and stretch far below you, feeling my boat respond to the turn of my hips and covering distances by the power of my own body—that has made me feel very strong. We live in a world that judges us each by a different set of standards, where some people get head starts and have an easier time than others. That dissolves on the Lake. On the Lake the test is the same for each person, and you either sink or swim.

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Live footage of yours truly on an island that was totally named after me (sorry to everyone who is sick and tired of that joke)

In late July, voices buzzed around me, but I wasn’t really listening or trying to. I was watching the lighthouse on the southern tip of Madeline Island blink patient and steady against the dark. The water was warm for Superior. I dove in deep and the world went silent, the shouts and laughter of friends quieted by the Lake. The Milky Way reached across the sky. Night air ran down my back in a shiver. The people around me had been drinking, but I was intensely happy to be sober, because I felt everything so sharply and completely.

I am sure that no one has ever left Superior’s waters not feeling clean and whole.

The primary place we lead kayak tours is the Mainland Sea Caves. Sometimes it feels a little hollow—we take people to what was once Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) land so that they can take a selfie and check it off their bucket list. Other times it doesn’t feel so hollow. Other times it feels like you are facilitating a genuine connection to nature and respect for the Lake, as well as it’s people and stories.

The first cave is called “the crack”. I have heard that it is the remains of an ancient fault line. You can paddle on a thin vein of Superior deep into the Earth, where turquoise water meets layered red cliffs, laced with streaks of purple and gold. You can ease far back in to where the air smells like Earth and has it’s chill. Tendrils of fog linger at the water’s surface. If you paddle far enough back it feels like the rock might not give you up. I think this one is my favorite cave.

I was told that we’re all looking for some specific feeling; something that makes us really feel alive and inspired, but we all find this feeling in different ways. A few people snickered during this telling, but I was on the edge of my seat. It makes some sort of simple sense. Different things and different paths can bring us to the same feelings. It’s much easier to understand other people’s choices and differences when you understand the feeling, even if you don’t recognize the path.

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A sunrise I only caught cause I had been up puking up brie cheese in a pit toilet, an objectively low place to be.

Sometimes, when the wind is just right, the lake turns a blue green and churns, speckled with whitecaps. She’ll look like a sea monster might come up, or like a Viking ship might have sailed her. Sea spray, bright green, and the Lake feels alive.

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Water, probably. I’m not sure.

In late July I received the best compliment of my life.

I had been talking to a woman about my various plans for life now that I was out of school and she grinned at me.

“You’re a bit of a wild thing aren’t you?’

I laughed. “I’m not sure anyone has called me that before.”

Still, I hoped I was.

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A sea of plastic kayaks, otherwise known as “divorce boats”, cause there’s no way you and your SO can agree which way you want that thing to go.

The best place to feel the full power of the Lake might be that thin trail above the Sea Caves. People travel miles to see the caves but they should really travel to hear them. There’s a deep heaving, the sound of water slamming deep into the caves, regular and cathartic. Mist on your skin, the sea is a beautiful green gray, all the leaves rain brightened. The wind howls around you. The forest dances, the sea beats, powerful and regular below you.

I want to shout into it, and celebrate the raw, real beauty of a storm on the sea, and me, just a speck on the cliff side.

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This is some live footage of the beach that has collected at the bottom of my car.

Paddling itself is both intensely physical and intimate.

You are in a boat that may as well be a bit of driftwood in the sea. You move forward by the creak of your own arms and the turn of your own hips. You feel the water stretching below you and feel every turn and twist of the current. The water can be so cold that it hurts. Light mist, low clouds. The Lake beats steady on the beach; you move steady forward. In at the toe, twist, out at the hip. Repeat. Deeply physical. The lake will rock you to sleep long after you have left.

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Look ma, it floats!

Every year, people die in this Lake that I love. That is a fact. This year, three small kids and their father died in an ill-fated crossing, probably due to hypothermia. So how do we reconcile loving this lake with the damage that it can do? It’s easy to want to blame people for the mistakes that they made and the safety gear that they didn’t have, but experience informs decision making. So can you really blame people for not having the experience to make a safe decision? It hardly seems like loosing your family is a fair price to pay for ignorance. But I suppose no one ever said life, or the Lake was fair.

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Basswood Island, around 5pm, the same day that family capsized between Michigan and Stockton.

It’s a popular opinion that nature is indifferent, and maybe it is, maybe that’s true. After hearing stories about people swept off piers and shipwrecks, who am I to say any different?

But when someone who had been guiding for years on Lake Superior told me stories of close calls, he paused to laugh and shake his head.

“The sea goddess must be a good one,” he said. “You can mess up a lot of little things and still get by, or one big thing, and still make it work. You have to really mess it all up, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”

So I suppose it’s possible that the Lake isn’t indifferent at all. I suppose it’s quite possible that she feels things deeply—approximately 1,333 feet deeply.

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Trail Guide: Sea Kayaking the Great Lakes

Kayaking is super fun, and places like the Pictured Rocks and the Sea Caves are super gorgeous. I totally get it. But after spending a summer up guiding on Superior I’ve got a few notes for you all, just to re-enforce the whole safety thing.

This summer I saw a whole lot of people out at the Mainland Sea Caves without spray skirts, or in inflatable boats, or worst case scenario, in sundolphins. (You want to know what I hate most in the world? It’s the sundolphin. That boat is tiny, and slow, and there’s no spray skirt or bulkheads. What are you gonna do when that thing capsizes? It’s gonna sink! Are you gonna swim the mile back to the beach in 57 degree water? You’re not wearing a wetsuit! You’re gonna get hypothermia.)

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This is the sundolphin. Take this piece of crap back to Lake Minnetonka where it belongs.

So you might be thinking, “but all the pictures I’ve seen of the Lake look beautiful and calm, and I’m a good paddler, I take my sundolphin out on Lake Minnesota-dota-tonka-bago all the time.” (I don’t know the lake names here. Everything in WI sounds funny.)

I’m here to remind you that the Great Lakes are a different ball game. 

You are no longer dealing with lakes when you start paddling here. You are on an inland sea. Lake Superior’s largest recorded average wave height was 28.8 feet. These lakes can create their own weather. They have taken down real ships. Do you really feel safe in that 10 foot sundolphin?

The Great Lakes are seas. Bring a Sea Kayak.

A sea kayak is defined by a few things. First, sea kayaks are longer than 15 feet. Most are around that 16-18 foot range. Tandem sea kayaks should be pushing 18 feet. Anything shorter than this might not be sea worthy.

Second, sea kayaks have sealed bulkheads. That means there are pockets of air both in front of and behind the cockpit. If your boat capsizes, it will not sink, and you can get back into it.

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Sea kayak. Almost 16 feet.

Sea kayaks are the only type of manpowered boat that is smart to bring on a Great Lake. Don’t have a sea kayak? Consider a guided tour.

Know how to get back in your boat

In the event of a capsize, you want to be able to get back in your boat. Do you have a scramble rescue? Do you have a paddle float rescue? Do you know what those words mean?

If you’re paddling with other people, do you have a T-rescue? No? Consider hiring a guide or taking a safety course.

Gear Things

There is a set list of safety gear you should have before hitting the Great Lakes. Here is that list:

  • Spray Skirt– keeps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • PFD- Aka life jacket. And actually wear it. It’s not a lot of good floating away from you.
  • Bilge Pump– pumps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • Paddle Float– can use to create outrigger with paddle for self-rescue. Also makes a good back rest.
  • Spare Paddle– in case something bad happens to first paddle.
  • First Aid Kit– for band-aids.
  • Repair Kit– so you can duct tape that hole in your boat.
  • Whistle- carry three signaling devices. This is an easy one.
  • Mirror– effective way to get someone’s attention using sunlight.
  • Marine Radio- you might not have cell service. Now you can still call for help/ check the weather.
  • Wetsuit– What’s the water temperature? Is it below 70? Hypothermia might be a risk. Lake Superior has more hypothermia incidents than drownings. Food for thought.
  • Extra Layers– Weather changes quickly out there. Rain jacket never hurt anyone.
  • Sponge– clean boat = happy boat.
  • Map- know where you’re going.

Most importantly, have a plan. Maybe this seems silly and obvious, but know a little bit about the hazards in the area you plan on paddling. Know the marine forecast, and check the radar before you head out. Tell people where you are paddling, and when you expect to be back. Most of the gear above you won’t even use on a typical paddling trip. But it’s good to have a plan B, and C, and D and E. And if you don’t have all the backup plans, go with someone who does.

Just the other day when my group was heading in before a storm we saw a family of four setting up for a picnic near the cliff wall on sit-on-top kayaks. The weather had probably looked nice when they left, but weather changes. (We, of course, gave them a heads up.)

The day before that, a mother was the sole survivor of a tragedy in the Apostle Islands. This incident is my primary prompting for posting this. I post a lot of pictures of kayaking on Lake Superior, and I don’t want people to see these pictures and assume that means this Lake is always beautiful and safe and calm. I don’t have my camera out when it’s not. I’m not on the water, and if I am, I’m busy trying to get myself and others off of it. There is a safe way to kayak the Great Lakes. I would hate for people to see photos that I take as a message that this place is always a safe and fun vacation spot.

This isn’t meant to be irreverent, or to shame anyone, or to assign blame. Experience informs the choices we make, and we cannot fault people for experiences they haven’t had. I don’t think death or loosing your family is a fair price to pay for simply not knowing, but the Lake isn’t fair.

If you’re reading this, awesome. I’m not concerned about you. But make sure your friends, and neighbors all know that these lakes are not safe all the time. Friends don’t let friends paddle sundolphins.

Trail Guide: Northwoods Waterfall Road Trip

Northern Wisconsin is full of hidden wonders. From the near tropical island gems that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to the rugged sandstone cliffs, there are countless hikes and paddles worth your time. Due to the Northwood’s unique geology, the area is also littered with some pretty spectacular waterfalls. From east to west, here’s your guide to a Northern Wisconsin Waterfalls Road Trip!

Saxon Falls

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Located on the Montreal River which marks the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, Saxon Falls is a quick and easy hike past the hydroelectric dam to the falls themselves. Directions can be found here.

Potato River Falls

Less than a half hour drive west of Saxon Falls the Potato River Falls feature both an upper and lower falls, both on well maintained trails with stairs and a quick, less than a mile hike. Directions can be found here.

Copper Falls

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Copper Falls State Park features some of the most impressive falls in the state of Wisconsin, including Brownstone Falls, Copper Falls, and Red Granite Falls. Directions can be found here.

Houghton Falls

Journey on up into the Bayfield Peninsula past Washburn and you’ll find Houghton Falls Nature Preserve, where the river carved out a sandstone canyon and small cliffs sit on the edge of Lake Superior. (Some lovely iPhone quality photos for you).

Lost Creek Falls

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A beautiful less than three-mile round trip hike near Cornucopia, WI, these falls are one of the few Wisconsin falls you can actually walk behind. Go in late Spring to see the falls at their peak. Directions can be found here.

Amnicon Falls

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Amnicon Falls State Park is near Superior, WI, and has three falls and more cascades all within easy access of parking lots or main trails. The park also has some beautiful rustic camping and an interesting geologic history involving both sandstone and volcanic rock. Click here for more information.

Looking for more road trip planning tools? Look into Roadtrippers and Alltrails; some awesome apps to get you started!

Mist, Cliffs, and Lake Superior: A Photo Essay

Minnesota’s North Shore is interesting; it’s draw is not in sandy beaches or warm water— you don’t go there to work on your tan. This shore line is not soft; the North Shore is hard. Miles of rugged cliff lines, conifers, and the rolling remains of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s got icy cold water— so cold that shipwrecks are perfectly preserved. It’s got biting flies and red rocky beaches. The North Shore has character. It is a different kind of beautiful—tougher, with more grit. Difficult and stubborn. More wild, less comfortable, less predictable, more rewarding. 

I have never jumped in water so cold and so clean. I never imagined I could be damp, cold, and swarmed by biting flies and still appreciate where I am so entirely. I didn’t expect to have my knees shake ten feet from a cliffs edge while tendrils of fog snaked snaked along the lake below me. I didn’t expect to feel complete overwhelmed and quieted at the foot of a waterfall, mist sticking to me, roar and rush silencing any thoughts of my hurting ankle, my hunger, how I was tired, silencing any thoughts at all. 

Up here, they say that the Lake is the boss— she controls the weather, the air pressure, the cliffs, the direction of rivers. She pulls down rocks and ultimately, she can control you a little too.

Welcome to Wisconsin

There are 21 islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in the far North of Wisconsin, full of sandstone cliffs, sea caves and shipwrecks, and clear, frigid water, all off of the Bayfield Peninsula. I am living here for the summer to become a better sea kayaker and guide.

Most of what I knew of Wisconsin was cheese and farms, most of what I knew of Lake Superior was that the Lake is big and cold. I’ve been here a week now, and here’s what I didn’t know:

The Bayfield Peninsula is speckled with waterfalls:

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A few days ago, I paddled under a waterfall. The next day we climbed behind Lost Creek Falls, and there are still more falls to explore in the area.

Lake Superior is cold:

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So maybe I knew the lake was cold. I didn’t know that the lake could have such an influence on the weather here. As a peninsula, Bayfield is surrounded on all sides by the lake, and the weather changes quickly. One night, it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny and beautiful. The next day it was in the low 40’s and pouring. It’s June, and this place is cold.

People think Wisconsin looks like a mitten:

As someone from the Mitten State I find this ridiculous. What kind of deformed mitten looks like Wisconsin?

Lake Superior is powerful:

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This lake, through freezing and thawing, has carved out caves in sandstone. The Lake has wrecked ship after ship, and just this past year, taken out the dock shown above. Lake Superior is beautiful, but you have to be aware that this Lake isn’t just a Lake. It is an inland sea, capable of some real damage.

Northern Wisconsin is stunning:

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I honestly love the 40 degree drizzle and the late night storms, and the icy clear water. This place has rich moss and wild flowers, waterfalls, beaches and islands.

Questions about the Northern Midwest or Apostles area or starting sea kayaking? Leave me a message! 

Top Photo Locations in the Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore is arguably one of the most scenic locations in Michigan. It boasts beautiful blue green water, stunning overlooks, and beautiful beaches. The Dunes offer a lot to work with, but it can be hard to know where to start.

From Pyramid Point by Leelanau, south to Point Betsie by Frankfort, here are scenic locations in the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Pyramid Point

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Pyramid Point is located in the northern portion of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and is a quick walk from the parking lot out to the overlook. On a clear day, you can see both the North and South Manitou Islands from the bluff.

Glen Lake Overlook

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One of the first stops on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, this overlook offers a view of Glen Lake in one direction, and the dunes themselves in the other direction. The last time I was there, I was able to see clouds weaving in and out of the hills and lake below me.

Overlook 9

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Overlook 9 is the most popular stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and with good reason. The overlook is perched high above Lake Michigan and offers views of both dunes, bluffs, and the Lake in every direction. This overlook is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan.

North Bar Lake Overlook

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While Overlook 9 gets most of the attention, the North Bar Lake Overlook is my favorite. You can see both M22 below, North Bar Lake, and the Empire Bluffs in the distance all at what feels like a bird’s eye view.

Empire Bluffs Trail

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By far my favorite hike in Michigan, the Empire Bluffs are also a good place to watch the sunset. It is a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike out to the bluffs, and the majority of the hike is wooded.

Point Betsie Lighthouse

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South of Sleeping Bear, Point Betsie Lighthouse is a fun historic lighthouse to visit and another pretty place to watch the sunset, this time from the beach rather than an overlook.

Want more in Northern Michigan? Check out some of my other posts:

Trail Guide: Sleeping Bear’s “Dune Climb”

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore: Places to Visit in the Off-Season

Wilderness State Park and Winter Shoreline

Trail Guide: 6 Killer Hiking Trails in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

For Kentuckians, the Red River Gorge is known and loved both for its climbing and trails. I am not a climber, so I stuck to the trails on my recent visit.

The Gorge, as it is lovingly referred to by locals, offers tons of different trails for almost all skill levels, all with different activities and sights to see. Some of the best seasons to visit the Gorge are in Spring and Fall, with the flowers blooming and leaves changing respectively. From arches to vistas, this Red River Gorge Trail Guide covers 6 hikes in the Gorge worth a visit, and provides some Natural Bridge State Park and Red River Gorge hiking tips!

(Copperas Falls, a beautiful spot)

Whistling Arch Trail: At around a half mile round trip and minimal elevation gain, this trail offers a sizable arch and an overlook over the valley below. The Red River Gorge has about 150 arches, its arch concentration second only to Utah’s Arches National Park, and the Whistling Arch is an excellent example!

Angel’s Windows Trail: Another short and sweet hike, this trail offers a double arch. The trail is about a half mile total and has little elevation change. These are some of the more intricate arches, making this arguably one of the Red River Gorge’s best hikes. The arch on the far side looks like a horse to some people; check out the photo below and tell me what you think.

Jump Rock: This is more of a swimming hole than a hike, but still well worth the trip. From the Sheltowee Connector Trail #211 lot off Sky Bridge Rd, it is a quick walk out to Jump Rock along the Red River. The rock is safe to jump off and the river is safe to swim across, although I would still recommend being a strong swimmer, and don’t recommend diving off the rock. The current is not strong, and the river is deep enough that you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself jumping. When we went, there were about 40 yellow monarch butterflies around the river and the surrounding trials.

Disclaimer: I did not jump or swim here, because it was 64 degrees when we visited. My sister swam, and has done the jump with a group in the past.

The Natural Bridge and Hanson’s Point Trails: Located in Natural Bridge State Park rather than the Red River Gorge, the Natural Bridge is a short but steeper hike from the parking lot in the Natural Bridge State Park. The Natural Bridge is what it sounds like—a bridge of sandstone connecting two ridges and carved out by the wind that you can hike across. From the top of the Natural Bridge, you can see Hanson’s Point—a local told me that the overlook was called this but I haven’t been able to confirm online. After crossing the Natural Bridge, you can head out to Hanson’s Point to get a view of the bridge from a distance. From here, we continued out to Lookout Point to watch the sunset. Lookout Point offers really nice views of the valley below, and is arguably the best spot in the Natural Bridge State Park to watch the sunset.

Tip for Red River Gorge photos: I have heard that fog collects in the valley below the Natural Bridge and Hanson’s Point in the morning, both of which face the east, and it is a really cool place to shoot the sunrise above the clouds.

Devil’s Staircase Trail: Located in the Natural Bridge State Park between Hanson’s Point and Lookout Point, this “staircase” will lead you deep into walls of rock. It’s a cool and short hike, but not if you have bad knees, don’t like heights, or are not steady footed. Honestly it’s amazing what this park will call a staircase. I can’t believe I did that stupid hike.

Copperas Falls Trail (Copperas Creek Falls Trail): This is an unofficial trail near Osborne Bend Trial, and is a little tricky to follow and isn’t technically a hike in the Red River Gorge Geologic Area. If you can see Copperas Creek or the creek bed, you are headed in the right direction. This hike is just shy of four miles round trip and doesn’t have a whole lot of elevation gain, but you will have to climb over some trees, and even large rocks depending on which route you take. When you first start off on the trail, it will split off into two. Following the trail on the right will give you a faster and easier route to the falls. We followed to the left. It was probably more scenic, but we had to climb over boulders the size of cars, and I had cuts and bruises. From here, the trial has multiple creek crossings, so be aware that your feet might get wet. If you are going to go, I would recommend going earlier than May or after a big rain—the falls were more of a trickle than falls by the time we got there. Technically in the Gorge or not, Copperas Falls is one of the prettiest spots to hike in the Red River Gorge.

Another tip on Copperas Falls: there was a lot of trash lining the hike. I was able to get some of it, but I’m sure there will be more if you get the chance to visit, so bring a trash bag to collect as you go! It can seem like a pain to pick up after someone else, but if not you, who else will do it? Besides, there is no better way to appreciate nature than to leave a place better than you found it.

With arches, rivers, cliffs, and waterfalls, you really can’t go wrong when planning a hiking trip in the Red River Gorge. Questions, comments, concerns? Leave me a comment, or dm me on Instagram!

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