Thankfully, the heat subsided just a bit mid-month as one of my besties and I set out for a trip to Red River Gorge, which seems to be a favorite day trip for many Louisvillians. It’s certainly one of Kentucky’s most beautiful areas, and I was excited to visit while following the Taste of the Bluegrass Culinary Trail. This canyon system along the Red River is full of natural bridges, arches, sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, waterfalls and a smattering of gift shops and restaurants. The Natural Bridge State Resort Park is one of the Gorge’s main attractions, and the Sandstone Arches restaurant resides in the hilltop lodge, featuring a view of the sweeping valley below.
We arrived hungry and ready to see what the region’s culinary heritage was all about. The meal prepared by Chef Stephen Rose is described in the culinary trail passport as representing the area’s tie to bluegrass, horses, bourbon, and Daniel Boone. The four course meal includes an Ale-8-One (with an optional shot of bourbon) and costs $25.99 per person. It is definitely worth it.
Chef Rose said he’s known for his Southern food, which is also the type of food he likes to eat (after seafood). He actually began his career at the state park as a teenager before working at or owning other restaurants, returning later to the state park resort and learning under Chef Mike Well. He continued training with others, including the Cracker Barrel training program. Then, he ended up in culinary school at Sullivan University (Lexington campus) at the age of 48 before working under Chef Ouita Michel at Windy Corner Market and owning another restaurant in Stanton. All of this experience led to him returning once more to become head chef where he started it all.
“I feel at home [at Natural Bridge State Park Resort], because I have grown up here,” he told us. “As a child, my mother brought us up to the pool once a week during summer vacation. Then, I worked here in high school, and then I started my culinary career here. It’s been like a big wide involved circle, and I’m back where I started. I know everyone here, and I feel really at home.”
The first thing we noticed about this chef as we sat with him by the large windows was his warm personality and southern hospitality as he offered us the beer cheese appetizer, made from his own special recipe. Wow! We want more of this. We asked him to please start selling tubs of it immediately. We wanted to take it home! The flavorful dish was served with celery and crackers, curbing our hunger until our Bibb salads arrived with sorghum vinaigrette.
The salads were very crisp and fresh and full of pleasing color, but the sorghum vinaigrette was an especially nice topping, giving the salad a richness and sweetness. When the beef tenderloin arrived, I relied on my friend’s assessment of the sides: grits and spoonbread. I tried them both, but — as unKentuckian as it may be — I’ve never been a fan of grits. She said they were the best she’s ever had and raved about Chef Rose’s recipe long after we left. My attention was fully focused on the beef tenderloin, and I followed her lead as she dipped a piece of steak in the beer cheese only to find it even better than with the previous accoutrements. Just thinking about it is making me want to make the two hour drive all over again.
We ate only bits of each course, so we would be able to taste our way through dessert: a bourbon chocolate brownie, plated with chocolate syrup, whipped cream and a strawberry. It was most delicious and one more reason we decided we needed a bit of a hike to keep all that yum off our hips.
There are plenty of ways to burn calories in the 29,000 acre Red River Gorge Geological area, which is mostly located within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Opportunities include swimming, hiking, zip lines, canoeing or kayaking and more. The area is also rich with history, and Chef Rose told us about a few highlights, including a family story. While locals tell of Daniel Boone seeing the area for the first time from Pilot Knob (the highest peak in the area), he told us about four pioneering Rose brothers who came down from Pennsylvania. One of them settled in the gorge area while the others moved onto Tennessee, Texas and further west. He also went on to tell us about Furnace Mountain, where there are old furnaces credited with providing iron for cannonballs in the War of 1812. I didn’t know that Kentucky was once third in the nation for producing iron at one point and many furnace structures remain in tact!
Despite many activities and awesome sights like the NADA tunnel, we decided to stay focused on the park’s natural bridge. Chef Rose extended more of his Southern hospitality, securing us tickets for the half-century running Skylift, which would give us a lovely 11 minute view of the surrounding area and carry us to the top of the ridge, where it was just a short 600 foot walk to come to and cross the 900 ton sandstone natural bridge to a lovely ridge-top gazebo. Had we turned the other way off the lift, we could have gone 1200 feet to the lookout, grabbing a great photo of the bridge. Instead, we took a picture from the bridge of the lookout. The breeze along the top of the ridge was absolutely amazing. This part of the sightseeing was pretty easy and could be done by just about anyone who can walk before they take the skylift back down. However, we wanted to see the underside of the natural bridge, so we journeyed down the stone steps (in a narrow shaft between to rock walls) to catch the view.
After copious amounts of selfies and panorama shots, we decided it was time to walk off some of the food. We didn’t want to be on the trails for hours on end, so we chose the 1.25 mile hike back down to the parking lot. Along the way, we saw plenty of lizards and interesting rock formations, including unique ridges and patterns in the sandstone. Most of the winding trail was pretty easy as we commented on the many types of trees we saw, and we noted that it didn’t feel like we were descending much. Then, as we came to the last third of the hike, it became a little more intense with steep rock shelves, stairs and a little bit of climbing or sliding. It seemed like the majority of the descent was in this last bit of the hike, and we really felt the heat again as we got back into the lower area.
On our way out of the gorge area, we bypassed restaurants and outdoor obstacle courses and stopped at a tourist shop called Wild Things of Kentucky, lured by the sign advertising “hilarious restrooms.” I would say nothing ends a trip focused on Kentucky heritage like an outhouse with an animatronic talking friend in long johns.