Natural Bridge State Park - Slade, Kentucky - Hiking, Swimming, Boating, and the Wonders of Nature in its Rock Formations

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It's hard to comprehend scale and the majesty of Kentucky's Natural Bridge - nearly 1,000 tons of sandstone, weathered over the course of more than 1,000 millennia, and nearly 80 feet in length - let alone to describe the awe one feels standing in the middle of it, 65 feet above the ground on a chunk of earth 12 feet thick and 20 feet wide. It's hard, too, to imagine how one could fail to have a memorable experience at the place.

The 2,500-acre Natural Bridge State Resort Park, one of the jewels of the Kentucky park system, has something for everybody: hotel rooms with balconies and views; an 80,000 gallon river-themed swimming pool complete with water jets and floor bubblers; a 4-acre pond where you can rent either a paddle boat or its faster cousin, the hydrobike; an island ("Hoe-Down Island'') that holds the weekly square dances which have made the place the "clogging capital of Kentucky;'' a 54-acre boating and fishing lake; a restaurant that offers everything from seared salmon with saut,ed tomatoes to fried catfish; and a 1960's-vintage "sky-lift'' that will take you up to within 500 feet of the bridge's top.

For those who prefer to walk, the park offers some 12 trails, ranging from the easy (Henson's Arch Trail, 1/3 mile) to the difficult (Sand Gap Trail, a 7.5 mile, 4-6 hour trip). Like the panorama from atop the bridge, many of these walks offer superb views of the surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest and the Cumberland Plateau Mountains.

The park has its origins in the 1890's, when the Kentucky Union Railway, seeing money in the tourist trade, built campsites and hiking trails to lure visitors. In 1926 the land was donated to the state.

Despite the views afforded from the rooms at the park's hotel, one of the real joys of Natural Bridge is its collection of rustic cottages, complete with screened porches and working fireplaces, that a visitor can rent quite reasonably - a 1-bedroom with two queen beds for $135 a night.

The guests who have overnighted in these charming cabins have raved about them, from "we highly recommend this'' and "wonderfully rustic,'' to "spacious'' and "secluded.''

What few complaints one hears about Natural Bridge focus more on the distance from the lodge to the swimming pool than anything else. Then too, once you've made it to the top of the skyway, and witnessed the views, you'll run into the inevitable gift shop - this one featuring 16 flavors of fudge - to mar the experience.

Still, one shouldn't quibble. The place truly is breathtaking.

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