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Backpacker Magazine – May 2000

Kenucky's Land Of Painted Leaves

"October is the month for painted leaves," Thoreau mused. He could have been talking about Kentucky's Red River Gorge.

by: Bill Burnham

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"October is the month for painted leaves," Thoreau mused, but my 11-year-old niece's description is decidedly more modern. "That," Sarah exclaimed from a spot overlooking the steep-walled canyon in Kentucky's Red River Gorge, "is some crazy color." She then explained her theory on fall foliage, summed up as follows: An out-of-control group of fairies transformed the color of every leaf with magic wands.

Ever the skeptic, I challenged her. "Where's the logic?" I asked as we scrambled up the Rough Trail to the base of a sandstone arch. The red-and-tan-tinged stone arches and natural bridges, more than 70 in all, are among the many gems protected within the 25,600-acre Red River Gorge Geologic Area. The 11-mile Rough Trail is part of a 36-mile loop system that takes hikers on a spectacular tour of the arches, as well as of the river and forest. "Fairies," my niece replied smartly, "aren't logical."

Well, science is logical, I told her, and then explained that some people say autumn's increasingly shorter days cause a drop in a leaf's green chlorophyll. This allows yellow pigments to emerge. Subsequent chemical reactions create red and brown hues. It's not nearly as interesting a theory as fairies flitting over the landscape, a fact that didn't escape me for a single breathless moment as we climbed out of a rhododendron-choked valley for a stunning vista of fall foliage crowding the level tops of 50-foot-high sandstone monoliths. "More crazy colors," she said, preferring to ignore my logic. I had to agree.

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