The Other Arches

Tenuous and dynamic, natural arch structures on the Cumberland Plateau stretching across Kentucky and Tennessee provide a chance to photograph a different kind of arched landscape
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Natural Arch, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.

I was feeling pretty small as I scanned the solid-rock cliff 50 feet in front of me. The wall wasn’t quite vertical, as it created a natural overhang maybe 150 feet above my head. I was standing in front of it and under it at the same time. The informational kiosk called it a “rock shelter” and described how Native Americans had used these types of natural shelters to escape the elements for centuries. Just down this ridgeline was Natural Arch, not the most original name for a natural arch rising 60 feet and spanning more than 100 feet. I hiked to the arch and, standing below it, still felt small. Awestruck, it took me a while before I again remembered that I had hiked the one-mile trail not only to admire this beautiful arch, but to photograph it as well. For the next few hours, I walked around and through the arch, finding interesting angles and compositions. As the sun set, the arch fell into shadow while the trees behind became lit with warm sunshine. And to think, Natural Arch isn’t even the largest of the many arches located in this vicinity!

Angel Falls, Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area, Tennessee.

Twin Arches is one of the world’s largest arch complexes and, along with Natural Arch, is situated among America’s highest density of arches outside of Utah. Located in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee, this arch-lover’s paradise provides excellent opportunities to explore and photograph natural arches, as well as majestic forests, angel-hair waterfalls, grand vistas and a wild river. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is at the heart of this area, with Daniel Boone National Forest and Picket CCC Memorial State Park adding more areas to explore.

The experience here is unique in that all of the arches I explored exist in forested areas, providing both challenges and opportunities. A couple of the arches I hiked to were so well hidden among the trees that I couldn’t find a pleasing composition. In most instances, however, the presence of an arch as an element of the surrounding forest is visually exciting and the trees help to add scale and interest, although I looked for compositions in which straight tree trunks didn’t bisect the arch, especially near the middle. I also experimented with including only parts of the arch in the composition. One of my favorite photos of this type was looking up at North Arch with the arch rising out of and then beyond the surrounding trees.

Lighting was another challenge in this environment. While South Arch of the Twin Arches is lit beautifully by early-morning light, most of the arches don’t receive the glowing light of early morning or late evening. Early and late are still prime times to be photographing, but photographing under overcast skies is also a good option. One continual consideration is the contrast in these heavily wooded areas: between the darkest and lightest parts of the arches, between the arch and the trees, and between visible sky and everything else in the scene. Early and late light and overcast skies all help to reduce the contrast, which can be overwhelming in the middle of the day, but the difference in tonal values plays an important role in the final photo regardless of existing conditions.

arches Angel Falls Overlook, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee.

I used several techniques to deal with the contrast issue. The first was to photograph when the light was best, as previously mentioned. The next was to adjust compositions to avoid areas with great contrast in one photo, such as having both sunlit and shadowed areas in the frame at the same time and to exclude the sky completely. So far so good, but obvious. Then I decided to try ignoring the extreme contrast, especially in cases where it was necessary to show some sky to give a sense of scale and the shape of the arch. I let the sky be as washed out as it needed to be to properly expose the arch. This worked well in several photos, especially if the view of the sky was broken up by some trees.

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South Arch of the Twin Arches, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee.

The Arches
I highly recommend The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork by Arthur McDade (The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville, 2000). This book was my best friend while I explored the area and, along with a couple of hiking guidebooks, kept me busy hiking and finding beautiful places for the better part of a week (and I could have continued much longer)! The following selection is in order from “Must Photograph” to “If You Have Time, It’s Awfully Nice.”

With a height of 103 feet and a span of 70 feet, South Arch of the Twin Arches is the largest natural arch east of the Rockies and, consequently, is the feature that drew me to the area. It’s the more photogenic of the Twin Arches, with a beautiful span and great views on the east side of the arch; it’s lit beautifully by early-morning sunshine. North Arch, with a height of 62 feet and a span of 51 feet, is my favorite arch to photograph looking straight up. It appears to rise out of the trees and continue to the sky. Both North and South Arches have picturesque rocks around their bases. Twin Arches is located in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, with a moderately strenuous 0.8-mile trail leading to it (all trail distances given are one-way).

Natural Arch lies within Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Its span is simply beautiful and can be seen from an overview off the parking lot. To really enjoy this arch, however, take the moderately strenuous one-mile trail that leads right up to it. This arch receives good early and/or late light in midwinter, but not during most of the year. The trees behind the arch are lit nicely in the late afternoon, and that’s when I chose to do my photography.

Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee.

Split Bow Arch is another beauty, with the forest behind it lit up dramatically in the late evening. The trail leading to the arch is a short loop trail. If you take the loop to the right when it splits, you approach Split Bow Arch high and from the side. Once at the arch, the trail descends via steps through its expanse and into the forest beyond. The view from the trail just before descending through the arch is superb.

Natural Bridge is located near the picnic area at Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, Tennessee, and is one of the few arches that can be photographed from either side.

Needle Arch, located on the Tennessee side of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, is an attractive, slender arch that would rate much higher on my list if not for several nonphotogenic trees around it. The trail to Needle Arch is 1.6 miles, but also includes Slave Falls.

Yahoo Falls, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee.

Beyond The Arches
Slave Falls cascades over perhaps the most beautiful rock overhang I’ve ever seen—the patterns and colors in the rock are amazing. Slave Falls is veil-thin, and photographing the entire falls is made difficult by a guardrail, but I enjoy photographing more intimate compositions in this area.

Yahoo Falls, Kentucky’s tallest waterfall, is located in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The cliff face around the waterfall is interesting in and of itself, but add the waterfall and it’s stunning. The falls were a slender ribbon of water when I visited in the spring, but generally is reduced to a trickle in the summer. Yahoo Falls is about 0.3 miles along the moderately strenuous trail that also goes to Yahoo Arch, one of the arches of which I couldn’t find a composition. Yahoo Arch is about another mile past Yahoo Falls.

Angel Falls Overlook is well photographed and rightly so. When I researched the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, this was the only view of which I could find many photos. At three miles, the trail is a bit longer than others I’ve recommended, and the last mile or so is strenuous. However, the grand view of the Big South Fork and its forested bluffs is well worth the hike. I photographed it in the evening, but the morning light is nice as well.

Before becoming strenuous, Angel Falls Overlook Trail passes along several spots where the river can be viewed and photographed, as well as Fall Branch. I made a return hike to Fall Branch to photograph this small stream surrounded by moss-covered boulders.

Angel Falls is more of a rapids, but the rocks in and along the Big South Fork make it a photogenic spot. The view of the bluffs from river level is beautiful, and the cascading water makes the perfect foreground. Late afternoon provides flattering light on this area. The trail is two miles and fairly level the entire way.

Farlinger’s Gear
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Lenses: Canon 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS (the most-used lens on this trip) Canon 70-200mm ƒ/4L Canon 17-35mm ƒ/2.8L
Filters: B+W polarizing filters to reduce glare
Tripod: Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod

To see more of Clint Farlinger’s photography, visit