At 180 feet long and 30 feet high, the aptly named Mantle Rock is the largest natural arch east of the Mississippi. It’s part of an extensive network of sandstone bluffs, intricate honeycomb formations, and natural rock shelters along the corridor now known as the Trail of Tears. During the harsh winter of 1938-1939, nearly 1,800 Cherokees were forcibly removed from their home and made to head west on foot. This brutal piece of American history is memorialized by the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which follows the Cherokees’ footsteps. Mantle Rock Nature Preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service administers the Trail of Tears.
What Makes It Great
Mantle Rock is more than 60 feet longer than its closest competitor for longest arch east of the Mississippi River and it’s super-accessible. The Nature Conservancy acquired the land in 1988, and has since established an easy 2.75-mile loop, which allows hikers to get up close to the arch itself. The loop begins on a short section of the Trail of Tears, then veers off toward Mantle Rock, passing rock shelters, small waterfalls, and enormous sandstone bluffs en route to the arch. The gap between the arch and the adjacent bluffs is quite small—just large enough for a tree to grow between the two—so it’s hard to really take in the size of Mantle Rock without standing directly beneath it.
The Cherokee Nation spent about two weeks in this area, waiting for the Ohio River to thaw, on their arduous Trail of Tears journey. In addition to the portion of the Trail of Tears hikers walk as part of the loop, several nearby sites provide more insight into the hardship of the Cherokee people and the implications of this important historical event.
Who is Going to Love It
This family-friendly loop is appropriate for all ages and ability levels. Despite even footing and relatively little elevation gain and loss, though, note that temperatures can drop below freezing during the winter, so check the forecast before heading out.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Hunting is allowed at Mantle Rock Preserve and isn’t managed by The Nature Conservancy, so familiarize yourself with hunting season dates (check with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife) and plan accordingly if you plan to hike during the season. This loop is exclusively for hikers; mountain biking, camping, and rock climbing aren’t allowed.
Mantle Rock Preserve is just outside the small community of Joy, Kentucky. There’s a parking area two miles west of Joy on Highway 133.