September 22, 1981 -
Jim Ledfrod at Timothy Arch
© Tyler Adams
Jim Ledford is a photographer and amateur geology hobbyist that is growing to become one of Kentucky’s most prominent modern arch hunters. He took a liking to being in the woods around 2019. Utilizing LiDAR technology and boots-on-the-ground skills, since 2020 he has documented over 60 waterfalls and 40 arches here in our state. You can find Jim on any given day in some of his favorite places, those usually being McCreary County and Laurel County. To him, the high concentration of arches and waterfalls keeps bringing him back to these areas which are close to his home in Somerset. Not too far down the highway is Wayne County which houses Mystery Falls and is one of Jim’s favorite waterfalls that he has visited, and is close to home.
Jim’s main inspiration for arches comes from his uncle, Mike Ledford. Mike and him would get out and hike to waterfalls, and to hear Jim tell it, the creeks dried up and arches became the focus from there on. Jim gives all the glory of the inspiring hikes and off-trail excursions he goes on to the ‘exploration bug,’ as he calls it. The camaraderie on and off trail is important to him. Lisa Hunter and Tyler Adams learn from him as they put down the miles while on adventures with him.
Jim likes visiting existing landforms, but seems to get a different feeling from hunting potential arches the most. “Finding an undocumented arch is a rush for me. There's definitely a little adrenaline flowing. It's rewarding whether you randomly stumble across one, or you find one you've been searching for.” Every Arch Hunter has to have a favorite arch they’ve documented, and Jim’s is Crackerneck Natural Bridge that he co-found with Mervin Wood. Jim found inspiration for his passion in some of the wonders he has seen while exploring Kentucky and says Red Byrd Arch, Cobra Arch and cave arches make up his favorite across the Commonwealth.
Crackerneck Natural Bridge
Besides chasing waterfalls and arches, you’ll find Jim heading up the Light Painting Tours and occasionally guiding hikers along the Arch Overload Tour with Leave No Trace Adventures. “Someone that attends this adventure can expect to see some of the calling card locations of the Red River Gorge, but at night. You should definitely expect to laugh. I have laughed so much trying to do these shots and also it's so fun to watch others do it too. There's never really a lull in the action.” From wobbling up a sketchy handmade ladder to climb up to Pilot Rock, to being below the cliff line in Beaver Creek after dark, to using a dead cedar to climb a 15 foot gorge cliff to take a better route out, rest assured that a portion of Kentucky’s arches are in good hands as Jim Ledford will be in the woods hunting for them. Jim’s willingness to teach and cover miles both on and off-trail shows his dedication and passion for the natural history of Kentucky.
Jim is known to say “Just wait,” to bring anticipation to the next big thing he’s going to put up on KWAL or his personal Instagram/Facebook page, where you can follow his adventures more closely. “I'd just like to thank my uncle, Michael Ledford for his inspiration. I really don't think I'd be doing any of this if it weren't for him.”
What inspired your interest in arches?
My Uncle, Mike Ledford, is my main inspiration. He had been hunting arches and waterfalls for several years before I took interest. We started out hiking to waterfalls originally, but when creeks dried up, we switched to arches. I've not looked back since.
What’s your favorite arch you’ve documented?
Crackerneck Natural Bridge is probably my favorite. It's a small natural bridge, and formed out of limestone, but it's very photogenic in my opinion. If I'm not mistaken it's the only natural bridge I've found. (Cofound with Mervin Wood)
Do you prefer hunting for arches or visiting ones that have been documented?
That's a toss up. I enjoy seeing previously documented arches for the first time nearly as much as I enjoy finding them. That may change when I start finding some bigger arches though.
What is your favorite arch you have visited?
Tough question. Fishtrap Natural Bridge, Red Byrd Arch, Cobra Arch, some of the cave arches out there. Too many to choose from really.
Do you have a preferred region or county for hunting arches?
McCreary County and Laurel County are my favorite areas because they both have such a high concentration of arches. Both are also close to my hometown, Somerset.
How many arches have you visited?
I've been to somewhere between 300-350 arches, counting arches in other states.
Explain how you feel when you first come across an arch that is undocumented?
Finding an undocumented arch is a rush for me. There's definitely a little adrenaline flowing. It's rewarding whether you randomly stumble across one, or you find one you've been searching for.
Do you prefer arches or waterfalls and if a preference, why?
I really like both. Both can be fun and challenging to find and get to, and both can be fun and challenging to photograph.
How many waterfalls have you visited?
I have visited and photographed over 400 waterfalls.
What is your favorite waterfall?
Indian Bathtub Falls or Mystery Falls in Wayne County.
What is your favorite waterfall you have documented?
Brammer Branch Falls 5 in Wayne County.
Lately you’ve been focusing on paddling to streams and exploring them along Lake Cumberland. What brought this on and what kind of success have you had in finding new waterfalls? Have you found any new arches in this new endeavor?
I think my trip to Mystery Falls by kayak is what gave me the idea to do the same sort of exploring around the lake. I've had some success in finding new waterfalls, documenting 30 plus last month. I have found a few arches around the lake, but not many.
Since focusing on visiting and documenting arches and waterfalls around 15 months ago, you have been bringing folks together to adventure with you. Do you feel you are inspiring others to get out and explore around your home turf of Pulaski County and the surrounding counties of Wayne, McCreary, Laurel and Whitley?
I think that I may have inspired a few people, but it's not hard to do so. When they get bitten by the exploration bug like I did, it's downhill from there.
With meeting and getting out with folks like Tyler and Lisa, I’m guessing a real payoff in all this exploring and documenting are the friendships that have formed and the camaraderie on the adventures, correct?
Absolutely. Tyler is a brilliant mind. His company is always top notch, and he always has great ideas for new excursions. Lisa is probably the most driven person I know. She has never turned down an opportunity to travel and explore. Last month (January 2023) we visited over 70 waterfalls and 20 arches together, most of which are new documentations. Most of all, Tyler and Lisa are both phenomenal photographers. I look up to both of them and the work they do. And yes, it is about the camaraderie. I have met many very nice people, and consider them all my friends. I always look forward to the next time I meet up with each one of them.
Though you share your adventures through photographs on your personal page and in groups like KWAL, do you plan to create a dedicated social media page or a website to display your photographs? If not, why?
I've thought about making a dedicated page for my photography, but I feel that I've still got quite a bit of growing and learning to do as a photographer. Besides, it's hard enough to keep up when you are always in the woods.
You are now hosting an adventure with Leave No Trace Adventures that involves long exposure photography and light painting. How did this collaboration come about and can you describe what someone on the adventure would expect?
I really owe the idea to Tyler Adams. He introduced me to "Light Painting" as we now call it. After a night of shooting those type of long exposures, I posted several on Facebook. My friend, Christie Abrams- owner of Leave No Trace Adventures, took notice. After a little brainstorming between several of us, a new event was created. Someone that attends this adventure can expect to see some of the calling card locations of the Red River Gorge- at night. You should definitely expect to laugh. I have laughed so much trying to do these shots and also it's so fun to watch others do it too. There's never really a lull in the action. For those interested in the Leave No Trace Adventures- Light Painting Experience go to www.leavenotraceadventures.com to book your adventure.
What is the craziest situation you have been in out in the field?
Honestly, I have been lucky to not have any close calls with danger in my outings. Climbing to the top of Pilot Rock in McCreary County was a rush. Hiking off trail in Beaver Creek Wilderness below the cliff line after dark was a little crazy.
What future goals do you have in documenting arches and waterfalls?
My biggest goal is just to keep learning. To me that's what keeps it interesting. Every time I step into the woods, I see something I've never seen before.
Do you have anything else to add?
I'd just like to thank my uncle, Michael Ledford for his inspiration. I really don't think I'd be doing any of this if it weren't for him.