- [Narrator] It looks like your average forest from above.
But look a little closer.
You're in a climber's nirvana.
And this gorge has another secret.
It's a haven for endangered species.
The reason they're both here, some of the world's most surprising rock.
[ambient nature sounds] It's called the land of arches.
Over 100 natural arches in all, with more being discovered all the time in hidden corners of this wilderness.
You're probably guessing Utah, right?
This is Kentucky.
Yeah, you heard right.
Eastern Kentucky's Red River Gorge has more sandstone arches than anywhere east of the Mississippi.
It's also one of the top rock climbing destinations in the world.
- [Shannon] The Red River Gorge has the largest collection of overhanging cliffs anywhere in the world.
Massive, hundreds of tons of rock, just hanging out into space, like a free buttress.
- [Billy] Climbing here, your forearms feel like they're gonna explode.
- [Shannon] The Red River Gorge is not unlike for surfers going to the Great Barrier Reef or going to Diamond Head.
It's the best of the best.
- [Hal] I've had lots of adrenaline pumping moments on these cliffs.
- [Narrator] Every other weekend, Hal Lescinsky drives four hours from his home in Ohio to climb the Red River Gorge, or the red, as it's known among climbers.
He's been doing it for over 20 years.
As a geologist and evolutionary biologist, Lesinski understands better than most what makes these cliffs special.
- [Hal] It is a very ancient gorge, probably comparable to that of the Grand Canyon.
When we look at the rocks, there's obvious layers.
The rock actually was little pieces of sediment washing down a river.
And those little pieces of sediment washing down the river would accumulate and form these layers.
Erosion has been going on for millions of years and the rocks that are here used to be far underground.
- [Narrator] But erosion came along and exposed the underlying rock layers.
Because the harder layers of rock are on top and softer layers on the bottom, those softer bottom layers rot away faster.
And that creates the overhanging rock we see today and that climbers adore.
Climbers aren't the only ones enamored with this place.
This rugged gorge harbors a huge number of rare plants and animals.
What makes this place so welcoming?
- [Hal] If we go back 20,000 years when we had an ice age, there were lots of different species kind of crammed into this small area.
And as the climates have warmed, what's happened is many species have stayed here and they've stayed here because we have these tight little canyons that provide all sorts of different micro habitats.
So this big diversity of habitats, as well as its rugged nature, which has kept people out from really messing it up, have resulted in the uniquely high biodiversity of the region.
- [Narrator] One of those stay-behinds is this little thing, the white-haired goldenrod.
Named for its tiny white hairs, it's a vital food source for local pollinators.
It exists no place else in the world outside the Red River Gorge.
And it exists only within a tiny 30-mile radius.
But why do we only find this plant here?
- [Tara] The range of the white-haired goldenrod has puzzled me for many years because we do have other sandstone rock houses in the Eastern US, but none of them have the white-haired goldenrod.
- [Narrator] Tara Littlefield studies the gorge's unique and endangered flora, especially the goldenrod.
- [Tara] It may have been in other sandstone rock houses thousands to millions of years ago and have possibly died out.
Or it could have also just evolved here over millions of years and is increasing its population size.
- [Narrator] The white-haired goldenrod has called this gorge home for ages, but recently, this place has become a lot less hospitable.
Before it was discovered by climbers and hikers, the gorge was a quiet place, a wasteland in fact.
A place fit for oil extraction, logging, illegal dumping and little else.
Only relatively recently did others realize its appeal.
- [Shannon] When I started climbing in the mid-90s, you knew everybody who climbed.
And you knew them on a first name basis.
It was tight knit.
We knew if the word ever got out it was going to be very popular.
In the 2000s, it really started to take off.
And now there's hundreds, if not thousands of people that come here from all the surrounding states.
- [Narrator] It's not just climbing.
Hiking and sightseeing have exploded in the gorge as well.
As they did, the goldenrod began to disappear.
- [Tara] I don't think anyone was actually intending on harming this goldenrod.
It was just people not really thinking about what they're stepping on.
- [Narrator] In the early 80s, it was on the endangered species list.
And for the past 15 years, Littlefield has been working to restore the goldenrod.
She regularly visits the gorge to track its progress.
- [Tara] When I revisit sites, it's like seeing old friends and sometimes I'll give them like a high five.
Like, hey, what's up?
Plants can't talk, so they need to have a voice.
And I see myself as a rare species advocate.
- [Narrator] Littlefield, the forest managers and climbers enacted an ambitious plan, fencing off areas, rerouting climbs, and reseeding the plant.
- [Tara] Once we removed the threats of trampling of the populations, the plants do grow back and they can then thrive again.
- [Narrator] Of the more than 2,000 species protected under the Endangered Species Act, the white-haired goldenrod is one of just 30 to recover to the point where it's no longer on the endangered list, a distinction as rare as the plant itself.
But okay, I know what you're thinking.
Why should we care about one little plant?
John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, "we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords "that cannot be broken to everything in the universe."
From great apes to elephants to the teeny goldenrod, preserving species and habitats is essential for healthy ecosystems and all the plants and animals, including us humans, that depend on them.
Whether climbers and botanists are teaming up to save a plant, or beachgoers and biologists are protecting turtle nests, or children and conservationists are replanting forests, it shows how much we can achieve when we work together.
- [Man Holding Rope] One, two, three.
- [Shannon] We willingly accept the role as stewards of this natural phenomenon.
And I feel that everybody owes that to any future generation.
- [Narrator] Future generations of people and plants.
[peaceful music] ♪