Daniel Boone National Forest: The Complete Guide

Cumberland Falls in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Sean Pavone / Getty Images

Daniel Boone National Forest is a blissful never-never land for anyone who loves the outdoors, and there is a lot to explore within its two million-plus acres. Slicing diagonally through 21 counties in Kentucky, the forest houses private property, state parks, and 708,000 fragmented acres of federal land within its proclamation boundaries. Many of Kentucky’s most popular outdoor recreation areas can be found there—Red River Gorge, Natural Bridge, Cumberland Falls, and Cave Run Lake to name a few.

Things to Do

From paved, stroller-friendly trails to world-class rock climbing, you can pretty well choose your level of risk and adventure within Daniel Boone National Forest.

The Red River Gorge National Scenic Byway is one of the most scenic drives in the state, but unfortunately it isn’t a secret—traffic jams are common in fall. Consider the Wilderness Road Heritage Scenic Byway (US-25 from London to Mt. Vernon) as an alternative for admiring the foliage.

For boating and recreation, head to the popular Laurel River or Cave Run lakes. The Big South Fork section of the Cumberland River is especially renowned for its beauty; paddling there is unforgettable. If you want to hit the trails, many are designated as “multiple use;” you can explore these by hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. The Cave Run Lake area offers many opportunities for cycling.

Provided you have a Kentucky Fishing License (one-day permits are available online), you can fish all of the many lakes, rivers, and streams within Daniel Boone National Forest. The streams are regularly stocked with brown, brook, and rainbow trout. Lakes are home to bass, crappie, trout, walleye, and catfish, among other species. Hunting and target practice are also permitted on public land within Daniel Boone National Forest.

If your trip coincides with a full moon, you have a chance to see a lunar rainbow or “moonbow,” a rare natural phenomenon that occurs at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park; check the dates for a potential moonbow.

Best Hikes and Trails

The 600 miles of official hiking trails within Daniel Boone National Forest are blazed with white diamonds; the one exception is the Sheltowee Trace, which is blazed with white turtles.

  • Sheltowee Trace: The 333-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail begins in Tennessee, runs the length of Daniel Boone National Forest through Kentucky, and finishes in Rowan County. Unlike the better known Appalachian Trail, the Sheltowee can be thru-hiked in less than a month.
  • Red River Gorge: At least 70 miles of trails wind through spectacular scenery in Red River Gorge. The Auxier Ridge loop and Courthouse Rock area are among the most scenic places to hike in Daniel Boone National Forest.
  • Cumberland Falls: More than 17 miles of excellent trails twist through the state park. The Moonbow Trail (10.8 miles) parallels the river and intersects with the Sheltowee Trace.
  • Natural Arch Scenic Area: Although Natural Arch is slightly smaller than Natural Bridge, it’s still impressive and easy to reach via a 1-mile paved trail. More than 6 miles of trails are available in the area; a $3 pass is required.
The Cumberland River in Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

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Whitewater Rafting, Kayaking, and Canoeing

The 19.4-mile stretch of the Red River from the KY-746 bridge to Schoolhouse Branch is so beautiful, it was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by Congress in 1993; as such, Red River Gorge was saved from becoming submerged by damming! Further south, the Rockcastle River (Class I) also provides scenic paddling for beginners.

The Big South Fork Cumberland River in the southern part of the national forest offers whitewater rafting and kayaking, with rapids ranging in difficulty from Class I to Class IV. Experienced paddlers are particularly drawn to the Lower Rockcastle River’s 17 miles of Class III–IV rapids.

Rock Climbing and Rappelling

Climbers from all over the world come to experience “The Red"—the sandstone cliffs within Red River Gorge Geological Area are considered to be one of the best places for sport climbing in the United States. Many trad routes and some bouldering can also be enjoyed here.

The campgrounds behind nearby Miguel’s Pizza are jokingly referred to as “Camp 4 of the East;” this in reference to Yosemite’s famous Camp 4, where climbers congregate. As the scene is social and camping is cheap, some climbers live there for months.

Where to Camp

A few campgrounds within Daniel Boone National Forest are free, while others charge a fee or require a pass. Some RV camping is available in three districts.

  • Koomer Ridge: Although numerous private campgrounds are nearby, Koomer Ridge is the busiest campground on national forest land near Red River Gorge. Koomer Ridge offers semi-primitive camping with direct access to trails. Spots are first come, first served; reservations aren’t available.
  • Zilpo Campground: Located on a peninsula jutting into Cave Run Lake, Zilpo Campground offers tent, RV, and cabin camping. You'll also find a sandy beach for swimming.
  • Twin Knobs: Twin Knobs is another peninsular campground with a beach at Cave Run Lake.
  • Backcountry: Backcountry or “dispersed” camping is permitted in many areas. The most popular places include Red River Gorge (overnight parking pass required), along the Sheltowee Trace (at least 300 feet from the trail), and around the big lakes.

Where to Stay Nearby

  • Cabin Rentals: Cabin rentals are a good option for privacy and serenity. Rentals are available in Red River Gorge, Natural Bridge State Resort Park, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, and Zilpo Recreation Area near Cave Run Lake. Tree houses can be rented in Red River Gorge.
  • Natural Bridge: Hemlock Lodge is the state park lodge situated at the trailhead to Natural Bridge. Cliffview Lodge is a private alternative located nearby.
  • Cumberland Falls: DuPont Lodge, a half-mile walk from the falls, has 52 rooms with a beautiful view.

How to Get There

Interstate 75 and Interstate 64 pass through Daniel Boone National Forest. Watch for brown signs denoting the various exits to state parks and recreation areas.

For Red River Gorge, take I-64 East to Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway (exit 98), then exit at Slade (exit 33). For Cumberland Falls, take I-75 to Cumberland Falls Highway (US-25). The Natural Arch Scenic Area is located in Southern Kentucky off of US 27. Cave Run Lake is 1.5 hours east of Lexington, accessible from I-64.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Federal land mixes somewhat unpredictably with private property and state parks within the proclaimed boundaries of Daniel Boone National Forest. Pay attention to signs and check regulations before making assumptions. For instance, pets are allowed on trails in Red River Gorge, but not in the state-managed Natural Bridge area a few miles away.
  • Sadly, injuries and fatalities are an annual occurrence within Red River Gorge. The casualties are more often backcountry campers, not climbers. Don’t hike at night, and never camp too close to the edge of cliffs.
  • Black bears have made a comeback within Daniel Boone National Forest. Proper food storage is required by law.