Red River Gorge, Kentucky: The Complete Guide

Courthouse Rock during fall at Red River Gorge, Kentucky

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Red River Gorge

Address
Red River Gorge, Kentucky 40387, USA

For decades, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky was quietly celebrated mainly for its world-class climbing, but word of this area's beauty has spread. Each year brings a record number of visitors to the 45-square-mile geological area. While the nearby Natural Bridge State Park offers a more curated outdoor experience, the nationally designated Clifty Wilderness area of Red River Gorge remains wilder and freer. More than 100 natural arches, breathtaking cliffs, and countless rock shelters are just a few of the many reasons to visit.

Development has progressed slowly in Red River Gorge. Predictably, the pace is increasing with interest. Slade, the nearest town, has a long way to go before becoming “the next Gatlinburg,” but new options such as ziplines, cabin rentals, and adventure experiences open every year along with restaurants.

History

The splendor and important habitat inside Red River Gorge was nearly lost forever. During the 1960s, the gorge was scheduled to be dammed up and flooded; Congress approved the proposal and funded it. Fortunately, protests and conservation efforts began in 1967 and didn’t stop until 1993 when President Bill Clinton placed a stretch of the Red River under protection by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

The Red River Gorge was designated as a National Archaeological District in 2003 due to the many relics and bones found in rock shelters. Artifacts are attributed to the Adena, a Native American culture that existed between 800 B.C. and 100 A.D. 

Hiking

Red River Gorge hosts more than 70 miles of excellent hiking trails including sections of the 333-mile Sheltowee Trace trail that runs all the way to Tennessee. For a less lofty day hike, Auxier Ridge has impressive views and never fails to please. The Chimney Tops are a quick, easy adventure with views and a flat trail; Princess Arch is another short hike from the same parking area. The Sky Bridge Recreational Area is easily accessible and offers views from paved paths. For more serious hiking, Rough Trail, Gray’s Arch, Rock Bridge, and Swift Camp Creek are popular picks.

Note that official trails are blazed with white diamonds, though the Sheltowee Trace is blazed in places with white turtles. As when hiking anywhere, avoid damaging the ecosystem and stay on the trail at all times.

Rock Climbing

“The Red,” as it’s known by climbers from around the world, is home to some of the best crags in the United States. Steep sandstone features rich with iron deposits are a little slice of heaven for friction and grip. Rock shelters add to the fun. Although the focus is sport climbing, there are plenty of trad and bouldering opportunities, too. Whether you’ve come to “send” a 5.14 or do some light scrambling, the Red River Gorge has the rocks.

Military Wall and Left Flank offer challenging routes that begin just shortly after passing through Nada Tunnel. Phantasia has long been a playground for climbers. Tower Rock is rumored to be the place where climbing in the gorge began in the 1950s.

The annual Rocktoberfest festival held each October is a celebration of climbing culture in Red River Gorge.

Camping

Red River Gorge offers plenty of primitive camping, and many Kentuckians have their favorite “secret” spots shared only among friends. When choosing where to set up, keep in mind that camping is prohibited within 300 feet of trails and 100 feet of rock shelters. Although you’ll see a lot of old fire rings in the comfy confines of rock shelters, sleeping or building a fire there is technically illegal. At least two species of threatened or endangered bats live in the gorge.

Koomer Ridge is perhaps the best-known campground near Red River Gorge, but it fills up quickly because of the great location near trails. Several alternatives for primitive, RV, and “glamping” campgrounds are within a 20-minute drive. If you want to meet people, the sprawling area behind Miguel’s Pizza is a notoriously sociable and inexpensive option ($2 a night); some climbers spend months bivouacked there!

Hiking at Silvermine Arch in Red River Gorge, Kentucky

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Where to Eat

Miguel’s Pizza on KY-11 (Natural Bridge Road) has been a fixture in the area since the 1980s. The grounds serve as a cultural epicenter where climbers eat, camp, compare notes, and occasionally compete for glory on the basketball court. Showers and a gear shop are available. Good pizza and lots of media coverage have turned Miguel’s into a must-see experience for roadtrippers.

If Miguel’s is too busy—it often is—then check out Red River Rockhouse just down the road for farm-to-table food and local brews.

Overnight Permit Fees

Entrance to Red River Gorge is free; however, you’ll need a valid permit displayed in your vehicle to park overnight between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Permits can be purchased at area gas stations and mini-marts, the Gladie Visitor’s Center, and J&H Outdoors in Lexington ($3 for one night; $5 for three nights). Once you have your permit, don’t just park anywhere along the roads. Legal parking areas along KY-77 and KY-715 are designated with large “P” signs.

Best Time to Visit

The Red River Gorge is open throughout the year; although, some service roads close in winter. October is peak season for enjoying beautiful foliage. Visit on a weekday if you can. Summer and fall weekends with nice weather are busy. Roads and trails become clogged on holidays such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day. Although humid, May and June are great months for birding.

The entrance of Nada Tunnel in Red River Gorge

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Getting There

Red River Gorge in Kentucky is located in Daniel Boone National Forest, about an hour east of Lexington. Take I-64 East to Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway (exit 98) then continue to Slade (exit 33). To enter the gorge through Nada Tunnel, turn left onto KY-15 then right onto KY-77. Pass through the small town of Nada then you’ll reach the infamous tunnel that serves as portal to the gorge. Watch for signs—the turn onto KY-77 can be easy to miss.

For Miguel’s Pizza and Natural Bridge State Park, turn right onto KY-11 instead of left after exiting Mountain Parkway.

Safety Concerns

Sadly, rescues are a regular occurrence in the Red River Gorge. Most injuries and fatalities tend to occur when visitors unfamiliar with the area fall from cliffs in darkness. Don’t camp near the edge, and if you become lost, don’t try to hike out at night.

Day hikes in the mountains turn into dangerous situations when hikers get lost and run out of sunlight. Expect darkness a little sooner if you’re in low terrain (it’s a gorge), and carry a flashlight just in case.

Tips for Visitors

  • Get a Map: You can print detailed trail maps and guides from the Forest Service or buy area maps at gas stations. The Gladie Visitor Center has maps, information, and educational displays, but it’s located on KY-715 (Sky Bridge Road) deep in the gorge. You’ll probably want a map to reference sooner.
  • Check Out Nada Tunnel: Squeezing your car through Nada Tunnel is a rite of passage for first-time visitors to Red River Gorge. The 900-foot tunnel was once used for narrow-gauge trains in the early 1900s. Clearance is only 13 feet.
  • Know the Pet Policy: Unlike at Natural Bridge State Park, pets can join you on the trail in Red River Gorge. Dogs have to remain leashed at developed campgrounds.
  • Know the Alcohol Policy: Kentucky is known for Bluegrass and bourbon, but getting caught with open containers is a no-go in Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge.
  • Watch for Bears: Black bears are making a comeback in Red River Gorge. That’s a good thing, but as the population increases, encounters with humans will become more frequent. Campers are required by law to store food and trash properly.
  • Be Smart: Red River Gorge is loved and enjoyed by thousands of people. It’s also home to endangered plants and archaeological relics—make an effort to leave no trace. Take trash with you rather than contributing to overflowing bins.
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