Login | April 10, 2021

Red River Gorge

Pete’s World

Published: April 5, 2021

Having endured a year of social distancing and cabin fever you just might be looking for a wonderful little weekend getaway this spring. And if you are I’ve got a stellar day-hiking sabbatical to lay on you, a place that’s still fresh in my mind seeing that I was only just there several weeks ago in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
The “Red” as it’s known, is a unique landscape lying within Daniel Boone National Forest, unique enough to be designated a National Natural Landmark. Located six hours south of Akron-Cleveland in east-central Kentucky, the Red consists of 45 square miles of stunning sandstone escarpments, some of which loom 200 feet above the valley floors.
The gorge was primarily shaped by the Red River in a manner that's very similar to how the Colorado River has shaped the Grand Canyon. Thus, after millions of years of eroding, the Red River’s left a cornucopia of impressive rock formations - arches, natural bridges, balanced rocks and towering rock islands. As a matter of fact the Red contains an estimated 150 arches ––a number surpassed only by Utah’s Arches National Park.
The plethora of sandstone cliffs is why this area is a world-class rock climbing destination but there’s more than just sandstone cliffs and rock formations in the Red. It also contains a ton of waterfalls, stream valleys and many miles of wooded wilderness - all of which make for a stellar hiking environment.
Now there’s roughly 60 miles of hiking trail down there. But if you add up all the tracks in and around the Red that trail miles number balloons into the hundreds. And because the hiking is so spectacular it’s tough for me offer up just one or two five-star hikes. Thus, I’m going to recommend several popular regions that will provide a wealth of awesome hiking opportunities.
Indian Staircase Region
Located in the northern gorge off Rt. 715 is the Bison Way trailhead, which gives you access to a collection of official and unofficial trails.
The primary attraction in this region is the scramble up an escarpment called Indian Staircase. The staircase is a fully exposed scramble up a smooth, low-angle sandstone rock face via foot & handholds carved in the rock. As the legend goes, these man-made pockets were carved over a thousand years ago by the Adena Indians. Now the slope isn’t really that steep, and it doesn’t require ropes or climbing gear, but the exposed nature of the rock face can be quite intimidating.
For those of you who are adverse to “air” you can go the long way around the staircase and hike to the top by following the Sheltowee Trace/Bison Way trail. There are a number of great vista to explore in the area above the staircase including a spectacular rock shelter known as the Council Chamber. Also nearby is Adena Arch, Indian Arch, and a rock formation called the Frog’s Head. Map and GPS waypoints can be found at https://www.kentuckyhiker.com/latest/2020/11/2/indian-staircase-loop-adena-arch-and-cloudsplitter-spurs. Better yet carry a hiking guidebook.
Natural Bridge State Park Region. Trailheads are located in the southwest gorge area around the Hemlock Lodge. Now though this region offers a collection of easier/shorter hikes, it’s a breathtaking area nonetheless. A fan favorite in this region is the 2.5-mile hike up to the Natural Bridge, which entails about 650 feet of vertical gain. The views atop the Natural Bridge are stunning, and if you crave more hiking miles and more stunning vistas continue on to Battleship Rock, Laurel Ridge and Lover’s Leap. Use the park’s free trail map for this area.
East Central Region
This region is located off Chimney Top Road, and the hiking here is much more wilderness oriented and not recommended for the casual hiker. Also know that unless you have two vehicles, you’re likely to do out-and-back hiking. My favorite trail in this neck of the woods is the Rough Trail, which is rough indeed. But the vistas and stream valleys are totally worth all the up and downhill hiking that’s required. Again, this is an area where I’d carry a trail guide, especially if a couple of different trails are in your hiking itinerary.
Hey it’s finally spring, so put that cabin fever to rest and get on down to the Red River Gorge now before the place is crawling with humanity come June.