Located about 45 minutes southeast of Lexington, Kentucky, and an easy two to two-and-a-half hour drive from Cincinnati, Ohio, Red River Gorge is a popular hiking and rock climbing destination in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Officially known as the Red River Gorge Geological Area, it is part of the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest.
Red River Gorge boasts some of the most unique and rugged scenery in the region and is also home to over 100 natural rock arches from the small but interesting, to large and magnificent. Spectacular views like the header photo of Indian Staircase taken from across the valley are common throughout the gorge.
Hiking in Red River Gorge
There are numerous official trails in the gorge and sticking to these marked trails is a good idea if you are new to the area, an inexperienced hiker, or are hiking with young children. Even the official trails can be rugged and difficult. There are numerous high cliffs with no guard rails throughout the area, so no matter how experienced you are or what trail you are on, exercise great caution. Steep drop-offs are often unseen until you are right on top of them; and if you are hiking with children keep them close by your side at all times! My blog’s “Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” page provides more information on the gorge and also highlights several of our favorite hikes ranging from easy to difficult.
For more experienced, knowledgeable, and confident hikers the gorge offers great opportunities to explore challenging, spectacular, unofficial trails like those around Indian Staircase. Many of these trails are not suitable for children, and climbing Indian Staircase is at the top of that list in my book. Some adults may also be intimidated trying to climb the staircase. Fortunately, those who do not feel adventurous can still explore the area above Indian Staircase, you just have to hike a little farther and double back on the return trip unless you somehow gain the confidence along the way to attempt the downward climb.
Hiking Indian Staircase
Good topographic maps are a must if you are venturing off the official, marked trails in the gorge. I am a big fan of the map set offered by OutrageGIS, though the 2009 edition I use does not cover the trails around Indian Staircase. I do not know if the 2013 edition has been updated to include this area. For this hike I relied on the US Forest Service’s 2012 topographic map of the gorge (note: this is a 20 MB .pdf file and is a slow download). This is a good map, but it does not show any of the unofficial trails, though I have sketched in the relevant trails on the modified map section shown in Figure 1. The best source of information for this hike was Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” which describes over 100 unofficial trails in the gorge.
There are several ways to access Indian Staircase if you know the unofficial trails. We chose to park at the Bison Way trailhead along KY-715, near the Gladie Learning Center. We hiked the Bison Way Trail (#210) to the Sheltowee Trace (#100) and followed that west to the unofficial, unmarked approach trail to Indian Staircase. The approach trail is well traveled so it is not too difficult to find the cutoff or follow the trail itself.
The approach trail climbs rapidly, heading northwest off the main trail. After a bit of uphill hiking you reach a rugged dry wash area that requires a scramble up the rocks. After completing this scramble there are several short sections that require a bit of searching in order to find the best way up to the next level. In my opinion the most intimidating part of climbing the staircase for the first time is that your sight range is often limited and you cannot see what lies ahead.
The final element of intimidation, though, is the fully exposed scramble up the smooth sandstone rock face with only the shallow carved footholds to assist you. This, of course, is the section of the trail that gives the rock formation its name. As legend has it these indentations were carved by the Adena people over a thousand years ago, though their true age and origin is likely lost to the annals of history. The slope is not as steep as it first seems, and the climb does not take ropes or climbing gear, but the completely exposed face adds a major intimidation factor. No matter how comfortable you might feel on exposed rock slopes, I would not recommend this climb if it is wet or icy!
Even if you do not climb the staircase itself, it is still worth taking the long way around to get to the top by following the Sheltowee Trace and coming in from the west. There are a number of great features to explore in the area above the staircase including a spectacular, large rock shelter known as the Council Chamber, and an interesting little rock formation called the Frog’s Head. Regardless of which route you follow, I also recommend taking the unofficial side trail (one mile round trip) out to Adena Arch which boasts some spectacular views of its own.
There are more areas we did not have time to explore on this hike, including the area on top and to the east of the staircase, as well as some interesting sounding features a friend told me about that are beyond the point we turned back near the Council Chamber rock shelter. I look forward to another hike on this route, not only to venture into these unexplored areas, but also to give the staircase a better assessment without the first-time intimidation factor, and to take more photographs documenting the climb. For now, I hope this gives you enough information to find your way on this adventurous hike and that my photographs will inspire you to make the trip to explore this spectacular little corner of Red River Gorge!
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.
Note: This article was also published as a guest post on the Rocky® S2V™ Blog on February 18, 2015.