(Featured Image: Late fall view looking across the valley from Auxier Ridge to Double Arch)
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. ~Isaiah 55:12
Red River Gorge – A Beautiful Little Corner of God’s Creation
My wife and I have been exploring Kentucky’s Red River Gorge for several years now; and, while we have traveled great distances to some pretty spectacular places, two factors put Red River Gorge at the top of our list of favorite hiking destinations. First, and foremost, is the sheer beauty of the gorge. No matter what time of year we have hiked there, even in winter, the scenery is amazing. And, with the variety of landscapes, from towering cliffs and ridges offering panoramic views, to forested valleys with tumbling streams, water falls, and rock shelters, to the numerous, incredible arches, there are no limits to the natural wonders to be explored in this magnificent place. The second factor making it top our list, is the proximity to home. It is an easy two to two-and-a-half hour drive from Cincinnati, making it possible to travel down and back in the same day and still have time for a five to ten mile hike, with a break for lunch at some scenic spot along the trail.
There are actually three officially designated areas in the vicinity of Red River Gorge: the Red River Gorge Geological Area and Clifty Wilderness, both part of the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest; and also the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, which is part of the Kentucky State Parks system. Rules and regulations do vary from one area to another, so it is worth knowing where you are planning your hike. For example, dogs are not allowed on the trails in Natural Bridge State Resort Park, because it is also part of a designated Kentucky State Nature Preserve, while they are permitted in Red River Gorge.
This is just an overview of what the Red River Gorge area has to offer. I have included a variety of hikes from the very easy to the more difficult. If you are an experienced hiker I suspect even the most adventurous hikes listed here would only be a moderate challenge. On the other hand, if you are new to hiking I suggest starting with the easy or moderate hikes before you try to tackle the Auxier Ridge, Auxier Branch, Double Arch loop, or the Gray’s Arch, Rough Trail, Pinch ‘Em Tight loop. These more difficult hikes have steep hills to climb and descend with trails that are rocky, rough, and slippery in places. Know your limits and be prepared!
If you are an experienced hiker and want to explore some of the more remote corners of the gorge, you might want to check out my “Red River Gorge – Off-Trail” and “Hiking Indian Staircase” pages. Keep in mind, though, that these hikes are generally more difficult than the adventurous hikes discussed on this page. Take my warnings seriously and build your hiking and outdoor skills before you attempt any hikes that take you off the marked trails shown on the official US Forest Service map!
In general, the official trails are very well marked, though there are places where heavily traveled, unofficial side trails could lead you off course. If you plan to do anything beyond the moderate hikes I have listed here, I recommend getting a good set of topographic maps and/or a guide book (see the Resources section). One other benefit of Red River Gorge, I will mention, is that there are many interconnected trails; and, having a good set of maps will allow you to combine them into shorter or longer hikes tailored to your abilities and motivation. Of course you always have the option of doing short out-and-back hikes to the scenic attractions if you just want the photo ops. To me, though, you really need to go deeper to experience the full grandeur and magnificence of Red River Gorge.
DANGER! High Cliffs: There are many high cliffs with no guard rails throughout the gorge so use caution, especially when hiking with children, as you sometimes cannot see the cliff edges until you are right on top of them.
Potable Water: There are no sources of potable water at the trailheads or anywhere along the trails. If you do any of the adventurous hikes listed here I recommend bringing at least 2 liters of water per person. Even if you are prepared to treat your own water, be aware that some of the streams are seasonal and may not be flowing in the drier times of the year.
Recreation Fee Passes: A pass is NOT required if you are only day hiking in Red River Gorge; however, If you plan to do any overnight, backcountry camping be aware that a recreation fee permit is required between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. As of 2014 the passes cost $3 per day, $5 for 3 days, or $30 for an annual pass and can be purchased at the Gladie Learning Center and a number of stores in the area. Fill out the pass with the starting date of your backcountry trip and hang it on the rear view mirror of your vehicle. Don’t try to game the system by leaving the date blank, though, as the rangers do check the parking lots at night, and they will issue citations. I once spoke to a pair backpackers who, in making a hasty departure from the trailhead, forgot to fill in the date and were fined $75 for their oversight.
Food Storage Restrictions: Food storage restrictions do NOT apply if you are only day hiking in Red River Gorge; however, if you plan to do any camping, whether in a developed campground or in the backcountry, you must ensure that all food, trash, and any scented or odorous items that might attract bears are properly stored. Approved storage methods include bear-resistant containers and bins, a bear hang, and closed, hard-top vehicles or trailers.
Example of a proper Bear-hang.
The hikes listed here are divided into three categories: easy, easy to moderate, and hikes for the more adventurous. Even though the easy hikes can be done by just about anyone, some still have stairs to climb and there are often cliffs and dangerous ledges along the trails, so caution is always in order, especially with young children. If you plan to embark on any of the more adventurous hikes expect to climb some significant hills and realize that the distances involved require some preparation and at least a moderate level of fitness.
The numbers shown in parenthesis after each of the trail names [e.g., Sky Bridge (#214)] correspond to the trail numbers shown on the maps and are usually marked on the signs at trail junctions, as well.
Sky Bridge (#214) – The parking area for Sky Bridge is located at the end of an access road off of KY-715 in the northeast corner of the gorge area. This arch is accessible almost directly from the parking area without any hiking involved. There is a 0.7 mile loop trail around and under the arch that you can hike if desired, but don’t expect much of a challenge. Even though this is not a hiking destination, I still recommend a quick stop at Sky Bridge as it is a very scenic arch and a location that offers some great views of the gorge. It can also be quite crowded at times because it is so accessible.
Whistling Arch (#234) – The parking area and trailhead are located on the east side of the gorge area along KY-715. This is an easy 0.4 mile (round trip), out-and-back hike ending at Whistling Arch.
Angel Windows (#218) – The parking area and trailhead are located on the east side of the gorge area along KY-715. This is an easy 0.6 mile (round trip), out-and-back hike ending at Angel Windows, which is a series of smaller arches.
Princess Arch (#233) and Chimney Top Rock (#235): The trailheads for both trails are in the Chimney Top Recreation Area located at the end of Chimney Top Road, a 5-mile long, gravel road. The Princess Arch trail is a 0.5 mile (round-trip) out-and-back hike that passes over the top of Princess Arch. It is a bit of a challenge to get to the area underneath the arch, and caution is in order as you can easily slip on the steep, rocky slopes that must be traversed. That said, it is well worth the effort as the arch is much larger, and more impressive, than it might appear from above. The Chimney Top trail is also a 0.5 mile (round-trip) out-and-back hike. While there is not an arch on this trail it does end at an overlook that gives you a great view of the gorge. Neither of these hikes is difficult, certainly not a challenge for experienced hikers, but they are well worth seeing for their spectacular scenery!
Easy to Moderate Hikes:
Rock Bridge (#207) – The trailhead for this hike is located at the end of Rock Bridge Road (a 2.5 mile gravel road) off of KY-715 in the southeastern corner of the gorge area. This is a moderate, 1.5 mile, loop hike with a very nice waterfall, Creation Falls, and a unique arch that forms a bridge over a creek, hence the name Rock Bridge. If you want to add some distance to make this a more substantial hike, I recommend hiking out-and-back on the Swift Camp Creek trail (#219) north from the Rock Bridge loop. The Swift Camp Creek trail is fairly rugged and offers some great views of the Swift Camp Creek gorge that are well worth the extra hike.
Whittleton Arch (#216 and #217) – The trailhead for this hike is at the back of the Whittleton state park campground, on the east side of KY-11, across from Natural Bridge State Resort Park. This is also part of the Sheltowee Trace. This is a moderate, 2.0 mile, out-and-back hike with interesting scenery along Whittleton branch out to Whittleton Arch, which was formed when the roof of a rock shelter collapsed at some point in history.
Natural Bridge – The trailhead for “The Original” trail (#1) is located just behind the gift shop at Natural Bridge State Resort Park. This is a moderate 1.5 mile out-and-back hike (0.75 miles each way assuming you use “The Original Trail”), with a 500 foot elevation gain on the way to Natural Bridge. “The Original Trail” is the most direct, and easiest, route up to the arch; however, there are several interconnected trails that allow you to vary your route on the way up or down. There are also multiple trails that allow you to explore the area on top of and around the arch. Keep in mind that Natural Bridge is the best known and most visited arch in the area, and probably in all of Kentucky, so it can also be very crowded. If you are looking to get away from it all and find some solitude, don’t expect to find it on this hike. Even so, the arch is worth seeing and by wandering around the interconnected trails you can make a real hike out of this.
Hikes for the More Adventurous:
Auxier Ridge Trail (#204) – The Auxier Ridge parking area and trailhead are located at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road (about 3 miles of gravel road). The turn for Tunnel Ridge Road is located about 2.5 miles east of the town of Slade on KY-15. This is a more rugged, 4.2 mile, out-and-back hike to Courthouse Rock (2.1 miles each way). This is a great hike that offers several spectacular cliff edge views on both sides of Auxier Ridge and along the ridge out to Courthouse Rock. By itself, this trail runs mostly along the top of Auxier Ridge, so it is not a terribly rugged hike. Strictly as an out-and-back hike, I would put this more into the moderate category. That said…
Auxier Ridge (#204), Auxier Branch (#203), Double Arch (#201) Loop – If you are feeling more adventurous you can hike out to the end of the Auxier Ridge trail and then use the Auxier Branch trail to connect to the Double Arch trail to form a loop. If you turn right at the trail junction onto the Double Arch trail this is a 1.5 mile (round trip) out-and-back that ends at Double Arch, which you won’t see until you are almost right at the arch itself. You can see the arch from below at one point along the trail, but it is easily missed. The view from Double Arch is definitely worth the extra hike, though. Including the out-and-back to Double Arch the total distance is about 6.5 miles. One nice thing about this hike is that the last mile or so is along an old road (part of Tunnel Ridge Road that is no longer used for vehicular traffic) back to the trailhead; so, when you are at your most tired the hike becomes much less strenuous.
Gray’s Arch (#205), Rough (#221), Pinch ‘Em Tight (#223) Loop – The Gray’s Arch trailhead and parking area are located on Tunnel Ridge Road approximately 0.75 miles after you turn off of KY-15. This is a fairly rugged hike, about 6.5 miles in length, including an unofficial side trail out to a very scenic spot. This side trail (~0.25 miles one way) is not an official trail, so it is not marked with any signage. It is pretty well used, though, so it is fairly easy to find, and branches off to the left just past the junction of Rough Trail (#221) and Rush Ridge Trail (#227), assuming you are traveling the loop in a clockwise direction. The side trail is well worth the added hike as it ends on a high point with a spectacular, panoramic view overlooking the valley below…a great midway point on the hike to stop for lunch!!
The Whip-Poor-Will cabin at Red River Outdoors
Information and Exhibits:
Gladie Learning Center
3451 Sky Bridge Road
Stanton, KY 40380
Located on the north side of the gorge area on KY-715, the Gladie Learning Center has nice interpretive exhibits and is a good place to get information on trail conditions, closures, etc. They also have more detailed maps and trail guides available for purchase as well as recreation fee passes which are required if you plan to do any overnight, backcountry camping. Fee passes are NOT required for day hiking in Red River Gorge.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
2135 Natural Bridge Road
Slade, KY 40376
Located on the west side of KY-11 about 2 miles south of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, Natural Bridge State Resort Park has both a gift shop, where you can get information and maps, and a nature center that has nice exhibits relating to the natural and human history of the area.
Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Sean Patrick Hill, published by Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL, 2012.
This is a current, complete, and well researched (the author has personally hiked every trail he writes about) guide to the official trails in the Red River Gorge area. This book is the best one I have seen on the Gorge in terms of both content and format. The trails are presented as complete, self-contained hikes, which gives you to ability to choose your destination based on scenic attractions, distance, and difficulty level. If you plan are planning a trip to Red River Gorge, I highly recommend this book!
Hinterlands by Jerrell Goodpaster, published by Lost Branch Productions, Owingsville, KY, 2008.
This is a gem of a book for experienced hikers wanting to explore the “Hinterlands” of Red River Gorge! The author has spent many years exploring the area, and has compiled a comprehensive volume of over 100 unofficial trails. For each trail he includes a summary of distance, highlights, and cautions, followed by detailed directions to the trailhead and descriptions of what you can expect to find along the trail (with painstakingly measured distances), elevation profile charts, and GPS coordinates for major points-of-interest. He also rates each trail, on a scale of 1-10, for its aesthetic quality and difficulty. Having hiked in the area, and knowing the terrain, I would strongly recommend that you heed the author’s warning that this book is a “down-n-dirty guide for experienced hikers, rather than another general guidebook for casual hikers or walkers.”
Note: the author wrote an earlier book on the official trails, Red River Gorge Trail Guide, also published by Lost Branch Productions. I have not read this book so I cannot comment with authority, but judging from the quality and thoroughness of Hinterlands I would assume it is an excellent guide.
Kentucky’s Land of the Arches by Robert H. Ruchhoft, published by The Pucelle Press, Cincinnati, OH. 1986.
This book is dated but still very complete, including detailed sections on the history and geology of the area, which are quite an interesting read. I do find the format of the trail guide sections a bit cumbersome and difficult to follow, though the descriptions do contain a lot of detailed information and cover all of the trails in the area. There are black & white topographic maps included for major areas of the Gorge, but they are difficult to read with no shading or color.
Out of Print – Hiking the Red by Bluegrass Group Sierra Club, published by Harmony House, Louisville, KY, 2000.
This book gives a nice overview of the area along with simple maps and concise descriptions of all the trails in the Red River Gorge area. It is well done and useful to get an overview of what to expect on any given trail. That said, the book is currently out of print and not worth the asking price on Amazon.com, especially with the more recent publication of Hill’s outstanding book.
Description from the outrageGIS.com website:
– GPS mapped trails and backcountry campsites
– 1:15,840 scale & significantly more detailed than any other map!
– Gorgeous full-color map that shows forest canopy cover
– 50-foot elevation contours & GPS coordinate grids
– Bird’s Eye View map and trail elevation profiles
– Updated, 2013
If you are planning to do any amount of hiking in the Red River Gorge area I highly recommend this set of maps which includes most of the gorge area trails plus a substantial amount of detail not shown on other maps. You can purchase this set of maps online from outrageGIS Mapping or from various vendors in the area. We purchased our set (an earlier edition) several years ago at the Gladie Learning Center for about $15 and have found them extremely useful for all of our explorations in Red River Gorge. According to a reader’s comment (thanks John!) the map set is no longer available at the Gladie center, so you will need to check one of the stores in Slade, or you can always order them online at the link above.
(1.21 MB) – This map gives you a good overview of the area showing locations of all the roads, trails, and scenic attractions (does not include details of Natural Bridge State Resort Park). This map is not intended for navigation purposes, though it will suffice on some of the shorter (<1mile), well-marked/travelled trails.
This web page has links to a multitude of downloadable PDF trail guides and maps throughout the Daniel Boone National Forest, including the Red River Gorge area.
(19.99 MB) – Large file, slow download & open! – This is a decent map that includes topographic details, but it is very slow zooming and panning in Adobe Reader, even on a desktop or laptop computer, because of the large file size. If you have a way to print this map in its original size (36” x 36”) it could be useful. (Does NOT include trail details for Natural Bridge State Resort Park)
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013-2015.