Featured Image: Todd the Hiker standing beneath Star Gap Arch. Photo credit, Leah Nystrom
And he [Jesus] said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming & going, and they had no leisure even to eat. ~Mark 6:31
Escaping the Fall Crowds in Red River Gorge
One complaint I hear when talking to people familiar with Red River Gorge is that it is too crowded. You will certainly encounter quite a few people, especially on the popular hiking trails on a beautiful fall weekend, but you can escape the crowds if you are willing and able to be a little more adventurous.
Our early explorations in Red River Gorge focused primarily on the official trails with an occasional off-trail excursion and many repeated hikes on our favorite trails to introduce friends and family to this amazing little corner of God’s creation. One fall, several years back, we planned a couple of overnight backpacking trips to the gorge. And, rather than sticking to the official trails we decided to go deeper, exploring two of the longer unofficial trails on our outrageGIS maps and also described in Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands.”
Before highlighting a couple of the trails we have explored I want to offer a few tips and notes of caution on hiking and backpacking off-trail in Red River Gorge.
Know Your Limits: I don’t want to make it sound like these are high-risk, extreme hikes comparable to climbing Mt. Everest, but at the same time there are plenty of dangers that cannot be ignored. Even on the official trails in Red River Gorge there are many high cliffs and rocky paths where one could easily slip, fall, and sustain a serious injury, or worse! These risks are compounded when hiking on unofficial trails. If you are injured and unable to walk, you are further from help and it is less likely other hikers will just happen along to provide assistance. There are also many areas where cell service is sketchy or even non-existent. If you are an inexperienced hiker, I recommend sticking to the official trails until you have a few more miles under your belt and are confident with rough terrain and longer distances before venturing out on these unofficial trails! There are so many great places to explore and amazing things to see on the official trails in Red River Gorge that you really do not need to take the risk.
Be Prepared: Even if you are only going out for the day, you still need to be prepared. Wear proper clothing and bring plenty of water (at least 2 liters per person for a day hike) and something to eat. You should also carry some form of emergency shelter (a 55 gallon trash bag will do), a whistle, a headlamp or small flashlight, a way to start fires, a knife, a first-aid kit, and, last but not least, a good topographic map and a compass (even if you carry a GPS unit). Handheld GPS units are nice, but batteries die (carry extras), LCD screens can get cracked (personal experience), and reception can be poor or non-existent especially in deep valleys with heavy tree cover. Take time to learn how to use a map and compass. This is an important skill to master if you have a desire to go deeper into the wilderness. A book I have owned since childhood, and one of the best on the subject, is “Be Expert with Map & Compass” by Bjorn Kjellstrom and Carina Kjellstrom Elgin.
Finding Your Way: Difficulty navigating is a concern. Even though many of the unofficial trails are well traveled, especially in the first half-mile or so, there are no signs, trail blazes, or navigational aids of any sort. As you get further off-the-beaten-path, these trails can be quite overgrown and difficult to follow. There are also many side trails that can cause confusion finding your route. A good map is essential. The USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps are helpful for understanding the terrain, but generally do not show even the official trails. The outrageGIS Red River Gorge Bakpaking Map is the best I have found for actually exploring the area, showing even the smallest unofficial side trails, the best views, and all the established campsites. Goodpaster’s book is a great companion to these maps, providing detailed descriptions of the unofficial trails with GPS coordinates, elevation charts, trail ratings, and more. With some experience in wilderness navigation and these two resources, you should have no problem finding your way around the backcountry trails of Red River Gorge.
Backcountry Camping: Most of the unofficial trails can be explored on day hikes, but there is nothing like the serenity you can find while backcountry camping in Red River Gorge! Watching a sunset while eating dinner perched on a rock outcropping overlooking the valley below or listening to the call of a whip-poor-will while gazing up at a blanket of stars on a clear summer night are just a couple of things you won’t get to experience on a day hike. If you plan to do any backcountry camping in the gorge, there are a few things you need to be aware of:
Recreation Fee Pass Required: You will need to purchase a recreation fee pass ($5/1-day, $7/3-day, $50/1-year as of January 1, 2022) in order to park overnight in the gorge between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. Fee passes can be purchased at the Gladie Visitor Center or any number of vendors in the area (both gas stations in Slade just off of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway sell them). You need to fill out the starting date of your trip on the pass in non-erasable ink and display it on the dash or rear view mirror of your vehicle with the date facing out and clearly visible. (Note: you do NOT need to purchase a pass if you are only day hiking.)
Where to Camp: There are no official backcountry campsites in Red River Gorge, but there are many well established campsites along the unofficial trails that you will find marked on the outrageGIS maps. These sites are easily accessible, generally clear of underbrush and vegetation, and most already have rock campfire rings. So, while there are no rules that prohibit creating new campsites (within the restrictions listed below), there is really no reason to go the DIY route. Using an existing campsite minimizes impact on the area and is less work.
For all of the regulations on backcountry camping, fires, etc. see the USDA/Forest Service website, but the basic guidelines are as follow:
Camping is not permitted:
– in any picnic area or parking area.
– within 300 feet of any road or developed trail.
– within 100 feet of the base of any cliff, or the back of any rockshelter.
– within 600 feet of Gray’s Arch.
– within any area posted “No Camping.”
Availability of Water: The key point to emphasize on this topic is that there are no water sources at the trailheads. Also, many trails run along the top of ridgelines where there is no easy access to natural water sources. Even if you plan to camp in a valley where a creek is shown on the map, keep in mind that some of the smaller creeks are seasonal and do stop flowing during drier times of the year. If you are planning to treat your own water you may want to consider the possibility that the distance to the nearest natural source may be further than just packing in the water you need and hiking back to your vehicle at some point to resupply. You should always have a way to treat water in an emergency, just realize that sometimes it may not be the best option for your primary water supply.
Food Storage Restrictions: Even if you are camping in a developed campground, like Koomer Ridge, you still must ensure that all food, trash, and any scented or odorous items that might attract bears are properly stored. The approved storage methods applicable for backcountry camping include bear-resistant containers or a bear hang. (Note: food storage restrictions do NOT apply if you are only day hiking.)
Be Considerate of Others: Whether day hiking or camping, but especially when you are backcountry camping, remember that most people are there to enjoy the peace and serenity of the outdoors. Nobody wants to hear your obnoxious, drunken hollering at 1 AM in the morning, so just zip it! Besides, high cliffs and a high BAC generally are not a good mix. Also, if you pack it in, you need to pack it out. Clean up your own trash and pick up anything you might find that has been left behind by others. As for campfires, make sure there are no bans in effect, collect only as much downed wood as you need, and most importantly, make sure your fire is completely out before you depart. Finally, though many have already carved their marks on the rocks and trees of the gorge, there is no reason to add your signature to the page.
A Tale of Two Trails
On two beautiful weekends in the fall of 2014 we took advantage of nice weather to hike a couple of unofficial trails we had not previously explored and enjoy some backcountry camping. The first trip was September 26th and 27th, just as the fall colors were staring to appear. And the second was October 24th and 25th which was likely the peak weekend for that year’s fall colors.
The trails we hiked both weekends are off of the Double Arch Trail (#201). The first 1.4 miles of this trail were originally a part of Tunnel Ridge Road that has been closed to vehicular traffic for several years. Some older maps I have seen show this as an active part of Tunnel Ridge Road. However, regardless of what your map might show, this is now a hiking trail and you need to park at the Auxier Ridge trailhead. As these are unofficial, unnamed trails, I will refer to them by the names Goodpaster uses in his “Hinterlands” book. On our first trip we hiked the Star Gap Arch Trail (pg. 218), and on the second trip we hiked the Jailhouse Rock Trail (pg. 163). We camped in different spots on each trip, but both campsites were located near the beginning of the Star Gap Arch Trail.
Here is a rough map of these two trails I have drawn in Google Maps which also highlights a few key landmarks. I do not suggest using this map for navigation purposes, but it should give you a good overview of the area.
I will forgo detailed descriptions of these hikes and share the beauty of the two trails through photographs and brief captions. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” So here are several thousand, unwritten words for you to enjoy.
Star Gap Arch Trip (September 26th & 27th 2014)
At the end of the Star Gap Arch Trail enjoying lunch and the view in comfort with our Helinox Chair One backpacking chairs.
Jailhouse Rock Trip (October 24th & 25th 2014)
Both of our trips were on fall weekends with near perfect weather; and, although we were hiking from one of the busiest trailheads in the gorge, we still found plenty of solitude. The second weekend was one of the most crowded we have experienced in terms of the number of cars and people at the trailhead! Yet, after hiking past a camp site about 1/4 mile down the Jailhouse Rock Trail, we only had brief encounters with six other hikers, a group of three, a couple, and a solo hiker. After leaving the official trail behind, we were basically alone in the wilderness, proving that it really is possible to get away from the crowds in Red River Gorge, even on the busiest fall weekends.
If you plan to visit Red River Gorge on a fall weekend I strongly suggest that you arrive early so you can find a parking spot at the trailhead. And, if you really want to avoid the fall crowds, you do have a couple of options. You can plan your trip on a weekday when everyone else is at work, or build on your hiking skills, get a good set of maps, strap on your backpack, and start exploring “off-trail.”
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014-2022.