Red River Gorge – Off-Trail

(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 from time-to-time when talking to people familiar with Red River Gorge is that it is too crowded. While you will certainly encounter quite a few people, especially on a beautiful fall weekend, you can still escape the crowds if you are willing and able to be a little more adventurous.

Until recently, our explorations in Red River Gorge have 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. This fall we had the opportunity to take 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 the trails we 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 seem 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 very unlikely that other hikers will just happen along to provide assistance. If you are an inexperienced hiker, I do not recommend these unofficial trails! There are so many other 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 hard 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 maps are the best I have found for actually exploring the area, showing even the smallest of the 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 ($3/1-day, $5/3-day, $30/1-year as of 2014) 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 Learning Center or any number of vendors in the area (the Shell station in Slade just off of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway sells 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 quite a few 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 shown 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 potable 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 this fall we took advantage of the 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 this 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. Older maps still 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)

IMG_3114Campsite at sunrise from our Star Gap Arch trip.

IMG_3132Star Gap Arch.

IMG_3160View looking north from the Star Gap Arch Trail.

IMG_3173View looking west from one of the Star Gap Arch side trails.

IMG_3178The final climb on the Star Gap Arch Trail. The views are worth it!

IMG_3190 At the end of the Star Gap Arch Trail enjoying lunch and the view in comfort with our Helinox backpacking chairs from Big Anges.

Jailhouse Rock Trip (October 24th & 25th 2014)

IMG_3602First trip with our new Teton Sports backpacks.

When backcountry camping in the gorge you always have a dinner table with a view!

IMG_3662Here are a few billion reasons to go backcountry camping!

IMG_3741View of Star Gap Arch from the Jailhouse Rock Trail.

IMG_3731Looking west on the Jailhouse Rock Trail.

IMG_3744The view from Jailhouse Rock includes Courthouse Rock, Double Arch, Auxier Ridge, and the Red River.

IMG_3781There is a trail here somewhere.

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 actually the most crowded we have ever seen it 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 bone up 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.

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26 thoughts on “Red River Gorge – Off-Trail

  1. Hi Todd! We love your site and were thinking about doing one of these hikes/camps on the July 4th weekend of this year. Do you have any thoughts regarding areas to explore that won’t be too crowded?

    • Thanks. Summer holiday weekend crowds are difficult to predict, fall weekends are guaranteed to be very busy, but summer will likely depend a lot on the weather. I expect the official campgrounds, like Koomer Ridge, will fill up quickly; however, the unofficial, backcountry sites like these may or may not be filled. I have backpacked on a July 4th weekend before and got exactly the spot I wanted. I still recommend you get there as early in the day as possible, and if you can get there early on Friday vs. Saturday that is even better. The later you arrive the more limited your options will be and the further you will have to hike in to find a good campsite. That said, the further from the official trails you hike the fewer people you will see. My other recommendation is to make sure you have good maps to help you locate alternative sites if those you hope to use are already occupied. Hopefully this advice will serve you well. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Regards,
      Todd the Hiker

  2. Hi! Love your site. Have used it multiple times for some great descriptive hikes. I am heading there in October with a friend who has never been camping. I’d love to give her a positive experience since normally we rent a cabin, which is lovely but expensive! And I love backcountry camping more than anything. With that said, id love to have some recs for back country campsites that aren’t on unmarked trails. Something relatively close to our car (1 mile or so) where we can still access it for water and supplies. With this being her first time camping, I’d like to make it a memorable one! Staying on a campground is out of the question unless you have special spots other than Koomer ridge. Would rather have a primitive spot though. Thank you for your wonderful webpage! It’s been a great reference for one of my favorite places in the whole world!

    • Thank you Valerie!

      Even though you don’t want to go on an unmarked trail, I highly recommend the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail I mention on this page. Even though it is an unofficial trail it is as good as many of the official trails and is also an easy hike. The two campsites I mention here (also shown on the map) are just over a mile from the Auxier Ridge trailhead, so your distance criteria would be met. Also, there are other good sites that are easy to find if both of these are occupied. Any sites closer to a trailhead, whether in the Auxier Ridge area or anywhere else in the Gorge for that matter, are generally going to be overrun by the party crowd and won’t provide a good taste of the backcountry. Another advantage of this trail is that it provides easy access to the official Auxier Ridge and Double Arch trails if you plan to do any day hiking, and, you always have the option to explore further out on the Star Gap Arch trail or check out the Jailhouse Rock trail if you are feeling adventurous.

      If you are planning to go on a weekend in October, I recommend trying to get there as early as possible on Friday to ensure you are able to get a decent spot to camp; this applies anywhere in the Gorge on a fall weekend, not just this particular area.

      Let me know if have any other questions, and most of all enjoy!

      Todd the Hiker

  3. Hey Todd, Thanks for taking the time to share these for everyone to see. My boyfriend and I go camping often but this will be our first backcountry camping adventure. After reading this I would like to do the unofficial star gar arch trail. Do you have any recommendations on how to pack light? We planned to bring things to make over a fire like hotdogs and such but not sure how we’d bring a cooler and other things we might need that are a little heavier.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Lauren,

      If you bring anything that requires a cooler, like hot dogs, you can freeze them first so you don’t need ice or cold packs. We have done this a couple times with steaks, but it only works for the first night out, as they won’t stay frozen for very long, unless it is cold outside. I suggest limiting cold items to whatever you can fit in a small soft sided cooler that can be stuffed into, or strapped to the outside of, a backpack.

      To save weight when it comes to meals you may also want to consider pre-packaged meals. You do not necessarily need to buy expensive dehydrated backpacking meals, though. If you go to the grocery store you can likely find quite a few options in the soup or packaged dinner aisle. Many of these will require cooking, or at least boiling water, which means you’d need a backpacking stove and fuel as well as some type of pot. I use an MSR Pocket Rocket ($40 plus 8 oz. of fuel for $6) and an MSR Stowaway Pot ($25).

      If you don’t want to take the plunge to buy a backpacking stove, fuel and a cookware you’ll can go shopping for pre-packaged foods that don’t require cooking. Tuna in single serving foil pouches or peanut butter wrapped in tortillas are typical lunches for us. If these options don’t appeal to you, you can browse the aisles at the grocery store and find things that do. The main things to avoid are cans, and large packages that you cannot eat in a single sitting. Also, you can consider re-packaging things into serving size zip lock bags.

      Depending on how many nights you are planning to be out water is going to be one of your heaviest items, I’d suggest at least 3 liters per person per night for drinking, cooking, and clean-up. There are not any water sources on the ridgeline by Star Gap Arch, nor is there water at the trailhead; so, you will need to bring all the water you need. If you are going to be out for multiple nights you may want to keep the extra water in your car and hike back to the trailhead to resupply each day rather than trying to carry it all to the campsite at one time.

      Hopefully these tips help you. The key things to look for in backpacking meals are lightweight and compact items that won’t spoil and won’t get crushed when you cram them into a backpack.

      Todd the Hiker

  4. Hi Todd,

    My family and I spent 3 nights backpacking in the gorge in April. It was awesome and your site was very helpful in preparing. The only disappointing part of the trip was that so many of the established campsites were roped off. I understand why they do this, but it made it hard at times to find a good site. We are thinking about heading back this fall. Do you know if they’ve opened up these sites? Any other advice on campsites in RRG?

    Thanks!

    Nate

    • Nate,
      We just got home from the gorge after a quick day hike, and saw several roped off areas along the official trails. From my experience, the sites that are roped off are ones that don’t comply with the “greater than 300′ from established trails” rule. In order to find good campsites, you will need to venture out onto the unofficial trails. We have always used the OutrageGIS map set which is great for finding these unofficial trails, as well as the campsites located along them. That map set has also helped us find many amazing views that are not shown on any of the official maps. I hope this helps and that you’re fall trip there isn’t as frustrating.
      Todd

  5. Thanks for everything you have shared Todd! My wife and I are making our first trip to the Gorge this Labor Day weekend (September 5th-7th) and have used much of what you have shared as a guide in planning! As our first backpacking trip, I was hoping for your feedback: Is this time of year very busy for dispersed camping? If so, we are considering the Sky Gap Trail for a campsite, would you support this decision for our first trip? Also, we are only here in the mid-west for summer and are moving back to the west coast in the fall, making this quite possibly our only trip to the Gorge. With only one trip, what trails for a once an only trip would you recommend as a must for experiencing as much of the Gorge as possible? We just became friends on Facebook so if that is easier please message me there! Thank you!

    • Jeff, I’ll pass along a couple of quick thoughts here and we can talk more details via Facebook, as well. As far as crowds on Labor Day weekend I can’t say for sure, but suspect it shouldn’t be too bad. Fall color time seems to be the most crowded time, and even then we have not had trouble finding a good spot. I have also been down there over the July 4th holiday weekend once and had no problems. One recommendation is to get there as early as you can on Friday as an added measure of insurance for finding a spot, plus you can relax and enjoy the evening!

      If you only take one trip to Red River Gorge, I would suggest camping off of the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail where you will have several good options allowing for backup if one is filled. Also, the spots on this trail are not too far from the trailhead. If you use this as a base camp, then you can do some day hiking. In particular the Auxier Ridge, Auxier Branch, Double Arch hike I describe is one of the best and is the one I would recommend if it is the only one you do in the gorge.

  6. Awesome pictures! I did those trails this past fall. I camped along jailhouse rock trail, close to the first lookout, watched the sunset there then woke up early to hike and watch the sunrise on jailhouse rock. Happy Trailing!

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