Kentucky’s Red River Gorge – Indian Staircase

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Featured Image: View of Indian Staircase from across the valley.

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

Red River Gorge - Indian Staircase (Trail Map)

Figure 1. Map of Indian Arch and vicinity.

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.

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Bison Way Trailhead.

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.

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Start of the Indian Staircase Trail. On the day we were there someone had scratched out an arrow in the dirt indicating the way to Indian Staircase.

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Two views of the rock scramble approaching Indian Staircase.

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.

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Carved footholds in the smooth sandstone face of Indian Staircase.

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!

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Council Chamber rock shelter.

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Frog’s Head Rock, sadly defaced by budding sculptors over the years.

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.

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Adena Arch.

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Indian Arch, on the return hike along the Sheltowee Trace.

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.

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Press On Toward the Goal

Philippians 3:7-14 (ESV) – But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (1-IMG_3174)A view looking west from one of the side trails along the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. The furthest ridge in the center of the photo is our goal on this hike.

On a backpacking trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge early this fall, we decided to explore a trail that was new to us, the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. Though I knew from our outrageGIS map and the description in Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” that there were many spectacular views along the way, and at the end of the hike, there were still a few times we considered turning back. The hike was difficult at times, involving rock scrambles and thick brush; but, having a goal in mind and some idea of what lie ahead, were key to our perseverance.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (2-IMG_3204)A closer view of the end point on the Star Gap Arch trail.

Even though you may not get a complete picture of what to expect when hiking in a new place, or even on a new trail in a familiar place, it is worth taking time to do some research. Studying topographic maps, reading a guide book, or finding online reviews from other hikers, can give you motivation to both start and complete a new adventure.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (3-IMG_3178)The final climb up the ridge at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

In many ways our Christian walk is like a hike in the wilderness. Fortunately, God has given us the ultimate guide book for our journey, the Bible. However, the Bible is far more than just a simple guide book it serves a much greater purpose, pointing us to the ultimate goal, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Personally knowing the author who actually wrote the guide book is our best assurance of all. We will probably never endure the trials that Paul suffered, but we still need to realize there will be good times and bad, easy days and difficult ones in our lives, but with Christ we can be certain that we will make it to the end.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (4-IMG_3193)One of several spectacular views that awaits you at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

There is a price to taking a backpacking trip, we give up modern conveniences, endure difficult terrain, and occasionally suffer cuts and bruises, but getting to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the way and the spectacular views at the end of the trail make it worth the effort. There is also a cost to following Christ, the Bible makes this clear, but how much more incredible will the end of our life’s journey be when we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Read more about my “God is Revealed…“ category of posts

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.

He Will Make Straight Your Paths

Proverbs 3:5-8 – Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

2014-02-11 - He Will Make Straight Your Paths (IMG_6828)Rough Trail descends a twisted path from the Second Story rock shelter. Red River Gorge Geological Area, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.

If you plan to hike in a remote area like Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, you really should not just head out and rely on your own sense of direction to find your way; carry a good topographic map and a compass and learn how to use them.  Before you venture out on an unfamiliar trail spend time studying your maps so you have a good understanding of the route you plan to follow as well as key landmarks along the way.  Even though GPS technology is useful and quite amazing, anybody who carries one will know what I mean when I say that reception is very unreliable in places like the one in this photograph.  Finally, even if you are hiking on familiar trails, you should always let someone know where you are going, what trails you are hiking, and when you plan to be back.  If something happens and you do not return as expected, this information could save your life.

In our daily walk we too often rely on our own understanding, failing to pick up the map and compass God has given us to navigate on our Christian journey through life, the Bible.  Whether in good times or bad, we think we have all the answers and fail to seek the Lord through his inspired and infallible words found in the pages of Scripture.  Nor do we turn to him in prayer like we should, seeking him with all our heart and trusting in his perfect will for our lives.  Yet if we heeded the words of today’s passage from Proverbs 3, we would realize that it is God who “will make straight [our] paths,” instead of following the twisted paths of our own understanding.

Read more about my “God is Revealed…“ category of posts

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.

To Keep You from Stumbling

Jude 1:24-25 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

2014-01-26 - To Keep You from Stumbling (IMG_3666)Whittleton Branch trailhead on KY-15. Red River Gorge Geological Area, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.

My wife and I have come to depend on our hiking sticks.  We were not sure we would like them at first, but now we very rarely hit the trail without them.  If you have never used hiking sticks you might be surprised at the difference they make in your endurance and ability.  They reduce the strain on your hips, knees, and ankles and at the same time give you the added benefit of an upper body workout.  On several occasions they have kept me from twisting an ankle on rugged terrain or slipping on a muddy trail.  They also provide stability if you need to ford a stream.  If you plan to do any serious hiking, I highly recommend getting a set of sticks!

When it comes to our Christian walk we have one who is able to keep us from stumbling, as well, that is, of course, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But unlike a set of hiking sticks, we cannot treat him like some optional piece of gear that we pick up one day and set aside the next as our feelings dictate.  If we want to keep from stumbling we must put our trust in him daily, walking in faith with the knowledge that it is only through the power of his blood shed on the cross that we are able to overcome the desires of our sinful hearts.

We also need to remember that as Christians our destination is secured by Christ who came before us, but the life of faith is still a journey that will have rough spots along the way.  We will encounter struggles in our Christian walk to be sure, but through Christ we have assurance that one day we will persevere and he will “present [us] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.”  And, finally, we can take great comfort in Jesus’ own words from John 6:38-40,

38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

“To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”

Read more about my “God is Revealed…“ category of posts

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.