Also known as the Red and simply the Gorge, the Red River Gorge Geological Area is not only an oasis for hikers and backpackers it’s a premier destination for international rock climbers of all styles. This sandstone canyon, located in the Daniel Boone National Forest on the eastern perimeter of central Kentucky, offers deep wooded hikes that wind through lush forest and thick undergrowth. Its trails lead along slow moving waterways and to the tops of rocky massif plateaus, which provide vistas of the encompassing wilderness that stretches far to the horizon, and beyond.
The Gorge is a 29,000 plus acre section set aside because of its unique geological makeup, which is unlike any other in the surrounding area. Twenty-nine Thousand acres may not sound like much, but you must remember that this is only a small section within the Daniel Boone National Forest. The 60 plus miles of trails that course through the Gorge continue on into the national forest, Natural Bridge State Park, and into the Clifty Wilderness, which overlaps and borders it. In all this is quite a substantial area.
Along its trails it’s not uncommon to pass immense boulders overgrown with vegetation, large mature trees, the occasional cave opening, and vast rock overhangs. There are also several streams, waterfalls, and swimming holes just waiting to be discovered; all of this with great secluded clearings to make camp and enjoy the wild surroundings. And with the abundance of waterways in the canyon there are always sources to treat and replenish your drinking water.
Every season offers something different in the Gorge. While the temps can very greatly between summer and winter in Kentucky, this area remains accessible year round. Summers are usually hot and humid but are slightly cooler deep in the canyon under the canopy of the tall thick trees. Everything in sight is varying shades of fresh green. And the vegetation is so rich you might forget you’re in central Kentucky and not somewhere far more tropical. Once fall comes around this heavy foliage shifts to golden brown, orange, yellow and red creating an irrepressible symphony of bright and warm colors. Fall colors are always spectacular, in the Gorge you’re fully immersed. Though snow is not always guaranteed in winter, ice surely is, usually in the later winter months, the Gorge can offer one of two things: A frosted snow covered wonderland or a mild yet chilly habitat where, either way, much of the greenery remains, which produces and pleasant contrast. I’ve even heard from local climbing guides that there are spots for potential ice climbing. Spring, however, is when the waterways flow fuller and dormancy awakes in full effect. All the vegetative life bursts with flowers, newly sprouted creation, and welcome you and the warmer months ahead.
There’s something for everyone here. Even while making a stop in at American Alpine Club headquarters in Golden Colorado I met a rep, and spoke with him about the Gorge, he told me that he actually learned to climb there. The American Alpine Club claims the Gorge as a top destination to climb in all of the United States. And with areas like Muir Valley, walls like the Mother Load, and other multiplex climbs it certainly should be!
Unless you plan to stay overnight, hiking and climbing here is completely free. Over night passes, ranging from single night to multi-night to season passes can be acquired at the fuel stations in the nearby town of Slade or at the Gladie Visitor Center located along the KY 715 within the area.
How to Get There:
From the 64 just east of Winchester take exit 98 onto Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway until you reach Slade, which is exit 33. Turn right after this exit and enter the gorge by either turning right or left onto the 77 at the stop sign. At the stop you will see the fuel stations where maps and overnight permits can be acquired. If you go left follow the 15 until it interests the 77 with a right turn. Follow the 77 through Nada Tunnel and into the Gorge, this road leads to the 715. If you turn left onto the 15 follow it until it intersects a right turn that bridges over the Mountain Parkway and also turns into the 715. The 715 loops around the entire Red River Gorge and provides numerous parking areas and trailheads.