Hubtrail Kentucky: The Red River Gorge
What to Do
If you ever find yourself in the state of Kentucky, thinking about a camping destination, then the first recommendation I have to make is the Red River Gorge. Located Southeast of Lexington off of the Mountain Parkway in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Gorge is a sacred place for those who love being outdoors. It is a mecca for rock climbers around the world and offers a multitude of trails to hike with many camping areas. If you are into fishing, hunting, boating, swimming, photographing nature, bird watching, biking, picnicking or just breathing incredibly fresh air charged with the mystical smells of nature, you NEED to experience the Gorge.
This hub focuses on information about trails, camping, directions, and little tips to make your excursion that much more amazing as well as providing pictures as little tastes of the scenery out there. The pictures are but the tip of the magnificence of the Red, designed to leave you wanting more and encouraging an expedition. It is my primary intention that this hub will inspire those that are curious into action, sparking within them a desire to discover the wonders that lie in a trip to the Gorge.
The easiest way to reach the Gorge is from the Mountain Parkway. To reach the Parkway from Kentucky, travel on I-64 and take the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway exit right before (if coming from the East) or after (if coming from the West) Winchester, KY. The exit into the Gorge that most people take is Slade, exit 33. There will be signs for Natural Bridge State Resort Park approaching this exit. The park is located in the Gorge. You can also take exit 40, the Campton exit too. I would recommend, if it is your first time at the Gorge, that you go ahead and take exit 33 as there is a Shell station to the left off the exit which provides a rough map of the trails and the roads to get there free of charge. Although not to scale, the map is very useful when trying to find a specific trail or destination. A more detailed and accurate map can be downloaded here. Also located at the Shell are overnight camping passes, required by the U.S. Forest Service. You can get a one night pass for $3, a three night pass for $5, or a year long pass for $30. If you do take exit 40 it puts you in the Southeast corner of the Gorge. There is a gas station to your left, but to get to the Gorge's trails and arches you will need to take a right.
There are three roads that make a scenic 35-mile loop around the Gorge; Kentucky Highways 15, 77, and 715. Part of the drive is along the Red River, which used to have a red tint. It also takes you through the Nada Tunnel, a one lane cut in the rock made to accommodate an old logging railroad. On 715 the Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center shows exhibits on the natural and human history of the Gorge. Open from 9-5 March through November, it also gives the adventurer trail and camping information.
There is also Kentucky Highway 11, the first road you turn onto from exit 33. If you go left you will run into the Shell station and the 35 mile scenic loop. However, if you go right you will plenty of local attractions, motels and most notably Miguel's Pizza. Miguel's would be a stellar pizza joint in any location, but is a true diamond in the rough out in the Gorge. They offer a plethora of toppings, a veritable bevy of unique veggies, meats and even pasta. Goodies like sweet potato, eggplant, portobella mushrooms and zucchini are some of the more unique treats you can add to your pizza. They also sell rock climbing and backpacking gear, and have a basketball court and a slack line in the back to practice your balance on. Be sure after a weekend of rock climbing or camping to treat yourself to a hot pizza, you'll be glad you did.
Down the road from Miguel's leads you to Natural Bridge State Park. This is by far the most visited arch in the Gorge. It now offers a sky lift up to the top so you don't have to hoof it up the 2.3 mile trail. Perhaps listening to the kids whine about the bugs and mugginess as your trying to gather wood for the fire and set up the tent isn't appealing to you. If you aren't looking to do the whole primitive camping thing, then Natural Bridge is just for you. They offer a Lodge, complete with WiFi internet access, cottages with linens and utensils, a restaurant, and campsites with utilities provided.
Seriously though, safety does rule. Although they almost literally shout it from the mountaintops out there, allow me to repeat them: Be Careful! Do not camp near cliffs. It's just a bad idea, and don't go wandering around by yourself in the dark without a flashlight either. Also, it invariably happens but I think alcohol should be avoided out there. Use caution when hiking in wilderness (i.e. no trail) and always, always, always stay aware of your surroundings. There will be plenty of signs warning you about cliffs and ravines and how you should not fall off of any. Heed those signs. Just use your head, nature can be unforgiving to those who don't.
The park has only but a few rules. First the no camping zones. These are in place to protect the Gorge's archaelogical sites. Nearly 10,000 years ago Native Americans were living in the rock shelters and cliffs so there is no camping within 100 feet of the base of any cliff or back of a rock shelter. There's also no camping allowed within 300 ft of a road or developed trail. Second is to leave any archeological find where you found it. This rule is in place to preserve the Gorge's rich natural history. Third rule is one I made up personally, just now, it's Clean Up After Your Self! It's really disgusting and disrespectful to leave your eazy-up instruction manual, your empty coke cans, and wads of aluminum foil everywhere as if your mom were going to come down from that overhang after you and your buddies left and clean up after you. The Gorge doesn't have a bus boy who comes around and cleans up your table for only a cut of the tips. You are responsible for your own mess so be a grown up and make sure you take to the trash can, please!
Well now that's out of the way we can get on with the fun stuff, exploring trails! Talking about every trail I've had the pleasure to explore would take forever and even the few I choose here are long-winded. So once equipped with your map, feel free to explore the forest where ever you like. Here are a few easy ones that offer amazing scenery and atmosphere.
To get to Gray's Arch, take exit 33 and take a left onto KY 11. In less than 0.1 miles, you'll take a right onto KY15, heading east for about 3.5 miles. Then you'll take a left onto Tunnel Ridge Road, a gravel road, and drive about another mile to the Gray's Arch picnic area, which is on the right. There are restrooms and trash cans available for use in the parking lot.
From the picnic parking lot you'll take Gray's Arch Trail (205). After going about 0.2 miles, the Gray's Arch Trail dead-ends into Rough Trail (221), the main hiking route that cuts from East to West across the Gorge, which actually takes you to Gray's. You'll want to take it to your right (North) following the white diamonds painted on trees and rock along the way. There are tons of elephant-ear magnolia trees on either side of the trail, with giant leaves and thin trunks for you to behold, along with heavy patches of ferns and rhododendrons on the forest floor. The trail eventually curves to the right. Immediately after the curve the trail comes to a fence and turns left. If you are brave enough, the fence blocks a trail that leads to the top of the arch. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who has a fear of heights, has kids with them, etc.
Taking the Rough Trail brings you down a hill into a ravine where you see Gray's Arch towering over you, menacingly rising 50 feet high and spanning 80 feet across (it looks bigger from down in the ravine). Then you will notice that the Rough Trail splits and heads left. To get to the base of the arch, you'll need to follow a sign pointing straight ahead. Gray's Arch base is covered with soft brown sand, hailing the erosion process. The base is a good place to relax and maybe even have a picnic. I would have to recommend staying away from Gray's on a summer weekend, as it will most likely be crowded. The hike to Gray's is only about a mile and well worth the journey, when it is time to move on, just go back the way you came and you will be back at your car.
Chimney Top is a very easy hike, less than a mile, with a really incredible view at the end. The fastest way to Chimney Top is to take exit 40 from the Mountain Parkway, and take a right off the exit onto KY15. In a little under a mile take a right onto KY 715, a one lane road heading North. Then you will take a left on a gravel road (Chimney Top Road) that dead ends in a parking lot for the Chimney Top trail. There is a parking lot before you get to the dead end, on the left, just pass it up for now. The trail head is on the left side of the parking lot.
As you are walking down the path to Chimney Top you will notice that there are tiny trails leading down to the cliffs. Although there is a giant sign at the beginning of the trail that advises everyone about the dangers you face when hiking at such heights, let me reiterate that it's best to use caution when venturing down to these overhangs. Obviously, I don't want to cramp your adventurous spirit and you do have a will of your own, but just be careful. That being said the views are quite incredible, but the real payoff is getting to the end of the trail and Chimney Top. You'll cross a little bridge and there you'll be on a rocky surface surrounded by fencing. The first thing you'll immediately notice is the Gorge-ous view. You're basically situated on top of the north/northeast corner of the Gorge looking out over the bulk of the area. A truly amazing view not to be missed, especially since the hike is so easy. Plus it gives you time do some more hiking or camping in the same day (see below).
Probably my favorite spot in the Gorge is located in Angel Windows. The scenery through this hike is amazing and I recommend going in the humid summer time, maybe a day or two after a rain (I'll explain why later).
Once you are through with your Chimney Top excursion, you can take your car back down the gravel road and park in the lot you passed on your way up. Angel Windows is on the Rough Trail (221), and to get to it from this location you'll need to cross the gravel road again. If you do not pass the gravel road you aren't going in the direction of Angel Windows. The first thing you'll notice (aside from crossing the gravel road you were just on) is that the path descends almost immediately. You will be walking down the path and it will dog ear to the left and then you'll be towered over by the overhang you (may have not noticed) were just walking on. This overhang is a great send off for this incredible hike. It spans probably over a hundred feet and has magnificent formations. The base of it is sandy and has many large stones for sitting on. There are many spiders with large webs on and underneath the overhang, so if you feel inclined to touch the rock look before you do.
If you can pull yourself away from the majesty of this first overhang, you'll head down the path that's pretty much directly in the middle of the span of it. You will be walking down a semi-steep path and to your left you'll notice many fallen trees that are lodged in the ravine, where a small stream trickles across the path. Keep going and the trail will take you up a little in elevation and you'll notice the small creek to your right. Then as the trail descends again you'll be right next to the stream where a few nimble steps can take you to the other side and you can see tiny fish swimming in a pool behind giant, moss covered rocks. As you travel on you will come to a bridge that crosses the stream. This area is very flat and fairly dry. It would make for a decent camping spot, but don't stop here for good!
Less than a mile down the path you will pass through giant rocks on both sides. They are stacked on each other in such a way so that there are gaps in between them. Put your hand down near the gaps and feel naturally air conditioned air coming out of them! You can even breathe into them and see your breath. This is, I can safely assume, where Angel Windows got it's name from. Very soon after this, you will come upon a giant mossy rock with a tree growing out of it on the left. It is situated up on a small hill, but don't just stand there looking at it. When you climb this short incline you'll notice the chillest spot in the Gorge. From the top of your tiny climb you will peer into the mouth of a giant, shaded overhang with water constantly dripping from it. When you descend into the overhang you'll notice that the temperature drops a good ten degrees! Also, if it is past 4 or 5 in the afternoon, the sun will be shining through the trees and if it's particularly humid, there will be steam rising from inside the overhang, offering an incredible, fantastic and surreal view of nature.
From here you can either turn around or keep hiking. If you choose to keep hiking the trail will gradually increase in elevation taking you to 715. There is nothing as incredible as what you just experienced so my advice would be to head back to the car, or a suitable area to camp for the evening.
From exit 40 off the Mountain Parkway take a right onto KY 15 and another right onto KY715. Go about a little less than a mile and turn right onto Rock Bridge Road, a gravel road that takes you 3 miles to Rock Bridge's parking area.
Rock Bridge is another quite popular spot in the Gorge, and once you look past the fact that much of it's trail is paved with asphalt, you see why. An absolutely scenic walk, Rock Bridge Trail (207) doesn't disappoint at all. It starts you down a set of stairs into a deciduous jungle of ferns and rhododendrons. Next you'll notice a nice little stream to your right. Keep walking and take in the small waterfall and sandy beach, an amazing spot with a relaxing atmosphere, not a bad one or two person camping spot either.
Keep walking a short distance to meet up with Rock Bridge, which spans the creek that you've been walking beside this whole time. You can easily climb on top of Rock Bridge and over to the other shore with minimal danger. The distance between the arch and the creek isn't very high maybe ten or fifteen feet, but it isn't recommended that you jump in the creek because of how shallow the water usually is. If you are planning on spending the night there are some nice campsites just past Rock Bridge, to your left about 50-100 yards from the trail in a clearing of trees. Once it's time to move on, keep following Rock Bridge Trail until it meets up with Swift Camp Creek Trail. Here Rock Bridge (207) climbs back up a cliff towards the parking lot. If you look down to your left here (depending on the time of year) you may be able to see the camping area. The steep hike back to your car is about half a mile.
I do appreciate you're reading this and your interest in Kentucky, the Red River Gorge and the outdoors in general. If ever near our fair state, do yourself a favor and at least consider the Gorge, it will most likely be a journey you will always remember! Have safe travels and a relaxing journey!