Hiking Red River Gorge in Kentucky brought me down from Chicago to experience the backcountry trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Normally, when I come down from the north, I usually hit the Great Smoky Mountains, but it is more than a ten hour drive to this section of the Appalachian Mountains, so I was looking at closer alternatives.
Alternative to Big South Fork and Great Smoky Mountains
Big South Fork along the Kentucky and Tennessee border is one option, but I wanted to try something new on this trip, so I decided to try the Red River Gorge Area. I was definitely glad I finally made the trip. There are tons of scenic trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest and also in the Natural Bridge Resort State Park.
Stayed at Red River Gorge Cabin
I stayed the first two nights in a Red River Gorge Cabin and was given a map by the owner for the hiking trails. I also did some ziplining with the Red River Gorge Zipline Adventure Tour. The third night would be spent in the wilderness, and I was ready to get out on the trail. I started my hike at the Rockbridge Trailhead in the southeast corner of the gorge.
The first part of the hike followed a tributary of the Red River. This part of the trail was relatively flat with nice views of the creek. The best view was of a temporary water fall coming down over a cliff above the creek from a run off in the stream. It had just rained a ton the week before, so there were many places where water cascaded over cliffs where in dry periods there would be no flow at all. The rain also made the forest bright green.
After seven miles following the creek, I hit the Rough Trail junction at Highway 715. The first trail I was on was 219 and the Rough Trail is 221. All the trails inside the park are numbered, and some are both numbered and named like the Rough and Pinch ’em Up Trail.
Hiking the Rough Trail
The Rough Trail lived up to its name. The trail went up a bluff and then down a bluff. Once the trail reached a low point it usually meant one or two river crossing. Then the trail went up then down and crossed a few more rivers and then repeated. The elevations climbs were nothing too extreme, but they wore on you after awhile.
I was trying to get as close to Gray Arch as I could before camping to make it easily to my drop off point the next day, but I fell short of Gray Arch and camped along a small stream in a lowland area. It was getting dark, and I was pretty exhausted after going up and down on the Rough Trail.
There were not many scenic overlook views along this hike, but the fauna in the woods was beautiful, and there were many interesting cliffs and rock faces along the trail. The most impressive rock structures were the arches. There was Angel Windows, Whittleton Arch, and Gray’s Arch to name a few on the trail I took.
Following the Sheltowee Trace Trail
I did about 13 miles the first day, and I then had approximately a 5 mile hike the next day into the Natural Bridge Area following the famous Sheltowee Trace Trail. The Sheltowee Trace Trail is a 282 mile national recreation trail that has 16 miles through Red River Gorge.
Red River Gorge Trail system
Red River Gorge has a nice trail system perfect for an overnight hike like I did, but there is enough trails in the park to keep one busy for three to four days. For those who are looking for a longer hike, you can hike the Sheltowee Trace Trail in either direction from the park or there are many other loops off the main trail I hiked.
Hiking Red River Gorge tips:
- Be sure to camp in the lowlands as above on the tops of the bluffs there is no water, so you would either need to walk down to get water or make sure you stop and supply before hiking up
- A backcountry pass is required for parking and hiking in the Daniel Boone National Forest – A one day pass is $3.00 and a 3 day pass is $5.00
- Considers staying at a Red River Gorge Cabin Rentals before or after your hike in the backcountry
- There are bears in the Red River Gorge, so be sure to hang your food and take precautions
- Watch your footing on the trails as they can be rocky at places and be especially careful atop cliffs and drop offs – A broken ankle or worse in the backwoods is never fun
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Looks like a great hike! I haven’t spent much time in Kentucky at all – none in the outdoors. However, I am very wary of bears and ankles (mine are horrible – it’s probably not even good that I hike they are so bad).
Jeremy Branham recently posted..I’m a travel photographer and this is my Yosemite in Winter ebook
There was a bear attack a couple years ago, but it was totally preventable. The dude approached the bear trying to get a photo of it on his iPhone. You need to give all wild animals their space, it is why zoom lenses were invented. There are bears in the area, but you would be lucky to see one.
Looks like a very pretty area to hike – especially so in the spring. Did you have ticks to worry about?
SO sorry I didn’t run into you at TBEX. I kept looking and circled around at coffee break times to no avail. Bummer.
Leigh recently posted..A Kayaking Trip in the 1000 Islands, Ontario
Sorry about that. It was my fault. I did not make it to the first day of TBEX and then I forgot to tweet you about meeting up. It was such a crazy weekend. I hope to meet in person sometime soon.
Incredibly, no ticks. As soon as I saw that lush forest at the first overlook I was quite concerned about ticks as they have been pretty bad the last couple of years further north. Unbelievably, I did not see one tick.
Ticks aren’t an issue in the Gorge. I have been there plenty of times and have never come home with one. Spring is definitely the best because Kentucky summers are hot and very humid, but even in July and August weekends are busy down there.
Good to know Jeff. I will have to come back in future springs when the ticks are bad in the northwoods. I have spent a few summers in Tennessee, so I know about those hot and humid summers.
Love those pictures of my beautiful Kentucky and glad you finally got a chance to see the Red River Gorge.
I enjoyed it and hope to come back again soon. Perhaps next time I will get a chance to canoe and/or kayak the river.
Wow, great walk. From the photos it looks like it was a wonderful place to visit. If only I was as fit as you!
Nicole @ Green Global Travel recently posted..The Triumph of Tenacity & Our Next Eco Adventure
Ah that looks like such a good time. We used to hike a lot in the Great Falls in Maryland. Soon we are going to climb Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, the highest elevation point on the island =).
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Look forward to seeing your post on Pico Duarte. I am sure you will get a beautiful view.
Two summers ago I was hiking rock bridge loop with my 3 sons. We were climbing around and exploring a rock house when my son came running and said Dad, Dad, I just found two baby bears !! We quietly left the area, but I was so glad my son had the experience of seeing two baby bears sleeping in a cave !
I’ve made many trips to the Gorge, headed down this weekend to hike in the snow. Will be cold but worth it, as I’ve never been there when it’s snowing.
I am sure the gorge will be supremely beautiful in the winter. I would love to see some pictures of the Gorge in winter.
What an amazing experience to see baby bears. Good thing it did not waken the wraith of mama bear. Very wise to leave quietly and quickly.
My husband, myself and our dogs have hiked there for 10+ years. I think we have done almost every trail there at least once. Our favorite is the trail 228, 221 to gray’s arch.
I have to admit that after reading about the bear attack I’ve been very nervous and have been avoiding going. We purchased bear spray which makes me feel a little safer. We know to avoid the bear but we also know if there are cubs involved that it changes the way a mama bear thinks.
It was nice reading about your adventure and see the pictures. It has brought back many wonderful memories.
Hiking in the Smoky Mountains this summer, I came across one adult bear and three cubs. The three cubs were all seen separately and in each case I never saw the mother. It was nerve wracking though because I knew she was around.
Great that you hike the gorge a lot. I wish I lived closer. I hope you resume your hikes. I think with bear spray you should be safe in the highly unlikely possibility that a bear might attack.