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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