To say that Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is the “Utah of the East” would not be far from the truth. With the highest concentration of sandstone arches east of the Mississippi River, this regional gem should be more famous; instead, it remains largely a Kentucky secret. What the Gorge has that Utah lacks, however, is a classic Appalachian forest.
The 44-square-mile Red River Gorge Geological Area contains the remnants of an ancient seabed, with layers of limestone and sandstone that were thrust upward around 40 million years ago. Eons of weathering have left this area with scores of natural arches. This weathering, especially of water, also has carved out imposing cliffs pocketed with rock shelters that for thousands of years were home to a now long-extinct Native American tribe. As such, the area is rich in archaeological treasures, including burial sites, artifacts, petroglyphs and “hominy holes,” where nuts and seeds were ground.
The Gorge endured a long bout of economic exploitation, including the mining of saltpeter, a necessary ingredient of gunpowder, during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and a long history of logging and moonshining. Amazingly, the country has recovered abundantly, and its ridges are home to trees as diverse as beech, hickory, poplar, oak, pine, rhododendron and maple. Flowers, including orchids, trillium, mountain laurel and the endangered white-haired goldenrod, flourish.
Appalachian culture, especially in the form of folk music and square dancing, thrived here as richly as the flora. Once the railroads were decommissioned from their logging use, they brought visitors to a historic lodge to hear this music—at the site of present-day Natural Bridge State Resort Park, which features not only one of the most impressive arches in the region but also the Hemlock Lodge and its restaurant as well as a mile-long skylift.
The Gorge is made up of three distinct areas: the Geological Area, through which passes the Red River, a designated National Wild and Scenic River; the Clifty Wilderness; and Natural Bridge State Park. Hidden arches abound throughout the region, as do a plethora of creeks (here called “branches”) and waterfalls, screech owls and wild turkeys, copperheads and black bears.
The Red River Gorge appeals not only to kayakers, auto tourists and rock climbers, but also to hikers. It offers adventures ranging from day hikes to backpacking trips. With the right precautions, especially paying attention to the sheer cliffs everywhere, the Gorge can make for an exciting—and safe—adventure. Here are some great hikes, all excellent introductions to the Gorge.
2.5 miles/2 hours
Surely the most famous trail in the Gorge area is the half-mile Original Trail leading to Natural Bridge, the second-largest arch in the area. It also rates as one of the easiest trails in Natural Bridge State Park. Originally built by the Lexington and Eastern Railroad in the 1890s, it allowed visitors unencumbered access to the famed arch. It’s perfect for kids and grandparents alike. For those with more ambition, it’s a good way to end a hike.
For a more scenic walk, start on the Balanced Rock Trail. Part of the 269-mile-long Sheltowee Trace, this .75-mile trail climbs past the precariously hung Balanced Rock and monumental cliffs with stone steps to climb to the top of Natural Bridge. From here, you can cross the arch and continue on the .75-mile Laurel Ridge Trail to a picturesque overlook of the surrounding country and the arch. Following the trail to the end leads to Lover’s Leap, another view.
From the Laurel Ridge Trail, pick one of two stairways—either the Needle’s Eye or Devil’s Gulch—and descend through a steep, narrow notch to the Battleship Rock Trail. Follow this trail to the right along the massive cliffs of Laurel Ridge to the base of Natural Bridge. From there, return on the Original Trail.
The Rough Trail
7.7 miles one way/8 hours to several days
Without a doubt, the Rough Trail lives up to its name. That said, it is also one of the most scenic hikes in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. Spanning the Gorge east to west, topping and descending ridge after ridge, its difficulty is assuaged by the experience of every kind of forest the Gorge offers, from high ridge pine and oak stands to cool, lowland hemlock and rhododendron tangles.
Along the way, the trail passes Gray’s Arch, the largest and most frequented arch in the Gorge, as well as iconic spots such as Signature Rock and Chimney Top Creek, and it provides abundant opportunities to camp. Just follow Forest Service regulations and do not pitch your tent near trails, creeks, cliffs, rock shelters and Gray’s Arch.
With a car shuttle, the Rough Trail can be done in a day, but give yourself plenty of time. With the sweeping views of the gorges, glens and hollows, it’s worth your time to take in the scenery. There are plenty of creeks to sit next to, including King’s Branch and Parched Corn Creek, where in the spring the mountain laurels bloom abundantly and pileated woodpeckers call from the treetops.
0.8-mile loop/1 hour
For an excellent and easy family and guests-from-out-of-town hike, Sky Bridge trail is a perfect introduction to the Red River Gorge. For one thing, Sky Bridge is an impressive arch in its own right, set at the edge of a narrow ridge jutting like a blade between the deep canyon of Swift Camp Creek and the seemingly bottomless Devil’s Canyon. As such, the views are far reaching, and this easy path, paved at points, makes an easily accessible trail for everyone; even those in wheelchairs can follow the paved path to the overlook at the arch. Just be aware that there are no guardrails on the arch, so be careful of the edges.
The parking lot gets plenty of traffic, including tour buses, but most people go to see just the arch. On the far side of Sky Bridge arch, the trail continues on to a stairway that descends and doubles back to the bottom of the arch, the sandstone window opening out to the gorge of Devil’s Canyon. From the base, the trail slopes back to the picnic area, which makes an excellent place for a shady lunch.
Sheltowee Trace/Bison Way Loop
5.3 miles one-way or 7.1-mile loop/4-5 hours
The Sheltowee Trace, which spans the state of Kentucky, passes through the Red River Gorge, crossing the Red River on a suspension bridge. Aside from the river, the trail passes a number of other monuments, including the Indian Steps, Indian Arch and Cloud Splitter. This hike can be done as a loop, incorporating a moderate walk along the roadway, or it can be done with a car shuttle.
The Bison Way Trail starts along slow, broad Gladie Creek and climbs into the Clifty Wilderness. At a junction, follow the Sheltowee Trace to the left, noticing the white turtle blazes on the trees; Sheltowee, which means “Big Turtle,” was a name bestowed upon Daniel Boone by the Shawnee when he was adopted into that tribe.
After a short climb and a few small creek crossings, the trail passes under the monumental cliffs where steps were carved into the sandstone, though probably by miners rather than Indians. Stay on the trail, which safely and steadily climbs to a stairway, the top of which is crowned with Indian Arch and a stunning view of the Indian Steps. The rest of the walk ambles and twists through the forest, past towering Cloud Splitter, to the Red River and the parking area.
Auxier Ridge, Courthouse Rock and Double Arch
8.1 miles/6.0 hours
An ambitious hike at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road leads to a series of imposing cliffs, towering rock formations, a meandering creek, and a double arch, not to mention the only panoramic view of all of the Red River Gorge. It’s worth it to take the time and see all the sights this series of trails visits, for this is one of the most written-about trails in the region.
The Auxier Ridge Trail skirts an increasingly narrow ridge for just over two miles, leading to the oft-photographed cliffs of Auxier Ridge, set beside Haystack Rock and the colossal Courthouse Rock, with views across the valley to Double Arch. A stairway descends into a lush forest of fern and big leaf magnolia, and follows the Courthouse Rock Trail about three miles back to the parking area. This loop alone makes for a good day.
But it’s worth it to take a side trail along the Auxier Branch—this trail descends to the creek and climbs to the Double Arch Trail, set high in a bare cliff. This impressive arch acts as a window where you can stop for a snack and look back over the Auxier Ridge and Auxier Branch’s valley.
4.4 miles round trip/3 hours
Not all of the Red River Gorge trails run along cliffs. The Whittleton Branch Trail actually follows a wide, noisy creek—that is, when it’s not running underground, as it does for a distance. This trail is an opportunity to see a unique type of arch and to follow in the footsteps—or rather, railway tracks—of the Gorge’s logging history.
The Whittleton Branch Trail starts at the far end of Natural Bridge Resort State Park’s Whittleton Campground, following the grade of an old logging railroad. An easy hike for the kids is no more than two miles and provides access not only to the boulder-strewn creek, but also to a side trail leading to Whittleton Arch, which is actually a rare limestone arch over which a waterfall flows. This is a hike in itself, but by continuing up the main trail, which follows the route of the Sheltowee Trace, the trail quickly reveals itself to be the grade of the old railway, which will be apparent especially when crossing a wet section over beams of wood—the remnants of nearly hundred-year-old railroad ties. The trail continues to its end at the intersection of Ky. 15 and Tunnel Ridge Road.
Sean Patrick Hill’s Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge will be available from Menasha Ridge Press in November 2012.
If You Go …
For more information about the Red River Gorge Geological Area and the Clifty Wilderness, contact the Daniel Boone National Forest, Cumberland Ranger District, Gladie Learning Center, 3451 Sky Bridge Road, Stanton, KY 40380; (606) 663-8100; fs.usda.gov/dbnf. For information about Natural Bridge State Resort Park, contact the park at 2135 Natural Bridge Road, Slade, KY 40376-9701; (606) 663-2214 or toll free 1-800-325-1710; parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/natural-bridge.
Natural Bridge: From Exit 33 off the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, drive south on Ky. 11 for 2 miles to the main entrance of Natural Bridge State Park. Turn right into the entrance, then take an immediate left, following signs for Hemlock Lodge 0.3 mile to the lot. Do not park beyond the lodge, as those spaces are reserved for guests.
Rough Trail: To shuttle, park a vehicle at both the Martins Fork and Rough Trail trailheads.
For the Martins Fork Trailhead, take Exit 33 off the Mountain Parkway and go north on Ky. 11 to the junction of Ky. 15. Go left on Ky. 15 for 1.5 miles to Ky. 77. Turn right onto Ky. 77 and follow this road 3.3 miles (the road goes through Nada Tunnel) to the trailhead parking on the left.
For the Rough Trail/Swift Camp Creek Trailhead, take Exit 40 off the Mountain Parkway, turn right onto Ky. 15/715 for 1 mile, then follow Ky. 715 right for 4.2 miles to the parking area on the left.
Sky Bridge: From Exit 40 off the Mountain Parkway, turn right onto Ky. 15/715 for 1.0 miles, then follow Ky. 715 right for 4.9 miles to the Sky Bridge Recreation Area spur road. Turn left and travel 0.8 mile to the parking area at the road’s end.
Sheltowee Trace/Bison Way Loop: For the Sheltowee Trace Suspension Bridge Trailhead, start from the Mountain Parkway, taking Exit 33 and going north on Ky. 11 to a junction with Ky. 15. Go west on Ky. 15 for 1.5 miles, going right on Ky. 77. Follow Ky. 77 for 5.3 miles to an intersection with Route 715. Go straight on Ky. 715 for 1.6 miles to the trailhead on the right.
For the Bison Way Trailhead, follow the directions above, going an additional 1.8 miles to a parking area on the left just before the Gladie Creek bridge.
Auxier Ridge and Courthouse Rock Trails: From Exit 33 off the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, go 0.1 mile north on Ky. 11 and turn right on Ky. 15. In 3.5 miles, turn left onto the gravel Tunnel Ridge Road (Forest Service Road 39). After 3 miles, turn right into a parking lot at the Auxier Ridge Trailhead.
Whittleton Branch Trail: From Exit 33 off the Mountain Parkway, drive south on Ky. 11 for 2.2 miles to the entrance of the Whittleton Campground. Turn left into the campground and park on the right in a small lot just beyond the woodshed. Follow the road into the campground to its end, where the trailhead is clearly marked. A shuttle is possible by leaving another vehicle on Ky. 15 at the junction with Tunnel Ridge Road. Park along the side of Ky. 15 near the trail sign directly across from Tunnel Ridge Road.