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Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Gorgeous gorge: Where the arches outnumber the footprints.

Little-Known Fact: Nearly all of the Daniel Boone National Forest was logged at least once before its acquisition by the Forest Service in 1937.

Combine soft red sandstone, rushing mountain streams, and a few million years of erosion, and the result is the fantastic formations of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Geologic Area (RRGGA). Nestled within Daniel Boone National Forest, the area is decorated by more than 80 natural arches (the greatest concentration of natural arches east of the Rocky Mountains), hidden waterfalls, and rock “houses” (overhangs once used for shelter by the Shawnee and other native tribes). It’s a photographer’s paradise.

It isn’t half bad for hikers, either, with the 36-mile Red River Gorge loop system offering short jaunts or extended backcountry trips through the RRGGA’s 25,662 acres of hills and valleys.

Swift Camp Creek Trail is my favorite starting point for extended hikes. Descending from the top of the gorge to the lower reaches, this seven-mile trek follows its namesake creek. It’s a scenic, cascading mountain stream stocked with rainbow trout that rushes through dense stands of rhododendron and flows under Rock Bridge arch.

I’ve hiked Swift Camp Creek Trail many times, enjoying its changing character with each season. But winter is sublime. I hiked this trail one early March day while a silent snow fell in the gorge. Large cottony flakes lightly blanketed glistening rhododendron leaves. The morning sun sparkled off of the rushing waters of Swift Camp Creek, and chickadees and titmice bustled through the underbrush. The peacefulness was unbroken until I startled a deer as she drank from the creek. I didn’t meet another human the whole day.

This is the primary attraction of the area. Even though the RRGGA is within an easy day’s drive of a number of large cities, it remains largely undiscovered. On most days (especially during the work week), it’s possible to walk many of the trails without encountering another hiker.

It hasn’t always been this way. Early in this century the area teemed with loggers who harvested massive amounts of hardwood from the gorge. Sawmills and logging camps sprang up on the hillsides. Narrow gauge railroads snaked through the valleys, and dams constricted the Red River and other tributaries to power the mills and float out the massive logs.

The area became part of Daniel Boone National Forest in 1937, and was granted protection from further environmental degradation as the Red River Gorge Geological Area, a unique federal designation intended to protect the area’s natural formations and primitive character. The area also includes Clifty Wilderness, named for its towering clifflines and added to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1985. The section of the Red River that runs through Clifty Wilderness is a Kentucky Wild River, and is being considered for possible designation under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program.

Adding to the pristine charm are numerous creeks that rush through the canyons of the gorge and empty into the Red River. The Red River’s upper reaches are designated as part of the state’s wild river system and provide exciting Class II and III whitewater canoeing opportunities. This upper section is generally navigable from December to May, but the Falls of the Red River is a three-foot drop and should be portaged by all but expert canoeists.

Just below the falls is the Narrows of the Red River, which in some places is no more than six feet wide and littered with large boulders. This section can also be dangerous when water levels are high. As the Red River continues through the heart of the gorge, it levels out and provides gentle Class I paddling.

It’s easy to amuse yourself here for a long weekend. The hard part is fitting it all in.

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