Kentucky's Red River Gorge
Gorgeous gorge: Where the arches outnumber the footprints.
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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.
Daniel Boone National Forest
1700 Bypass Road
Winchester, KY 40391
Stanton Ranger District
705 W. College Ave.
Stanton, KY 40380
Kentucky State Government & Tourism Website
The DBNF is in eastern Kentucky, about 50 miles east of Lexington.
From Lexington, take I-64 to Combs Mountain Parkway (State Rt. 402) to either the Slade exit or the KY 715 exit. Follow signs to RRGGA.
The climate of the area is temperate with moderately cold winters and warm humid summers. Temperatures average 32 degrees F in winter and 74 degrees F in summer. Precipitation is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, averaging about 45 inches annually.
Many of the varieties of wild animals that existed at the time Daniel Boone explored the wilderness are still found in the National Forest. There are more than 100 species of birds, 46 kinds of mammals, and 67 types of reptiles and amphibians.
Bald eagles have attempted nesting and osprey are being released on Laurel River lake. Wild turkey and white-tailed deer are making a comeback and ruffed grouse, gray and fox squirrels, red and gray foxes, ducks, bobwhite quail, rabbits, muskrats, mink, and raccoons are common.
Bass, crappie, muskie, catfish, bream, and stocked trout attract large numbers of fishermen to the lakes and streams.
Contact park office for information.
In the spring the wildflowers and rhododendron blossoms treat visitors to vivid colors. In the summer the dense canopy of pine and hemlock form a tunnel shelter from the hot sun.
Thousands upon thousands of magnificent oak, walnut, and poplar trees were felled and shipped out of the area until the gorge was largely denuded by the end of World War I. But now the hillsides are again crowded with oak, yellow poplar, black walnut, and black cherry trees. Rhododendron, hemlock, wild holly, and pines of all kinds have overtaken the abandoned sawmills, camps, and railroads.
The State of Kentucky Department of Travel Development offers an updated report on fall colors for all leaf watchers at 800/225-8747.
Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere within Daniel Boone National Forest, provided you’re at least 300 feet from roads and out of sight of any developed trail.
Koomer Ridge Campground offers trailer/tent spaces, pit toilets, fire grills, lantern posts, drinking water, picnic tables, trash receptacles, and an amphitheater. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Part of the campground remains open year round, although drinking water is available only during the summer recreation season — mid-April through October.
The information center at Gladie Historic Site on Route 715 is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week from April through October, and weekends only in the late fall and spring. A visitor information center is planned to replace the temporary facility now in use. Gladie Historic Site features a restored log cabin containing displays of early local logging and farm life. A small herd of American bison are at the site, as well as a bird blind for watching wildlife.
Contact Daniel Boone National Forest for information on parking and permit fees.
No permits are required, but if you plan extended hikes in the area, you should notify the District Ranger prior to entering the RRGGA.
Fees for Koomer Ridge campground are $6 for a single (family) unit and $10 for a double unit per night. Fees are not charged when full services (water, etc.) are not provided.
- Avoid camping in rockshelters. They provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered species of plants and animals.
- Fire building is permitted only in designated areas. Fires are permitted outside of designated areas in stoves or other devices designed to contain the flame. Use only wood that is “dead and down.”
- Pets must always be restrained or on a leash while in developed recreation sites.
- Watch out for snakes ~ copperheads and rattlesnakes. Most copperhead bites result from careless reaching under logs and rocks or sitting upon logs.
- Watch out for poison ivy.
- Flash floods are common during the spring rainy season.
- Swimming in the Red River can be dangerous at all water levels.
- Be extremely careful near high cliffs ~ Almost every year the Red River Gorge claims the life of one or more people who visit this beautiful area and fall victim to the dangers of the cliffs. To prevent injury or even death, follow some simple tips:
1. Alcohol and cliffs don’t mix! If you drink, avoid getting close to cliffs.
2. Don’t camp near the edge of cliffs.
3. Foot travel after dark is not recommended. If you must, only do so in areas you have seen in daylight and only if you have a good flashlight.
4. Plan to be at your camp or destination well before dark.
5. Think about your footing while traveling near cliffs. Trees and bushes can’t always be trusted to hold you.
6. If you are rock climbing, make sure you have adequate and safe equipment and know how to use it. Using a helmet will lessen the chance of head injury in the event of an accident.
Leave No Trace:
- Keep vehicles on established roads.
- Pack in, pack out.
- All LNT guidelines apply.
Four USGS topo maps cover the area: Slade and Pomeroyton cover most of the area; Frenchburg and Scranton complete the coverage. Topographic maps are available from:
Kentucky Geological Survey
Mining and Mineral Resources Building
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0107
Visitors may obtain additional information and maps from the Forest Supervisor, Daniel Boone National Forest. The Red River Gorge Geological Area/Red River Gorge National Recreation Trail Map is $4.
Other Trip Options:
- This trail network also ties in with the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, a 257-mile pathway that runs the length of the national forest and extends through the gorge into Tennessee.
- Located in the midst of Daniel Boone National Forest, adjacent to the Red River Gorge Geologic Area, Natural Bridge State Resort Park (606/663-2214) is home to the great natural sandstone arch that stands like a sentinel over this mountain hideaway. Natural Bridge has hiking trails, a nature center, pedal boats, camping, and lots of other recreational activities.
- A section of the Upper Red River provides whitewater canoeing and rafting opportunities.