Kentucky's Red River Gorge

With soaring cliffs and majestic arches, Red River Gorge is an awe-inspiring place to visit. It may be the South's best-kept secret.

Chimney Top Rock of Red River Gorge, Kentucky
You can look out over the gorge from Chimney Top Rock. From the road, it's an easy 15-minute walk on a paved trail. Photo: Cary Jobe, Art Meripol

T he Red River Gorge is a place where mighty sandstone arches rise to the heavens and forest niches hide delicate wildflowers that grow nowhere else on the planet. This rugged region of geological wonders astounds visitors from other places, but it is beloved by Kentuckians and known the world over to rock climbers, partly because of its many overhanging cliffs. "When you fall, you fall into the air," famed local climber Dario Ventura told me. "It's safer."

Easy for You To See
A National Wild and Scenic River meanders among more than 100 sandstone arches―the largest group east of the Rocky Mountains. Picture the magnificent sculptured rocks of Utah's and Arizona's national parks, surround them with a lush forest, and you get a sense of what the Red River Gorge looks like. It is laced with trails, including one that connects to the 260-mile Sheltowee Trace. That's Shawnee for "Big Turtle," the American Indian name for Daniel Boone. The gorge fascinated the Kentucky adventurer.

I'm no Daniel Boone. I'm exploring by car, with easy hikes and a gentle climb here and there, but it fascinates me too. You don't have to be a world-class climber to enjoy it. It's accessible to almost anyone.

That doesn't diminish the wonder of it. I feel as if I'm discovering a long-lost treasure when I drive the 46-mile-long National Scenic Byway that passes through a one-lane former railroad tunnel into the gorge. Spring decorates the woodlands with wildflowers. To see some of the rarest ones, I only have to roll down the car window. White-haired goldenrod grows near the tunnel entrance and a few other locations here―and nowhere else in the world. A river 30 feet wide, with water the color of faded roof tiles, edges close to the road. In the past, several proposals to dam it brought staunch opposition from groups ranging from the Sierra Club to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. (The judge joined a protest hike to help save it in 1967.) Finally, it became the state's first National Wild and Scenic River in 1993.

With rich soils, useful native plants, and the ready-made housing of scores of rock shelters, the gorge boasts a history of habitation dating back thousands of years, but you can almost count on one hand the residents who live here now. Most are as resilient and sturdy as the rock cliffs that poke out of the forest.

Adventure on the River
This morning I stop to have coffee with Judy and Ken Braden. They give me a tour of the spacious house they mostly built themselves, entirely from lumber they cut at their own sawmill. "My wife grew up here, and I knew this is where I wanted to be the first time I saw it," says Ken. He traveled the world as an Army special forces master sergeant. Now they operate Red River Adventure, a kayak and canoe guide and livery service. He takes paddlers 7 miles upriver. It takes about three hours to float one of the most scenic sections.

Some stay the night in a comfortable cabin on stilts that Ken and Judy built at the water's edge. We climb the stairs to the deck to admire the view and check the current, which is slow today. "It's a Class I river. Most of it is shallow, but you can get wet," Ken says.

Walk This Way
The earliest inhabitants of the gorge didn't have to build any housing at all. "Some of the rock shelters range from 5 feet to as long as a football field," explains Johnny Faulkner, archaeologist at Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center. I spend the rest of the morning at the center beside the byway viewing an excellent orientation film, talking with some of the specialists who interpret the National Geological Area for visitors, and listening to Johnny tell about the ancients who dwelled here. "Three thousand years ago, people were here, growing squash and grinding nuts and seeds in hominy holes," he says. "They had small gardens. They were some of the first farmers in America."

Later in the afternoon I take a meandering walk along a section of the Sheltowee Trace, which crosses the river on a swaying footbridge, and hike to a couple of the most visited landmarks along the scenic byway. The side trail to the top of Chimney Top Rock gives me an amazing, 360-degree view of the gorge. Beneath a warming sun, I follow another mile-long path that leads to one of the most dramatic arches in the gorge. I can hear the wind whistling through Sky Bridge when I reach the largest opening, as big as a theater stage, in the rock that tethers the bridge to a mountainside. I'm sweating from the walk. The cool air blowing through the rock feels as welcome as a blast of air-conditioning.

In this wild place, it's easy to pretend you're Daniel Boone, but like most of the tourists who visit, I slip away at the end of the day to rest the night in comfort at the lodge at nearby Natural Bridge State Resort Park.

Rocks That Speak to You
You'd have to look far to find someone who's more inspired by the nature of the region than Brian Gasdorf, naturalist at the state resort. He grew up camping here with his parents. On his first date with his future wife, he took her hiking to Natural Bridge. "It's a beautiful place, but it's a rugged place," he says. "Anyone who comes here can't leave unaffected."

Especially at the peak of wildflower season. One morning after breakfast, Brian points me toward trails in the shadow of the area's most famous arch where I can see showy wild geraniums, fiery red trilliums, and pink lady's slippers.

Before dinner, I start up the steep, half-mile trail that leads to Natural Bridge. Leaves obscure the lofty landmark almost to the moment that I reach the base and it appears magically above the forest. I run my hands over the stone, worn smooth like a monumental piece of sculpture by eons of wind and water. On the way back down, I take the less traveled trail past Battleship Rock. I can hear rain dripping down the towering cliffs. In the antiquity of this timeless place, I'm sure it's only the distant roll of thunder, but I swear I hear the voices of ancients whispering around rock shelters in the gathering dusk. This place of natural wonder speaks to everyone who sees it.

More Information:

  • Getting There: Red River Gorge is near Slade, Kentucky, about an hour's drive southeast of Lexington. Take I-64 to Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway East. Take Exit 33 off the parkway, and follow the signs to the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
  • Where to Stay: Rooms in the lodge at Natural Bridge State Resort Park start at around $90 per night in April; 1-800-325-1710. If you're taking a canoe trip, rates for the riverside cabin at Red River Adventure start at $99 per night; (606) 663-1012.
  • What to Do: Natural Bridge State Resort Park and Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center offer wildflower walks and many other nature programs; (606) 663-8100. Red River Adventure rents kayaks ($25) and canoes ($40), including livery service, life vests, and a river map in a waterproof case.
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