A Weekend In Kentucky's Red River Gorge
In the heart of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest lies a 400-million year-old canyon system known as Red River Gorge Geological Area. The National Natural Landmark's 29,000 acres contain more than 150 naturally formed sandstone arches, the second highest concentration of arches anywhere in the world. With more than 70 miles of hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, miles of sandstone cliffs, and endless backcountry camping options, Red River Gorge is truly a hiker's paradise. On this adventure you'll be searching out a rare double stacked arch, rock climbing sandstone cliffs, and backpacking through incredibly beautiful forest. While there's no bad time of year to visit the gorge, late June and early July when the rhododendron are in full bloom is especially eye-catching. Overnight parking permit vehicle hang tags are required when backcountry camping. An easy way to purchase is in person at the Shell gas station at 12187 Campton Rd, Stanton, KY. This is 15 minutes from the Auxier Ridge Trailhead. If you have an America The Beautiful pass you may display it on your dash in lieu of the hang tag. Camping is not permitted within 300' of an official trail nor camp fires within 100' of any rock shelter or cliff.
Day 1: Tunnel Ridge Road
Double Arch, Courthouse Rock & Auxier Ridge (5 miles/1,000')
An incredible trail showcasing some of the gorge's best views and backcountry campsites. This is often done as a day hike, but for the best experience we recommend backpacking counter-clockwise as an overnighter. The trail begins as gravel path for the first 1.5 miles before veering right and descending into a dense forest of rhododendron and bigleaf magnolias, a landscape not uncommon to the area. At 2.5 miles you'll reach Double Arch where inside you'll have excellent views of Courthouse Rock, Haystack Rock and Auxier Ridge to the east. Just to the right of the arch you'll find a set of heavily worn rock stairs leading to the top of the arch and another outstanding view. Most hikers miss this opportunity - don't be in the majority.
After Double Arch, you'll descend roughly 500' over the next mile before reaching the gorge floor and Auxier Branch, a small creek off the Red River. The following quarter mile stretch of trail along the water is home to a half dozen or so well defined backcountry campsites resting under canopies of giant hemlocks. These sites are some of the best in the gorge if not the entire state, are well spaced out, and get gobbled up fairly early, so plan accordingly.
Once you've chosen your site and camp and a campfire are set up for the night, leave everything behind and continue on another half mile and 400' to Courthouse Rock. This is the steepest part of the trail and features a staircase leading to the top. At the top of the stairs the official trail continues to the right, but you'll notice a lesser defined trail leading left - take it. You're quickly met with an incredible overlook with 180-degree views of the gorge. Well worth the quick stop. Returning to the trail, continue on what is now Auxier Ridge for roughly a quarter mile until you reach the can't miss cliffs to your right. This is a great spot to relax and take in the view.
After you've enjoyed the view and sunset, head back down to camp and finish the night off around a fire and that flask of fine Kentucky bourbon you've been hauling around the last several hours. Bears have been sighted in the gorge and while I've personally never encountered one on trail or while camping, they are present. Proper food storage is encouraged.
Day 2: Clifty Wilderness
Double Arch, Courthouse Rock & Auxier Ridge finish (3 miles/500')
Pinch 'Em Tight, Rush Ridge, Rough Trail & Gray's Arch (3.5 miles/500')
Southeast Mountain Guides Via Ferrata
Hopewell Arch & Copperas Falls (2 miles/500')
If last night's sunset didn't impress, waking up around sunrise should do the trick. Early mornings on the floor of the gorge are often filled with dense fog. Between the sight of all those giant hemlocks engulfed in fog and the sound of the nearby creek calmly flowing, mornings here are pretty incredible. Relax and take in the start of the day before returning to the trail, making the haul back up to Courthouse Rock, along Auxier Ridge and back to the trailhead. The last two miles to the trailhead feature several modest overlooks and minor ups and downs.
A short three miles down Tunnel Ridge Road you'll find the well marked trailhead sign for Gray's Arch, one of the area's most impressive geological features. There are several hikes to view the arch, but the one we've found most enjoyable and best bang for your time is the grouping of Pinch 'Em Tight, Rush Ridge, Rough Trail & Gray's Arch Loop. Around a mile in hiking clockwise you'll reach a series of staircases leading down to the gorge floor and ultimately the arch. During wet weather, a waterfall occurs at the arch making the experience even more enjoyable.
After exploring the area around the arch head back the way you came picking up the trail to the right of the bottom of the stairs. The remainder of the hike is gorgeous, passing through rhododendron and hemlock filled ravines, over King Branch Creek, and along Rush Ridge. There are several overlooks along Rush Ridge worthy of stopping at and as always use caution - you're not walking away from a fall off the cliffs here. The trail dead ends at Tunnel Ridge Road and hanging a right here will take you back to your vehicle.
If you haven't brought your own food and means of showering, you have a couple solid options at this point and both are on the way to your next adventure. Daniel Boone Coffee Shop, about ten minutes away, serves up solid coffee, bakery and decent breakfast sandwiches. Or kill two birds with one stone and head over to Miguel's Pizza for a slice, half or whole pie and a hot shower in their coin operated showers.
After you've cleaned your dirty butt up and enjoyed a bite to eat, head on down the road to Southeast Mountain Guides for a super cool rock climbing experience. This spot specializes in via ferrata rock climbing, which in a nutshell is climbing a cliff while secured to a steel cable that itself is secured to the rock face. Iron rungs for hand holds and foot placement are strategically placed to aid you along the route. Advanced reservations via phone are required and paid admission gives you access to climb all day. There are several routes available ranging from easy to advanced.
If rock climbing isn't your thing, Gorge Underground kayak tours and Red River Gorge Ziplines are nearby options and worth the price tag. Just know that the life jacket you'll be wearing at Gorge Underground reeks of body odor and could potentially ruin the experience for you. If you're interested in dining out for dinner, the burgers and burritos at Red River Rockhouse are killer. Another option that's closer to the day's last hike is Sky Bridge Station on the corner of the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway and Sky Bridge road just before entering Clifty Wilderness. The gourmet hot dogs and burgers here are excellent.
The last part of the day is out to Clifty Wilderness, a 12,000 acre designated wilderness wholly inside Red River Gorge Geological Area. You'll be backpacking to Copperas Falls with a quick side trip to Hopewell Arch. This is an unofficial trail, so no trailhead signage. Park in the lot just after the bridge or along the road just after the parking lot. The trailhead is on the side of the road opposite of the river, just after the parking lot. Around a half mile from the trailhead you'll notice a trail to the left leading down to the creek. Take this, cross the creek, and continue on up the hill until the trail veers sharply to the right and up, about 500' from the creek. The well defined trail will soon vanish, but as long you work your way up and left, towards the cliffs you'll be fine. Hug the base of the cliffs and enjoy a brief bit of boulder hopping before reaching the cave and arch at 37°49'37.7"N 83°34'39.8"W. If you're lucky there will be a trickle of water coming down from the arch - the sound of the water will help you find the general direction. No bushwhacking is required, but a little route finding skills help. If you have a wide angle lens on your phone you can grab the shot below from the back of the cave.
Return the way you came, back across the creek and hang a left on the main trail. You're roughly 1.3 miles from the falls at this point. Depending on the water level of the creek there will be between 8-12 creek crossings along the way and hiking poles help with them when the water is high. Around the halfway point from the trailhead you'll encounter a large open area great for tent and hammock camping. I've hammock camped here and it's exceptional. There's just enough of a break in the trees above to see the stars and around a new moon you're in for a real treat. From this point on the trail may seem to disappear at times, but as long as you follow the creek you'll eventually make it to the falls below.
There are several great tent and hammock spots scattered between the large boulders just before the falls. We've done both and highly recommend either. It's also worth noting that about one mile from the trailhead, at a very noticeable split in Copperas Creek, you'll find a very faint path leading left and uphill. If you were to follow this path and ascend the hill you'll find Snow Arch (37°49'55.6"N 83°34'47.0"W) and Double Deer Arch (37°49'55.2"N 83°34'48.4"W), two lesser visited arches in the area. They can be a bit tricky to find, but are worth the minimal effort and only add on roughly a half mile. Another arch along Copperas Creek worth visiting is Sandy Arch near Copperas Falls at 37°50'23.4"N 83°34'20.5"W. In the spring or after a heavy rain a waterfall known as Big Trickle Falls cascades through the bottom of the arch. If you're camping near Copperas Falls this is a no brainer since it's so close to camp. The four arches known as Copperas Arches can be found on the right side of the trail about half way to Copperas Falls at 37°49'53.6"N 83°34'25.8"W and add about a half mile as well. Only one of the four is worth the time in our opinion, but you might enjoy them more than we have.
Day 3: Natural Bridge State Park
Copperas Falls return (1.7 miles/200')
Indian Staircase & Adena Arch (4 miles/1,000)
Natural Bridge via Rock Garden & Devil's Gulch (2.5 miles/600')
The last day in the gorge starts with a hike back to your vehicle and a short drive to what some consider the best hike in the area, Indian Staircase. With limited parking and soaring popularity, get there early to park and avoid the crowds. I'll preface the hike with this - if you have a severe fear of heights, it's recently rained or snowed it's not a bad idea to skip this one. You'll find the usual characters here - giant hemlocks, rhododendron, sheer cliffs, a few small arches, etc., but the highlight is Indian Staircase, a steep 200' scramble up the side of the gorge wall that requires a bit of a sense of adventure and sure-footedness. At one point on the staircase there are notches carved into the rock face, similar to Moki steps found in the American Southwest. Some claim they were carved by Native Americans, but it's highly unlikely. The photo below gives a good representation of the staircase profile.
Once you reach the top of Indian Staircase you're quickly inundated with spur trails that seem to go off in every direction. You'll want to take the trail on the far left that hugs the cliff. Stay on this until reaching the Adena Arch which will take you back to the trailhead.
On the way to your final hike you'll pass through the Nada Tunnel, a tunnel blasted out of the hillside shortly after the turn of the 20th century for lumber transportation, now suitable for one way traffic.
Parking for Natural Bridge via Rock Garden and Devil's Gulch Loop is behind the state park resort hotel. Counter-clockwise offers a more gradual ascent up to Natural Bridge and allows you to descend the stairs of Devil's Gulch. You're likely to see next to no one during the first 1.5 miles through the Rock Garden. Unfortunately, that all changes when you reach the belly of Natural Bridge and the masses that congregate here.
After a brief ascent to the top of the bridge, enjoy the views to the northeast and Battleship Rock to the northwest. After Natural Bridge the crowds thin out considerably. Up next is Battleship Rock which provides an unmatched view of Natural Bridge and an overall great place to relax even if only for a few minutes.
Shortly after Battleship Rock you'll encounter Devil's Gulch, a rocky staircase leading you down to the dirt trail. Take caution in the winter months as this area often turns into a sheet of ice. A little more than a third of a mile and a 400' descent is all that's left before the end of what should make a memorable trip to Red River Gorge!
If for some reason backpacking doesn't fit into your plans and you end up day hiking on your trip, give RRG Container Cabins, Red River Gorge Cabins, The Hive at Red Rock, Tiny Cabin At The Pond, or Miguel's Campground a look. Or, rent an A-frame cabin from Red River Outdoors and have access to Torrent Falls which some claim to be the highest waterfall in Kentucky. Since the waterfall is located on private property, the only legal way to gain access to it is by renting one of their cabins. And that's a great way to spend a weekend in the Red River Gorge. Have a blast, be safe, and make some memories!