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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

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. Spanning 29,000 acres, this National Natural Landmark features over 150 naturally sculpted sandstone arches, ranking second globally in arch concentration behind Arches National Park. With 70+ miles of scenic hiking trails, picturesque waterfalls, extensive sandstone cliffs, and abundant backcountry camping spots, Red River Gorge stands as a haven for hiking enthusiasts. During this visit, I went on two leisurely overnight backpacks, explored via ferrata rock climbing, and hiked a few classic Red River Gorge day hikes.


Auxier Ridge Red River Gorge

Day 1: Tunnel Ridge Road Area

Double Arch, Courthouse Rock & Auxier Ridge (5 miles/1,000')

I kicked off the weekend with an easy overnight backpack along Auxier Ridge, Courthouse Rock, and Double Arch, a route I've hiked multiple times before. Setting off in a clockwise direction from the Auxier Ridge Trailhead, located at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road, the trail winded through lush forest adorned with rhododendron and bigleaf magnolias. After roughly 2.5 miles, I reached Double Arch, which offered excellent views of Courthouse Rock, Haystack Rock, and Auxier Ridge to the east. Inside the arch, I enjoyed panoramic views, while on the right side of the arch, I discovered a well-trodden set of stone stairs that led above it, offering a similar view.


Double Arch Red River Gorge

Following Double Arch, I descended around 500 feet over the next mile until I reached the gorge floor and Auxier Branch, a small tributary of the Red River. Along the next quarter mile, I discovered at least six exceptional backcountry campsites nestled beneath the towering hemlocks and diverse hardwoods. Having not camped in this area before, I opted to spend the night here.


With plenty of time before sunset, I hiked about half a mile up to Courthouse Rock and eventually to a gorgeous overlook situated along Auxier Ridge. Here, I set up my hammock, read for a few hours, and watch the sunset. If you're allergic to wide sweeping views, this overlook isn't for you.


Auxier Ridge Red River Gorge

Before it got too dark, I retraced my steps back to camp below Auxier Ridge.


Day 2: Tunnel Ridge Road Area, Southeast Mountain Guides, & Clifty Wilderness

Double Arch, Courthouse Rock & Auxier Ridge finish (3 miles/500')
Gray's Arch, Rough Trail, & Rush Ridge (3.5 miles/500')
Southeast Mountain Guides Via Ferrata
Hopewell Arch, Snow Arch, Double Deer Arch, & Copperas Falls (2.1 miles/500')

After waking up and making breakfast in the dense fog that had engulfed the gorge, I made my way back up to Courthouse Rock, along Auxier Ridge, and ultimately back to the trailhead. Between where I hung my hammock the previous evening and the trailhead, there were several overlooks, but none that rivalled the sunset spot.


Once I returned to my car, I took a short drive over to the Grays Arch Trailhead, packed my day pack, and hiked down to Grays Arch.


Grays Arch Red River Gorge

After exploring the arch, I picked up the Rough Trail, which eventually led through a gorgeous ravine full of rhododendron and King Branch Creek. After relaxing near the creek for a bit, I moved on, ascending Rough Trail to reach the Rush Ridge Trail. I then followed Rush Ridge, taking in the occasional view to the west, before reaching the Sheltowee Trace Trail. After hiking on the Sheltowee Trace Trail for around two tenths of a mile, I reached Tunnel Ridge Rd and then walked a tenth of a mile back to my car. The highlight of the hike was easily Grays Arch, however, the time that I spent near the creek was great since I surprisingly had it to myself.


Afterward, I headed over to Miguel's to grab a shower and lunch, then headed over to Southeast Mountain Guides for an afternoon of via ferrata rock climbing.


Red River Gorge via ferrata

After climbing, I drove out to Clifty Wilderness, a 12,000-acre designated wilderness wholly inside the Red River Gorge Geological Area. It's probably my favorite area of the gorge because it sees significantly less traffic than other areas. This evening, I backpacked Hopewell Arch, Snow Arch, Double Deer Arch, and Copperas Falls, which is one of my favorite hikes in Kentucky. This is an unofficial, yet easy to locate trailhead on Google Maps, listed as Copperas Creek Unofficial Trailhead. The first stop was to Hopewell Arch.


Hopewell Arch Red River Gorge

Afterward, I continued to Copperas Falls where I set up camp not too far from the sound of the falls. It's a great spot for both hammock and tent camping.


Copperas Creek Falls

For the first time in four trips to the falls, I camped without another person camping anywhere near me.


Day 3: Clifty Wilderness & Natural Bridge State Resort Park

Hopewell Arch, Snow Arch, Double Deer Arch, & Copperas Falls (2.4 miles/200')
Indian Staircase & Adena Arch (4 miles/1,000)
Natural Bridge via Rock Garden & Devil's Gulch (2.5 miles/600')

The following morning, I completed the out-and-back, hiking to Double Deer Arch and Snow Arch, then returned to the trailhead. I found Snow Arch to be worth the time, but I'd probably skip Double Deer Arch the next time through. Afterward, I headed over to hike Indian Staircase, another classic day hike in the area that I had done a number of times in the past. As with many of the hikes in the gorge, there are numerous directions and routes to hike this one, but I've always preferred hiking counterclockwise and ascending the staircase.


Indian Staircase Red River Gorge

Both the above and below photos were taken with my drone, and show the profile of Indian Staircase. In the photo below, you can clearly make out the well-traveled path leading through the staircase, but there is no right or wrong way to hike it. I don't have a fear of heights, but suspect those who do would have some trouble with it.


Indian Staircase Red River Gorge

After completing the loop and returning to the trailhead, I headed over to Natural Bridge State Resort Park to hike the Rock Garden, Natural Bridge, and Devil's Gulch Loop. Again, I had done this before but wanted to see what the traffic was like during the week. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the hike was Natural Bridge, which, from its summit, provided outstanding panoramic views in every direction.


Natural Bridge Red River Gorge

The view of Natural Bridge from Battleship Rock is excellent as well, and fortunately, sees far less traffic than Natural Bridge itself.


Natural Bridge Red River Gorge

Following the hike, I headed to Red River Rockhouse for one of their killer burgers and drove home, happy with another awesome weekend in the gorge. For those seeking a bit more seclusion on a trip to the gorge, consider hiking out to Cherokee Arch - it's a fantastic hike that receives very little foot traffic.

1 comentario


Invitado
11 nov 2023

Wow! These pictures are wonderful. The detailed descriptions are awesome. I truly enjoy seeing all these.

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