Hiking the Indian Staircase & Adena Arch Loop in Red River Gorge
An adventurous day hike offering sweeping vista views, beautiful forest scenery, and a chance to ascend one of Red River Gorge's most famous rock formations.
Trailhead elevation 750'
Water two intermittent streams at 0.5 and 0.7 miles
Don't miss the vista near Adena Arch
Hiking the Indian Staircase & Adena Arch Loop
The trickiest part of hiking Indian Staircase is finding parking. The trailhead parking area can accommodate no more than ten vehicles and generally fills up early in the morning, especially on the weekends. In the likely event that this area is full, alternate parking can be found 0.2 miles east at a four car lot, and 0.2 miles west at the Gladie Visitor Center. Both of the alternate parking areas will require you to walk along the Sky Bridge Rd a short distance to reach the trailhead.
It's highly advisable to download a trail map before venturing out to the trailhead. There is no cell phone coverage in the area and given the number of intersecting trails, not to mention the lack of signage along the route, it's very easy to get off track. If you're an AllTrails user, download and follow the Indian Staircase and Adena Arch Loop Trail map, but know that the mileage listed on the app is consistently wrong. This article focuses on hiking the loop counterclockwise, which allows you to ascend Indian Staircase rather than descend it.
From the trailhead, the route initially follows the Bison Way Trail, gradually ascending a hillside through a mixed hardwood forest.
At 0.5 miles, the trail crosses a small creek, then continues uphill before intersecting with the Sheltowee Trace Trail, the only marked junction along the route, where you'll make a left.
At 0.9 miles, a well-traveled spur trail emerges along the right side of the path. This is the spur trail that leads to Indian Staircase, however it is easy to miss given that there are no signs for it. The only indication is small paint marking on a tree along the right side of the Sheltowee Trace Trail.
Following a steep 0.2-mile climb up the spur trail, you'll encounter a large rock formation with a rockfall to its right. To reach Indian Staircase, ascend the rockfall, which involves only a minor scramble.
At the top of the rockfall, a sandy path leads left and ultimately to the base of Indian Staircase. From here, you'll ascend the sandstone slab, whichever way is easiest for you. Most hikers use the Moki-like steps carved into the rockface, but there are multiple ways up. Unless you have a severe fear of heights or are in poor physical condition, the ascent up Indian Staircase is mild.
The image below was taken with one of my drones and highlights the profile of the formation. For scale, I am sitting near the top of it, just below a grouping of small trees. As you can see, the first half of the ascent is the steepest, but is generally easy to navigate. Around the halfway point, the ascent becomes more gradual, but you should still use caution as a fall anywhere on the staircase could result in serious injury or worse.
The overhead shot below gives some perspective on how wide the formation is. Although there is no definitive way to ascend it, a clearly marked path has emerged over time, evident from the noticeable wear on the grippy sandstone.
At the top of the ascent you'll find a large vista with excellent 270-degree views.
There are numerous side trails leading from the vista, but as a general rule, if you stick close to the edge of the cliffs, you'll stay on track. As you walk along the top of the cliffs, you'll find interesting stone carvings, more incredible views, and the famous Frog's Head.
Less than a quarter mile from the vista, you'll encounter Council Chamber, a massive recess cave spanning more than a football field.
Following Council Chamber, the trail closely follows the side of the towering cliffs, at times running just inches from the edge. Those with a fear of heights may find this quarter-mile stretch of the trail nerve-racking. As the trail veers away from the cliffs, it meanders through a picturesque section of forest, passing by no less than six very large and remarkable backcountry campsites before arriving at Adena Arch.
Within 0.15 miles from the arch, the trail appears to come to a dead end. However, you'll notice a short rock slab along the right side of the trail. Descending the slab, which requires nothing more than sliding down it, will reveal the trail continuing down the hillside from that point. After descending a short distance, you'll encounter a junction where you should turn right. After taking the right turn, the trail loses elevation rather quickly, eventually leading to two rock formations where a rope has been installed to help hikers. It's not necessary to use the rope to continue the descent, but those with mobility issues might find it helpful.
After navigating through the rope section, you'll have another 0.25 miles or so before the trail ends at Sky Bridge Rd. Depending on where you've parked, you'll have that distance left to walk back to your vehicle.