The Red River Gorge is a rock climber’s heaven mixed with a back-country camper’s dream all snuggled together in the mountains of east-central Kentucky.
Featuring more natural sandstone arches than anywhere east of the Rockies, and certainly enough to make even the hardiest dirt-bagger drool, the Red River Gorge and its neighbors have made it onto “must see” lists everywhere from Southern Living to Sierra.com and TheDyrt.com.
Administered by the US Forest Service, the Red River Gorge itself sits inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. Waterfalls, lakes, campgrounds, hiking trails, and some of the most scenic terrain between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River lie within its confines.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park sits alongside the Red River US Park and is also within the Daniel Boone National Forest. NBSRP has 22 miles of hiking along with its own set of climbing and scenery to explore.
To get to the area from Lexington, KY, take I-64 to Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway East, then take Exit 33 and follow the signs to the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge
Logistics, or what is the skinny on the details
Passes and permits are required for activities within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Most activities are free, but some activities such as overnight camping within the forest do cost a nominal fee ($3.00).
The Forest Service and Kentucky Park Service offer cabin and campground rentals, firewood collection permits and other amenities.
Other helpful links for passes and permits include:
Contact the Forest Service by mail regarding a visit to the DBNF or the Red River Gorge via the Gladie Visitor Center:
Gladie Visitor Center
- 3451 Sky Bridge Road
- Stanton, KY 40380
For a fun and safe visit to the Red River Gorge area, make sure to pack all your camping essentials. What that entails depends on the type of activities and camping you intend to do. You know your itinerary best.
However, make sure to include these items along with your regular camping gear. Experts, including the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition (RRGCC.org) and toredrivergorge.com, advise that a GPS, personal water supply, and a good flashlight or headlamp are essential to even day hikes within the Gorge area.
There is so much to see and do within the Red River Gorge region that it would take a book to detail it all. The RRG is on the National Register of Historic Places and is both a National Natural Landmark and National Archaeological District.
The best places to learn about all there is to see and do within the parks themselves are at the US Forest Service site, the Kentucky State Park Site, and the rrgcc.org sites.
The KentuckyTourism.com website also features new blog articles about the area and its parks. These sites allow you to explore the details of the park, find campsites in specific areas of the parks and download trail maps and park regulations directly from the websites
The US and Kentucky park sites have the most up-to-date fee schedules, route closure information and potential site closure information available.
Seasonal closures do occur in the parks due to rain, heavy snow and other conditions so plan ahead to avoid disappointments. Always be sure to review the park safety guidelines prior to hiking, climbing or camping in the parks.
Do more and see more in the Red River Gorge
A visit to the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky would not be complete without visiting some iconic places. Be sure to check these out while you are nearby.
- Natural Bridge State Park Chairlift
- Climb a “via ferrata” across a sheer rock wall
- Learn rock climbing from basic to advanced
- Drive through Nada Tunnel on Kentucky Route 77
- Experience true rock climber culture at Miguel’s Pizza and purchase a Miguel’s T-Shirt
- Take a zip-line tour over the Red River Gorge at Cliffview Resort
- Kayak through an underground cave at Thrillsville: The Gorge Underground
Must-not-miss Hikes and Climbs According to those who Know
With hundreds of officially marked trails and climbing routes throughout the area, and hundreds more “unofficial” trails, plus several privately-owned climbing areas adjacent to the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge Park, listing all the routes is impossible.
However, below are a few favorites mentioned by the experts at RedRiverGorgeHiking.com.
Easy Hiking Trails:
- Sky Bridge Red River Gorge
- Angel Windows Trail
- Whistling Arch Trail
- Bison Way to Indian Staircase
- Tower Rock Trail
Moderate Hiking Trails:
- Rock Bridge Trail
- Copperas Falls
- Gray’s Arch Trail Loop
- Indian Staircase Trail
- Auxier Ridge Trail
Hard Hiking Trails:
- Swift Camp Creek Trail
- Cloud Splitter Shortcut
- Martin’s Fork to Sheltowee
At Natural Bridge State Park, popular short trails include Lakeside Trail, Henson” Arch Trail, and Low Gap Trail.
The Rock Garden Trail is approximately 1.75 miles in length, and the Hoods Branch Trail is 3.75 miles. For a real excursion, try the Sand Gap Trail at 7.5 miles long.
Tent, Hammock, Camper, RV, Cabin or Lodge?
Where: Miguel’s Pizza
Directions: From Mountain Parkway, take Slade exit #33, go south on Rte. 11, Miguel’s is on your left after 2 miles
What type: Tent and hammock camping in fields between the pizza restaurant and the climbing gear store.
Amenities: Miguel’s is famous around the world, so rock climbers come here to talk shop, swap tales and eat pizza. The place features coin laundry, pay showers, covered shelters for outdoor cooking, a basement hang-out, half-court basketball, and flush toilets.
Cost: $2.00 per person per night for rock climbers only
- 1890 Natural Bridge Road
- Slade, Kentucky 40376
Where: Land of the Arches /Lota Rocks Campgroundaka LOTA
Directions: From Slade, KY (Mountain Parkway), drive 8.4 miles on KY 11, past Torrent Falls until you reach the junction with KY 715, which makes a sharp left. Continue down KY 715 for about a mile, passing a small church on the right. The campground is on the right. Orange cones mark the entrance to the campground
What type: Primarily tent and hammock camping in a field with a limited number of RV campsites with electric hookups, the facility has a dump station plus a few rooms, cabins and beds in the “hangar” building.
Amenities: Free hot showers, a small general store with bathrooms, ice and firewood for sale. The site offers free WiFi and an indoor recreation area with air hockey and table tennis.
Pros/cons: Be sure to stake your tent down as it gets windy. The campground has the reputation as a top climber’s destination. It draws an internationally diverse crowd.
Restrictions: NO DOGS allowed except at the annual Rocktoberfest festival
Cost: $8 per person per night. Do it yourself check at the kiosk at the front of the main building. Put your money in an envelope after retrieving your tent tag from the envelope. Put the tag on the outside of your tent – staff will check for them. You can arrive any time day or night.
Contact: Contact the office to inquire about group rates or RV camping.
Lota.Rocks (Land of the Arches)
- 5150 Hwy 715
- Campton, KY 41301
- Phone: (606) 668-7074
- Website: www.landofthearches.com
Where: Koomer Ridge Campground
Directions: From Mountain Parkway, take Slade exit #33, turn left, then turn right past the Shell station onto Rte. 15. Stay on Rte. 15 for about 4 miles
What type: Primitive and camper trailer sites on a first-come-first-serve basis and 15 sites that can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet, although there are no water or electric hookups and no dump station
Amenities: Steep forested slopes, sandstone cliffs, and narrow ravines. Hike, camp, picnic, rock climb, boat, hunt, fish, ride, target shoot and relax on-site.
Pros/cons: This is the only developed campground within the Daniel Boone National Forest itself. It has several miles of hiking opportunities existing or originating from the campground.
The campground has no sewer, electric or water hookups, only showers, and drinking water. However, campers consistently rate it as a “5-star campground, and it is a popular destination.
Cost: RV sites starting at $22 per night, tenting camping starting at $18 per night from April 17 to Nov. 1, and all sites are $10 per night Nov. 2 to April 16. Dispersed camping in the general forest area of the gorge is permitted at $14/night
Contact: Koomer Ridge Campground
- Administrative Offices Daniel Boone National Park
- 1700 Bypass Road
- Winchester, KY 40391
- Phone: (859) 745-3100
- Phone: (606) 663-2852
- Website: www.fs.usda.gov/dbnf/
Where Natural Bridge State Park. There are two campgrounds in NBSF, the Middle Fork and Whittleton
What type: Primitive and camper options are offered at both sites
Amenities: Whittleton Campground looks up at the stone Whittleton Arch in the Red River Gorge. Summertime is the busiest time of year to camp Whittleton allows dogs, but the Natural Bridge Park does not.
Middle Fork Campground sits amid the Daniel Boone National Forest and just a short drive away from the Red River Gorge.
There is a creek that runs right next to camp. It is a good campground if you don’t like backpacking to the primitive sites.
Pros/cons: Reservations are recommended. Campers report the bathrooms are clean, campgrounds are well maintained, and there are many beautiful hiking trails nearby. Most spots are level, paved or packed gravel. Shower rooms are nice and clean.
Restrictions: Open Mar. 15 to Nov. 15.
Costs: Standard electric RV sites starting at $25 per night, tent camping starting at $15 per night. Any camping in the entire forest requires an overnight parking pass ($3/night), available at several locations, including the Shell Station just off the Parkway exit.
Contact: Reservations for camping within the Natural Bridge State Park can be made here or by calling 888-459-7275
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
just past Miguel’s on left
Middle Fork Campground
just past Miguel’s on right
Where: Red River Outdoors
Directions: From Mountain Parkway, take Slade exit #33, go south on Rte. 11 for one mile, cabins are on the right.
What Type: Cabins
Amenities: Centrally located to all the area attractions. Two locations. All cabins are privately owned and maintained
Pros/Cons: Cabins make for the ultimate getaway in the Red River Gorge, KY; especially if you are traveling in a group! This cabin development offers a range of high-quality cabins from which to choose.
Several companies provide cabin rentals within this development: Scenic Cabin Rentals, Red River Gorge Cabin Rentals & Natural Bridge Cabin Company.
Cost: Varies [Select “RRGCC” from the “How did you find us” list while booking and RRO will donate $5 to the RRGCC for a 2+ night stay.]
Contact: Red River Outdoors
415 Natural Bridge Road
Slade, Kentucky 40376
SouthernLiving.com recommends staying at the Red River Adventure riverside cabin if you are taking a canoe trip. Rates for the riverside cabin at Red River Adventure starts at $99 per night; (606) 663-1012.
Where: 4 Guys RV Park
Directions: From the North take I-75 South to I-64 East, take Exit 98 off I-64 eastbound onto the Mountain Parkway. Exit at Natural Bridge/Red River Gorge(Exit 33). Turn Left and go under the Parkway. Turn Left at the stop sign. Go two miles and “4 Guys” is on the left.
What Type: RV, tent, camper and group camping at 45 campsites
Amenities: Showers, wi-fi, a pool, playground, and a stocked fishing pond. Open all year round, RV sites include full hookups. The campground has laundry facilities, private bathrooms, a camp store, picnic tables, and a playground for children, plus Frisbee golf and a basketball court
Costs: Vary by type of campsite
Contact: 4 Guys RV Park
- 10137 Campton Rd
- Stanton, Kentucky 40380
- (859) 314-2465
Group camping and back-country dispersed camping in the Gorge
The Daniel Boone National Forest has four specially-designated group camping sites just for larger groups such as family reunions, scout troops or parties.
The Red River Gorge itself has multiple locations within its borders. Kentucky Outdoor Adventure also has links to great group camping sites and adventures within the RRG area.
According to SouthernLiving.com rooms at the Natural Bridge State Resort Park Lodge start at only $90 in April, the start of the climbing season. Contact the Lodge at 1-800-325-1710 for more details.
Of course, back-country or “dispersed camping areas are available throughout the parks at the trail sides. Campsites may be big enough for small groups or just barely big enough to sling a hammock.
These undeveloped sites are the cheapest and most isolated at only $3.00 per car for an overnight parking permit.
They are also the most dangerous, with risks from wildlife less than the risks from the cliffs after dark. If you plan to camp in dispersed camping, please make sure you are fit and appropriately geared-up to handle the difficult conditions in the Red River Gorge. For more information, visit the USFS Safety Page.
Read up on safety guidelines for hiking, camping, and dealing with wildlife before venturing into the wild, and know the park regulations for each site you visit.
Some trails like those in the Adena Arch Area are not appropriate for young children, and a few, such as the Indian Staircase Area are marked as potentially fatal even for adults.
Finding your way – get a map and a guidebook recommended by experts
Regardless of your choice of camping accommodations and activities, investing beforehand in a good guidebook about the Red River Gorge area, its trails and climbing routes is a great way to learn about the area and prepare yourself for your trip.
As the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition says, the best guide book is the most up to date and accurate one. Maps of your intended hikes and trails are essential for your safety in the RRG, too.
The Forest Service and the Park Service have their maps and trail guides online for your convenience. You can pick up brochures and maps at forest and park offices or order them in advance.
Interactive Visitor Maps Go to http://www.fs.fed.us/ivm/index.html
- Red River Gorge North by Dustin Stephens and published by Wolverine Publishing A portion of the proceeds of all sales go to support the mission of the RRGCC
- Red River Gorge South by Blake Bowling and published by Wolverine Publishing. A portion of the proceeds of all sales goes to support the mission of the RRGCC.
- Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Sean Patrick Hill
- Hinterlands by Jerrell Goodpaster
Check out other people having the time of their lives in Red River Gorge. Now, aren’t you ready to do this, too?
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