RED RIVER GORGE: 3 Day Hiking Guide
Red River Gorge has its own unique qualities and landscape. I was just there this weekend taking some friends around the area. I got to revisit some places I haven’t been in a while. It brought a new appreciation for the beauty of the area. Kentucky falls just behind Utah and Arizona in the number of natural rock arches. Red River Gorge is home to 150 arches, a number surpassed only by Arches National Park. A true midwest gem. If you haven’t been, here is what I suggest: 1st grab a free map from the Shell station off Mountain Parkway, exit 33 or buy one at Daniel Boone Coffee Shop
Where to stay: There is only one campground in the park, but there is plenty of camping just outside the park. Koomer Ridge Campground, inside the park, would be my first suggestion: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dbnf/recarea/?recid=39462
They operate on a first come first serve basis. You might be able to call Glade Visitor’s center on the day you are heading down, to see how crowded they are. Koomer has flush bathrooms, water, and showers that operate during warmer months. The campsites are wooded and far enough apart you can enjoy the outdoors and its peace and quiet.
Another option would be the Middle Fork campground. https://thedyrt.com/camping/kentucky/kentucky-natural-bridge-state-park-middle-fork
They are located close to Natural Bridge just outside the park. The sites in the back, past the RVs are nice. They also have water, flush toilets, and showers.
For more camping options: https://thedyrt.com/magazine/local/red-river-gorge-camping-kentucky/
Food: Grocery stores are scares. Gas stations are pretty well stocked for this reason. The two gas stations at the exit, just off 11, has a ton of stuff, including locally baked sweets that melt in your mouth (like Paula Dean bad for you, but soo good). Miguel’s is a staple in the area. It has been around since the 80’s. They serve some of the best pizza I have ever had. You can get a variety of toppings. Miquel’s is also a campground for climbers, and at times they can flood the place. But typically, I have had great pizza and service in a friendly atmosphere. Check hours, they do shut down during the offseason. https://www.miguelspizza.com/ Red River Rockhouse is another great place to eat. They are newer, with a farm to table kinda philosophy. They used to have a KILLER breakfast but stopped serving due to lack of workforce. I am hoping they BRING IT BACK! Their menu is simple but, it is all good, burgers, burritos, tacos, all using local farmers and bakers.https://redriverrockhouse.com/ They are also seasonal so check to make sure they are open. Sky Bridge Station is just outside of Koomer Ridge Campground. They have local music, Tuesday’s trivia night, good food, and super friendly service. It has a good atmosphere and they are one of the few that is open year-round. Only Kentucky beer on tap so grab a brew and enjoy sitting next to their fireplace. Check their website for days and times https://skybridgestation.weebly.com/
Hiking Day 1: After setting up camp I would check out the trails from Koomer Ridge campground, Silvermine Arch (2.8 round trip) and Hidden Arch (2.3 round trip). If it has rained I would also hike Whittleton Arch (2.5 round trip) just North, outside of Koomer. There is a pretty waterfall into giant boulders. If it hasn’t rained the waterfall is less impressive and maybe skip it. If you have built up an appetite, I would head to Miguel’s for lunch or pack a picnic and head to Natural Bridge State Resort Park. From Natural Bridge you can pick your poison, but you have to hike to Natural Bridge. If you haven’t been, it is the main attraction of the park. From Hemlock Lodge you can park and head out on whatever distance you feel like. There are many loops, (Sand Gap Trail, 6.3 to Balanced Rock 1 mile) and ways to connect all the trails here. I suggest grabbing a free map from the lodge and deciding how you want to get around. However you choose, be sure to go to Natural Bridge, Balance Rock, and Lover’s Leap lookout. If you need to grab food, Hemlock Lodge has a great view from their restaurant. If when you walk in you feel a little out of place, it is okay, they are used to hikers, campers, and climbers coming in for a bite to eat. They offer a good salad bar as well as your typical lodge food. It is also an option for a good breakfast if you find yourself in need, however, the coffee is what you would expect. I would recommend Daniel Boone Coffee for light bites and coffee if they are open (seasonal https://www.danielboonecoffeeshop.com/). Natural Bridge is really pretty at sunrise so, if you want to do this day in reverse, I support it!
Day two: I suggest be a long hike day, pack a lunch, and eat at Gray’s Arch or Hanson’s Point. The hiking in this area is gorgeous and moderate- difficult. Take your time, pack water and lunch and enjoy it. These are my favorite hikes/ views of the park, just spectacular! Park at Gray’s Arch Parking lot. Follow the Pinch Em Tight trail to left on Rough Trail. If you are an experienced hiker, and up for some exposed views, just .4 from the turn there is a well-established trail that is not marked. It is a narrow path on the right that leads you through short cedar trees. It is maybe a mile out from Rough Trail and you will pass through two large group backcountry campsites, just keep walking straight/ heading east. From the point, you can see cloud splitter, chimney rock, and half-moon, however, be cautious getting out there this area is very exposed. I get a little nervous around heights so I just take it slow. Yes, people have died here so be aware of your surroundings. The view is worth it. After you have taken it all in, return back to rough trail the way you came. When you get to Rough Trail make a right and follow it to Gray’s Arch trail. It is a short out and back to the actual arch. The arch is huge and you get to see it in all it’s glory from the bottom looking up. Retrace your steps to get to the trail that will lead you to the tunnel ridge parking area. Overall this is 7ish miles, with a couple of thigh-burning climbs. More info: https://www.kentuckyhiker.com/latest/2019/6/14/hansons-point-to-grays-arch-loop-2
If you are not exhausted by the time you get back, it is worth hiking out to D. Boone Hut. It is one mile out to the historic ruins of Daniel Boone. The trail is really pretty in the spring with all the rhodo’s blooming.
Day three: I would spend at Auxier Ridge. This area is really pretty. I would do one of two things either make it a six-mile loop with lunch or snacks or shorten the hike and do an out and back. The six would take you from Auxier Ridge to Auxier Branch Trail to Double Arch Trail. Trailhead and parking area off of tunnel ridge road. If you take this loop you will hike out Auxier Ridge trail which is just really scenic, and one of the most popular trails in the park. I have hiked it many times, winter, spring, summer, and fall and have enjoyed it every time. Even if the trail is busy (peak season) it is still enjoyable. From the trail you will pass Courthouse Rock at that point you can turn around and enjoy the way back or you can press on for longer. To go further and see more you can take Courthouse Trail, or my recommendation would Auxier Ridge Branch Trail to Double Arch Trail. If you do the latter, you will take the branch trail, make a right once you reach Double Arch and go out and back to actually see the Double Arch, maybe a half-mile out, and then head back via Double Arch Trail to Tunnel Ridge Road parking.
More info on RRG and hiking in the area: https://toredrivergorge.com/ and https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/dbnf/recreation/hiking/?recid=39314&actid=50 There are plenty of sites out there with info, these just made the top of my list.
Easy hikes: Chimney Top and Princess Arch for a picnic or sunrise. It is a little bit of a drive but a very scenic ride. Both have great views of the park. The walk/ hike out to both is super short and mostly paved. It is a pretty drive out Chimney Top Road. Another great view and short hike is Angle’s Windows off of Sky Bridge Road.
Let a horse do the hiking. Whisper Valley RIding Trails is located just 25 minutes south of Koomer Campground. They offer a variety of tours at very affordable prices. Trails take you by cliffs, waterfalls, lakes and rock shelters. They are open year-round. http://www.whispervalleytrails.com/home.html
More than just hiking? Hell ya!
I would certainly be remiss if I did not mention climbing in Red River Gorge. Climbers have made Red River Gorge a top destination worldwide. Known for its beautiful sandstone cliffs and the sheer amount of sport climbing, Red River Gorge has caught the climbing world’s attention. Luckily, Climbers have inspired a lot of the development in the area making things like grabbing a burger, taco, or even a beer after your adventure a reality. Thanks climbers!
If you want to give climbing a go, there are a couple of guide companies available for beginners to advanced. KRAG (Kentucky Rock and Adventure Guides) is running out of Sky Bridge Station. While you are grabbing a bite you can book your adventure. More info: http://www.kragky.com/. Or Southeast Climbing Guides, https://www.southeastmountainguides.com/red-river-gorge-guided-rock-climbing/ They have been guiding since 2004 in the lovely Torrent Falls area. Conveniently located off HWY11. All reservations should be made over the phone.
Water sports: Thrillsville offers underground cave kayaking which sounds super fun. I have to admit, I have not done but, would love to hear about it if you have. More info: https://www.thrillsville.org/tickets.php
Red River Adventures offers canoe, kayak, and stand up paddleboards for rent, along with a variety of tours. Their website: http://www.redriveradventure.net/Canoes.html
Want a unique experience? The Reptile Zoo, next to the rest stop. I am not a fan of snakes, however, you aren’t going to find another place like this, so for me, IT’S A GO! If you do go, go and watch the venom extraction. Director Jim Harrison is so cool, the zen master of snakes. He is extremely knowledgeable and great to talk to. He can answer questions, tell stories, all while handling super deadly snakes. The work he does saves lives. Just watching the snakes move behind glass scares the crap out of me, but watching him work, he is as cool as a cucumber. It’s worth it. http://www.kyreptilezoo.org/tour-krz.html