This Unique Landmark In Kentucky Is A Dream Destination For Climbers And Hikers

Nestled within the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in East Central Kentucky, the Red River Gorge Geological Area offers an off-the-beaten-path destination for outdoor recreation that rivals some of the top national parks in terms of natural beauty. For generations The Red remained one of Kentucky's best-kept secrets, but its popularity has skyrocketed over the past several years. Rock climbers travel from around the world to experience some of the best climbing in the United States, and nature lovers of all kinds enjoy the secluded cabin rentals and miles of hiking trails.

The Red River Gorge Geological Area encompasses 29,000 acres of forest, sandstone cliffs, and fascinating rock formations that began forming about 285 million years ago. In 2003, it was officially established as a National Natural Landmark and National Archaeological District. The geological area is located adjacent to Daniel Boone National Forest and Natural Bridge State Park, so frequent visitors often lump all of these nature preserves together. It's easy to visit all three during your trip.

The Red is the perfect place to unplug and escape into nature. Even though tourism is steadily increasing, the crowds aren't overwhelming and there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy some of the most breathtaking views in Kentucky. You can explore massive cliff overhangs, hike to natural arches, paddle the Red River in a kayak, and rock climb. Afterward, retire to a uniquely crafted cabin nestled within pine groves for the perfect relaxing retreat in nature.

Best hikes and climbing at The Red

You'll find more than 60 hiking trails within the Red River Gorge Geological Area. Difficulty ranges from leisurely walks to challenging scrambles up to the tops of 200-foot cliffs. For views of some of the best arches, consider hiking the 6-mile Auxier Ridge Loop Trail to Double Arch and Courthouse Rock. The trail is moderately difficult and has some steep climbs, but the views are well worth working up a sweat.

If you want to start or end your day with a quick and easy hike with fabulous views, visit the Chimney Top Trail, which is less than a mile in length and takes 18 minutes to complete without major elevation gain. You'll hike along the ridgeline for stunning vistas of the entire gorge. Princess Arch Trail is another easy route that allows you to get up close and personal with a natural bridge rock formation.

The Red River Gorge is full of excellent climbing spots. Within the geological area, two of the most popular routes include Military Wall and Left Flank. You can reach them both from Martin's Fork parking area. Muir Valley, a 360-acre nonprofit nature reserve, has more than 400 climbing routes. Entrance is free, but there is a $15 parking fee. If you're in search of easy rock climbs for beginners, consider booking a guided lesson. Bluegrass Climbing School offers lessons and guided climbing tours with prices ranging from $80 to $165, depending on how many people are in your group.

Planning your trip

Your visit to Red River Gorge requires a vehicle, and 4x4 is recommended. If you're flying in, the nearest airport is Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, about one hour away. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, the state's largest airport, is approximately two hours away. Both have car rentals with rates starting around $25 per day.

Accommodations range from rustic resorts to unique private cabin rentals. Book a cozy A-frame cabin with StayOver Vacation Rentals starting at $122 per night or a one-of-a-kind treehouse designed by The Canopy Crew starting around $200. Airbnb and Vrbo have plenty of short-term rentals in the area as well. Applying for a permit for backcountry camping in the Clifty Wilderness area is one of the best ways to experience the magic of The Red.

The gorge is in a remote area, but you'll still find some great restaurants. La Cabana has hearty portions of tasty Mexican food and margaritas. No trip to Red River Gorge is complete without a visit to Miguel's Pizza, where you can get a slice and a craft beer while mingling with climbers. There are a few local coffee shops with yummy breakfast options and Sky Bridge Station is an excellent spot for beer, gourmet hot dogs, and live music.

Red River Gorge is open year-round. Summer and fall weekends are busy. To avoid the crowds, visit on a weekday or during the off-season. Some businesses close during winter, but you'll still find excellent accommodations year round.