Kentucky: Red River Gorge

If you live in the Midwest, one place you definitely need to check out is Red River Gorge just southeast of Lexington, Kentucky in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

“The Red” is known around the world by climbers because of the vast number of cliffs in and around the area. The pocketed sandstone formations lend themselves to avid climbers on hundreds to thousands of bolted and non-bolted routes. The popularity of this area for climbing can be evidenced at Miguel’s Pizza, one of the finest hole-in-the-wall restaurants of which you will ever have the pleasure of eating pizza, as the parking lot is a collection of vehicles sporting plates from all across the United States.

But on this early Spring excursion we were not there for climbing. Two of my good friends and I would be embarking on a two night, three day hike that would take us in a loop covering about 15 miles. This was my fourth trip to the Red River Gorge but my first time hiking Rough Trail.

We finished our three and a half hour caravan arriving in the early evening. Our plan was to hit the trail, hike until dusk, and then set up camp on a nice little knoll in the backcountry that Patrick knew about. But as we pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead we could tell that the sky looked menacing. Almost instantly it began to pour down rain.

We laughed about it and decided to wait it out. The rain however had decided to wait us out and came down even harder. Like true outdoorsmen, we got out of the car, loaded up our gear, and began marching triumphantly in the rain. And then it began to hail on us. Despite having hats and hoods on, the hail pelted our skulls in an uncompromising effort to turn us around. And in less than ten minutes we were victors. The sun came out from behind the clouds long enough to congratulate us and then hid over the hillside.

It seemed as if we were on our way to breaking a few of the cardinal rules of hiking and camping: we were soaked and the evening air was cooling. We did not have our shelter set up. And we did not have dry wood or a fire. To add further to our unfortunate circumstance… we could see that another group had already established camp on our knoll. We had no other choice than to press on. We put our headlamps on and hiked upward out of the valley. It wasn’t long before we found a nice spot just passed Gray’s Arch.

We set up the tent in less than three minutes and scoped out the area for an already established fire pit, which we found about twenty feet from the tent. It was going to be nearly impossible to get a meaningful fire going and knock the chill off our bones. As I kicked around in the wet ashy stew of a fire pit I noticed a small miracle- an ember! Not to let our circumstance rise above our pursuit of doing things the hard way, we quickly rallied together in order to nurture this thing to life. Eric, Patrick, and I gathered as much dry organic material as we could find and brought this miracle to life! It wasn’t the biggest fire in camping history, but we warmed up and dried out.

The next morning we were up and off early, but not before imbibing in some mandatory Starbucks Via to get the blood pumping. Although the sun was up early as well we knew that the chance of rain was high. In fact, it was almost certain to storm at some point during the day. In the meantime we hiked and explored the area. The rock formations in Red River Gorge are all so unique. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the natural bridges, caves, and cliffs were hand crafted.

We continued on Rough Trail toward the juncture with Sheltowee Trace. Overhead the clouds began to mist on us and we predicted that this might we a good time for a lunch break, as more rain was imminent. We scampered up a small hillside and ducked beneath a cliff, took out our lunch, and watch the rains come down. Pretty good timing.

We finished lunch and continued on Sheltowee toward Koomer Ridge Trail and Hidden Arch. The trail took us away from all of the sandstone structures and into more wooded areas. This was an interesting development because the sky was turning very dark and I was becoming concerned that something big was brewing without anywhere to take shelter. I wasn’t interested in taking on a huge storm in the middle of a forest, so we picked up the pace double-time. Our prayers were answered as we got to an area close to Hidden Arch that opened up wide with a large rock overhang. We got there with absolutely no time to spare. The winds began swirling and blowing very hard and horizontally. The heavens opened and IT RAINED HARD…but we had the best seats in the house. What an awesome event to watch and what an awesome place from which to watch it!

After the rain subsided and we jumped on Koomer Ridge Trail, we passed some hikers who weren’t able to find shelter during the storm and stop out in the forest as it passed. The were soak to the bone. We, on the other, we completely dry. Just saying.

In an area close to where Koomer Ridge Trail and Buck Trail connect we found heaven on earth- a camping spot in the middle of a Y where two streams come together as one. We plunged in and crossed the thigh high current to the other side and began to set up camp. Travelers before us had already constructed a very nice fire pit and stone seats. I am not sure if I have ever camped at a place where I felt more at home. And what beauty! The two streams rushing and crashing together was so peaceful and soothing.

After a night by the fire in conversation and then sleeping soundly by the water, our hike out would celebrated with a slice at Miguel’s.

in the dirt by s. carey



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