Kentucky is the state of horses, the Derby, bourbon, bluegrass, and hot browns. Or at least that’s what I think of when I imagine all things Kentucky related.
Is it in the Midwest or is it considered the South?
Either way, one thing I do NOT think of is hiking, fall color, rock climbing, lush forests or sandstone arches. Yet, that’s what we found one day exploring the east-central part of the state. The gorge area was our first stop at the beginning of our 7-week US road trip. We were glad that we took a little detour to adventure around.
Let me tell you about Kentucky’s epic Red River Gorge that you’ve probably never heard of!
Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
The majority of the gorge is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Natural Landmark and National Archaeological District. There are over 100 natural sandstone archways in the gorge! The arches reminded my husband, on a much smaller scale, of his visit to Arches National Park in Utah when he was younger. The park has waterfalls, dense woodlands, exposed limestone ledges, tunnels, and bridges. It is known as a premier rock climbing destination east of the Mississippi. It has long strenuous hikes and short easy ones, the latter working for us this time since we were only spending the day there.
We took the 40 mile scenic drive (download the loop map here) that begins near the town of Nada at the Nada Tunnel, a 900-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, and 13-foot-high tunnel. Driving through this narrow single-lane dark tunnel was a wonderful introduction to the area! Since it is at the beginning of the drive it is often referred to as the “Gateway to Red River Gorge.” It was used back in the day as a railway tunnel for logging.
Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail
The Sheltowee Trace Trail is a 319 mile trail that stretches from Tennessee to Kentucky. It is the longest hiking trail in Kentucky at 269 miles. We walked a short part of it in the Red River Gorge. It follows along the Red River and eventually leads you to a very cool suspension bridge.
Gladie Historic Site and Visitor Center
The Gladie Historic Site and Visitor Center has information on the logging industry and settlement from the 1880s to 1920s. The log cabin was built in 1900 and originally had no electricity or running water. Made me thankful I was born in the 70’s!
Sky Bridge Trail
The Sky Bridge Trail Loop is only one mile and provided us our first sighting of Red River Gorge’s natural archways and brilliant views.
Angel Windows Trail
Only 1/4 mile long this trail was really short, but very interesting. Check out these sci-fi looking rocks, ledges and archways.
Chimney Top Rock Trail
Chimney Top Rock Trail is another short and sweet hiking trail. It’s only about 0.6 miles, but the overlook has amazing views. If you look across the valley, you can see the half moon arch. The storm was rolling in so unfortunately this was our last hike of the day.
We drove the rest of the scenic byway, but it was raining and we were running out of time. There were many more sights and hikes to see like the Cliff Trail and Hidden Arch. We also had planned to stop at the Natural Bridge State Resort Park, but it was torrential rain at that point. We are definitely going back to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge as a separate trip so we can spend more time exploring the area.
The Red River Gorge has to be Kentucky’s best kept secret. We loved the scenic drive through the natural beauty of the gorge, the short hikes that led to incredible views and the natural stone arches.
Looking for more travel ideas in the area?
Check out these other posts:
- Best Place to Celebrate Christmas in July
- Awaken in Macon, the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World
- America’s Unspoiled Jewel: Cumberland Island
- Adults Only Day in Downtown Gatlinburg
- Tramping in Indiana’s Amish Country
Have you ever visited Kentucky’s Red River Gorge?
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