Kentucky’s Epic Red River Gorge that You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

posted in: Kentucky, Nature, Travel, United States | 32

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!

Sheltowee Trail

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.

Red River Gorge Loop

Nada Tunnel

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.
Sheltowee Trail - Red River Sheltowee Trail Suspension Bridge

Suspension BridgeSuspension 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!


Gladie Historic Site

Gladie Historical Site

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.

Sky Bridge Trail
Dave had no idea he was standing on an arch!
Views from Sky Bridge Loop
Beautiful views

Red River Gorge Sky Bridge Arch

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.

Princess Arch Trail Princess Archway Red River Gorge Princess Arch hike

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.

Chimney Top Rock Trail

Chimney Top Rock Trail ViewChimney Top Rock View

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?

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Kentucky's Red River Gorge

32 Responses

  1. Chris travels

    Obviously there are sooo many unusual and beautiful places in our country that I have missed in my 45 years of considering myself a well-seasoned traveler! Thanks for “digging deep” to check out those hidden gems of beauty and sharing them with your readers for future travel considerations!

    • Dang Travelers

      We couldn’t believe how beautiful the gorge was. There was so much to & we had never heard of it before$

  2. Yep, never heard of it but let’s add that to the super long list of places i’d like to go to some day.

    • Dang Travelers

      We know how you feel. Every day, I feel like I add a few places to my list and that list is getting LONG!

  3. Such lush green landscape – and I love the bridge across the creek surrounded by trees – it’s like something from a woodland fairytale! Looks like you had an amazing time!

  4. I love being in the wild and nature.

  5. Like you the first thing I think of about Kentucky are the horses. I never realized how green and beautiful it is there. It would be fun to walk around the hills and those rock archways. Looks like we may have to make a trip to the midwest sometime!

    • Kentucky is a beautiful state surprisingly. We drove this old road between Louisville and Lexington. It was lovely; in some areas the road is covered by tree canopies and other areas are lined with rolling meadows and horse farms. Quite a view of the countryside!

  6. As a Canadian, I had no idea there was wilderness like this in Kentucky… the US sure has a lot to explore!

  7. Kentucky is not somewhere it would ever occur to me to go (I had to look on a map to see where it was). These photos do look good though, and the trails look easy enough for me.
    (sigh) maybe one day…

  8. Great piece! If you had not given the location, I would have sworn these pics were taken in north central Arkansas. I’m from Little Rock, and of all of the places I’ve traveled around the world, north central Arkansas is one of the prettiest – especially in the fall.

    Now I have a new place to check out. Thanks for sharing!

    • We spent some time in the northeast part of the state last year and loved it. We hiked up to Whitaker Point and it was incredible! Also, went to Eureka Springs. We would love to get back down further south by Hot Springs.

  9. love everything you took. Stunning scenery and lots of wonderful information.

  10. This really is epic and yep I’ve never heard of it hahaha. What a great find though. If I’m ever in that part of the woods…

  11. Oh wow that looks EPIC. Those rivers, the bridges, that little cabin. That is heaven on Earth! 😛

  12. Loved this article. My boyfriend is a Kentuckian and took me to this area, but it’s so stunning and I wish more people knew about it!

    • Thanks! We agree. We’ve seriously driven by probably 25 times and have stopped at the brat stop many times (right down the road from the downtown area) but never been to Kenosha!

  13. Kentucky is very diverse. We have large lakes (Lake Cumberland) and forested areas like Red River Gorge and of course horse farms and bourbon. We are so glad you enjoyed your trip here and hope you get to come back soon.

  14. Red River Gorge(ous) is just a few hours from us. We have been exploring there for 20 years and have yet to see everything. If you return you should make sure you do the Rock Bridge Trail and Gray’s Arch. Also make sure you eat at Miguel’s Pizza near Natural Bridge State Park.

    • Thank you so much for the information. We will definitely be back to explore more! The area is gorgeous. We couldn’t believe we had never heard of it before!

  15. Hi! Dave here! We been going down there for years! It was one of the first places I took my wife and we been married forever! When I was a kid my older brothers used to camp out way off the road in a big rock shelter!

    • That’s awesome Dave! Married forever…ha! We were really surprised how beautiful the area is, especially since we hadn’t heard much about the place. We plan on going back to spend more time there when we can. Thanks for reading!

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