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

posted in: Kentucky, Nature, Travel, United States | 39

Updated 2019. 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
Red River Gorge Map


Red River Gorge Things to Do – 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 mile and one of the Red River Gorge trails. We walked a short part as 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 with 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 Arch Trail

The Princess Arch Trail is another short trail, only 0.6 miles to a magical 32-foot long Princess Arch.

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?

Check out these other posts:

Have you ever visited Kentucky’s Red River Gorge?

Like it? Pin it!

Kentucky's Red River Gorge

Follow Angela:

Angela E. is a travel writer from the Chicagoland area who has visited all 50 states in the US and has traveled extensively around the world. She is passionate about exploring the great outdoors and hiking in particular. Her love for nature has taken her to some of the most beautiful locations on the planet. She has written extensively about her travels on her own website, Dang Travelers, and has been published in collaboration with other travel websites and multiple visitor bureaus around the country.

39 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!

  2. Hung Thai

    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. Nancy

    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!

    • Dang Travelers

      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!

  4. Dan Vineberg

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

  5. sarah

    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…

  6. Life, Other Than (Shannon)

    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!

    • Dang Travelers

      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.

  7. Hung Thai

    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…

  8. Castaway with Crystal

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

  9. Wanderlustingk

    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!

    • Dang Travelers

      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!

  10. Kentucky Tourism

    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.

  11. CheriM

    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.

    • Dang Travelers

      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!

  12. Dave

    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!

    • Dang Travelers

      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!

  13. Debbie Bailey

    I’m going to Lexington, Ky this summer for a vacation. One of the many, many places I’m going to visit is Red River Gorge. I am hoping to stay in a cabin in the area for a couple of days. Any suggestions?

    • Dang Travelers

      Sounds like a fun trip Debbie! Unfortunately, we only spent the day exploring the gorge. We hope to go back, but I don’t have any suggestions.

  14. Brandy

    This is actually where I am from, pictures just don’t do it any justice. This place is so beautiful and if you go back there now, you can actually kayak in a mine that was closed down cause they hit a lake. So much to see and do out here and the culture is just wonderful. Don’t forget to enjoy and Ale8 while your there too. 🙂

  15. Tiffany

    Thanks for sharing! Look forward to checking this area out when we are in Kentucky in a few weeks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.