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!
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.
RELATED: EPIC USA ROAD TRIP
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.
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 with 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.
Princess Arch Trail
The Princess Arch Trail is another short trail, only 0.6 miles to a magical 32-foot long Princess Arch.
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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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!
We couldn’t believe how beautiful the gorge was. There was so much to & we had never heard of it before$
Leave No Trace Adventures are the locals you didn’t know you needed! Give us a call for some more amazing finds when in the Red River Gorge
Will do Christie! We definitely want to get back to that area to explore more.
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.
We know how you feel. Every day, I feel like I add a few places to my list and that list is getting LONG!
Vicki | MakeTimeToSeeTheWorld
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!
It was a great spot to take a detour. Hopefully we will get back there some day soon. It was a beautiful area!
I love being in the wild and nature.
So do we! We are hitting the road this summer to visit eleven national parks. Maybe we’ll be sick of it by the end… NAH!!
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!
As a Canadian, I had no idea there was wilderness like this in Kentucky… the US sure has a lot to explore!
It does, but I’m sure the same goes for Canada as well! The bourbon trail and horse country is great too.
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…
Yea, Kentucky is definitely not on everyone’s radar as a destination, but beautiful nonetheless.
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!
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.
love everything you took. Stunning scenery and lots of wonderful information.
Thanks Jessica. It is a beautiful area!
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…
Thanks! We were really happy to discover this little gem in Kentucky!
Castaway with Crystal
Oh wow that looks EPIC. Those rivers, the bridges, that little cabin. That is heaven on Earth! 😛
Thanks Crystal. Yes, a little slice of heaven for sure. The are was stunning especially in the fall when the leaves are changing.
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!
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.
Thanks, we plan on it! We hope to visit Lake Cumberland and Mammoth Cave this year. Kentucky is a beautiful state!
That will be a great trip! We shared your post on our Facebook page.
Thank you so much! We really appreciate it.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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. 🙂
Lucky duck! We would love to get back for the kayaking. It sounds like a unique experience. Thanks for the tips Brandy!
Thanks for sharing! Look forward to checking this area out when we are in Kentucky in a few weeks.