A sightseeing drive on the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway proudly displays the varied and verdant scenery, but to truly experience the Gorge you must venture into it and discover its treasures. Carved over the course of millions of years by wind and water, this area is truly unique and exploration will reveal over 80 natural arches, historical sites, and miles and miles of trails made for cross-country backpacking or day hikes.
There are magnificent views, unusual vegetation, and the largest concentration of arches and rock shelters east of the Rocky Mountains. Some of the rock shelters were used by ancient Indians to live in and supposedly one was used by Daniel Boone!
Originally called the Cumberland National Forest when created in 1937, the Daniel Boone National Forest received its new name in 1966 in honor of the adventurous frontiersman who explored much of this Kentucky region. It is located on the Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky and encompasses over 707,000 acres of mostly rugged terrain. The land is characterized by steep forested ridges dissected by narrow ravines and over 3,400 miles of sandstone cliffs. The Daniel Boone National Forest is one of the most heavily used forests in the South with over 5 million visitors annually. People come here to backpack, camp, picnic, rock climb, boat, hunt, fish, ride and relax.
The forest contains three large lakes -- Cave Run Lake, Laurel River Lake and Lake Cumberland -- as well as numerous rivers and streams, two wilderness areas, and the 269-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail that extends across the length of the forest.
Abundant wildlife, lush vegetation, magnificent scenery, and numerous recreation opportunities offer visitors much to enjoy. Tree species include the northern red oak, basswood, beech, yellow poplar, sugar maple, birch, red maple, hemlock, red oak, white oak, and hickory. In the higher, drier reaches of the ridges you find short leaf pine, chestnut oak, white oak, and Virginia pine. Rhododendron, mountain laurel, blueberry, huckleberry, dogwood, sourwood, black gum, white-haired goldenrod, ferns, and Canadian yew are also found here.
The Red River Gorge is also a very popular place for rock climbers with many unique routes for the beginner to the most experienced climber. This was no challenge for Bob who has climbed many areas including Grand Teton National Park, and even I had no trouble.
Many ecosystems coexist within the forest boundaries, including meadows, cliffs, rivers, wetlands, cane breaks, fern gardens, and other special habitat niches, but the area is called a geologic area due to the prevalent and varied natural rock features created as the indigenous sandstones erode into sheer cliffs, steep-walled gorges, rockshelters, waterfalls, natural bridges and arches, and caves.
The Daniel Boone National Forest is home for 23 species listed as threatened or endangered species. These species range from the magnificent bald eagle to the small Indiana bat. Rock outcroppings, cliffs, and caves provide habitat for some of the rarest species on the forest, including several species of bats, the spotted skunk, and the Allegheny woodrat, and fishermen will relish the bass, crappie, walleye, catfish, and muskie abundant year-around on the many lakes and rivers in the forest.
The namesake Red River runs through the Gorge for 18 miles and has been designated as a wild and scenic river and offers beautiful canoe trips. The Red River Gorge area was a mining area for iron ore, saltpeter for gunpowder (mined in the area for all of the wars through the Civil War) and then timber. Nearly all of the trees within the Gorge were harvested providing the area with great economic wealth. The introduction of the railroads in the mid to late 1800s helped push growth and also provided the area with the first permanent industry -- tourism. Excursion trains from Lexington, Cincinnati, and Louisville that brought tourists to what is now Natural Bridge State Resort Park started in 1900 and lasted until 1939.
Backcountry camping requires a permit for an overnight parking fee based on the number of nights in the backcountry. In 2007, the cost was $3 for one night, $5 for three nights, $7 for seven nights, and $30 for an annual pass. The fees generated will remain in the Boone NF for local improvements. Permits can be purchased at ranger stations as well as at many local businesses. You can not camp along the base of cliff walls or in rock shelters.
The Red River Gorge has several ridge lines which intersect, and the trails atop these ridges are basically level. Trails between ridge lines require descending and ascending, and this is where you'll reach the many water sources which run through the valleys. Each creek or small river we crossed had nice camp areas near them, the water was flowing and drinkable (after treatment, of course), and all crossings were in shallow sections, many with stepping stones. Waterproof boots are preferable and a branch or hiking pole will help those skittish about such crossings. The dense tree cover allows very little direct sunlight into the valley bottoms, and a pervasive cool humidity seemed to reign below. We encountered no bugs during our mid-May trip.
Grey's Arch is one of 80 arches or bridges in Red River Gorge. This one is available off Rough Trail which lives up to its name as it takes you through a beautiful but rugged slot canyon. A slight detour and boulder climb up a rock slope brings you beneath the arch and gives views in each direction and access to a small memorial for a hiker/climber who died in a fall in 1986. A tree growing from the base of the arch assists the adventurous who wish to climb to the top of the arch.
Bob digs his camera out of his pack as we hike through one of the canyons. Rockhouses of varying sizes were prevalent along the base of all rock cliffs, but camping is not allowed under them, although we saw one tent in one by Grey's Arch. The sandstone cliffs displayed a variety of natural artistry -- sometimes pocked with holes, sometimes rippled, sometimes with swirls like clouds, and the humidity allows mosses and ferns to grow abundantly, even to the extreme that some rock faces were covered by moss growth. All the trails we were on hard tread in decent repair, though a large number of fallen trees had to be climbed over, under, or gone around, and a few places were muddy and in need of drainage improvement.
The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail runs the length of the Daniel Boone NF and through the Red River Gorge, crossing its namesake river over this suspension bridge.
The bridge is also used by those who want to camp by the river but not hike their gear in six or more miles. I strongly recommend you camp away from the river if you want a quiet, private experience -- there are many nice sites less than half a mile away -- and then walk to the river if you want to hang out there. A large number of people take the easy way out by parking in the lot along the road, carrying their massive tents and coolers and boom boxes over the bridge, and setting up deluxe camps along the river. In the photo below, people are jumping from the boulder into the river, and just across the river there was a rope they used to swing out over the river and drop in.
We found a nice campsite away from the Red River and decided to set up a basecamp and day hike the next few days, exploring the area. We were rained on and were glad to let our gear dry each day as we hiked the trails.