The Best Things To Do in Red River Gorge, KY: Hiking, Food and More
December 2, 2023
Red River Gorge is an underrated and beautiful gem in central Kentucky. I was shocked to learn that Red River Gorge has the most natural arches outside of Utah, but as soon as I got there, I could see how!
The gorge covers about 29,000 acres, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to about 150 natural arches. The area is very popular for hiking, rock climbing and camping.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
Things To Know about Visiting Red River Gorge
- Cell service is spotty throughout Red River Gorge. We had it in some areas but you should not rely on it. Download offline maps so that you can navigate between the trails without service.
- Black bears are rare but have been spotted in this area. Be sure to secure your food when camping.
- There are many significant archaeological sites in Red River Gorge, as people have called the rock shelters home for 1,000’s of years.
- Legend has it that a creature known as “Clifty Catman” roams the east and northeast area of the gorge. The figure is the size of a horse, has the skeleton of a cat, the skin of a human and a beautiful baritone singing voice. Beware!
- The closest major city to Red River Gorge is Lexington, Kentucky, located one hour away.
It was very upsetting to see carvings on the rocks at every natural bridge and arch that I visited. Please leave no trace and leave these areas beautiful for future generations. It is also illegal to make markings on the rocks.
How To Get To Red River Gorge
Red River Gorge is located one hour from Lexington, two hours from Louisville and two and a half hours from Cincinnati, Ohio. If you don’t live nearby, I recommend combining your trip to Red River Gorge with a visit to any of these cities, Mammoth Cave National Park or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Day Hikes in Red River Gorge
If you are new to hiking, check out my day hike packing list!
Chimney Top Trail
- 0.7 miles
- Rated easy
- Out and back
- 88 feet of elevation gain
- Pit toilet at trailhead
This easy trail to Chimney Top provides expansive views of the gorge which makes the area so famous. It’s especially popular for sunset as it faces west, and you’ll have an unobstructed view of the setting sun. I happened to visit at sunrise. While I didn’t have a clear view of the actual sunrise, the lighting was beautiful and I experienced few people.
The trail to reach Chimney Top is fairly flat and partially paved. There are also some benches to sit and take a break along the way. As you reach the end, there are some areas of steep drop offs, but no areas are super narrow.
The viewpoint is spacious. There are a few different rocks to sit on, and a railing. This is a fantastic family friendly trail to enjoy as the sun goes down.
- 0.8 miles
- Rated Easy
- Loop trail
- 216 feet of elevation gain
- Pit toilet at trailhead
The hike to Sky Bridge was one of my favorite trails! The trail is a loop that involves walking on top of the arch and underneath it. I started from the top, which made for less elevation gain. There are amazing views of the gorge from the top of the arch and when you walk underneath, there is a little kickstand off of the main arch, creating a second arch.
If you hike the loop from the top (clockwise), the trail begins on a paved path and will quickly lead you to walking out onto the bridge. The bridge is plenty wide for most visitors, but if you are afraid of heights or hiking with very young children, you may want to avoid this trail. There are no railings for the drop offs on both sides of the natural bridge.
After walking across the bridge, you will take steps down to the bottom, walk under the bridge and take a short forested trail to finish the loop.
On your way driving to Sky Bridge on Sky Bridge Rd, there are a few overlooks to stop at and enjoy more gorge views!
Double Arch, Courthouse Rock and Auxier Ridge Loop
- 6 miles
- 1,036 feet of elevation gain
- Loop trail
- Rated moderate
- Pit toilet at trailhead
This epic trail combines sweeping views, arches and more. I combined the Auxier Ridge trail and the Double Arch trails as one big loop, but you could also do either of them separately as out and back hikes if you are short on time.
I started with the Auxier Ridge portion of the trail. The ridge trail has some gradual ups and downs and some fantastic views facing both east and west. One neat aspect of this hike is that you’ll get to see Double Arch in the distance!
At the end of the ridge, you’ll get to see the famous Courthouse Rock. You can also hike to the top of the Courthouse Rock, but it gets a bit sketchy so I skipped it.
After Courthouse Rock, you’ll ascend down and hike about a mile in the woods. Soon you will see a sign for Double Arch and turn right at the fork in the trail. You’ll hike around the back of it and climb some steps to come face to face with the arch. The arch is called “double arch” because there is one large arch with a smaller arch right above it. You can also climb on top of the rock formation and take in the views of Auxier Ridge in the distance.
After Double Arch, you’ll complete the loop by climbing out of the gorge and hiking the last couple miles on a dirt road. The road is easily the most unexciting part of the loop.
Overall, this epic trail is not overly difficult, but it does have a lot of elevation gain. It’s a great trail to see a variety of the area. Make sure to pack lunch or snacks and come prepared with the hiking essentials.
Original, Laurel Ridge and Rock Bridge Trail Loop
- 2 miles
- Rated Easy
- Loop trail
- 626 feet of elevation gain
The Original, Laurel Ridge and Rock Bridge trails are located in the Natural Bridge State Resort Park and include an impressive natural bridge, interesting rock formations, views of the area and peaceful forested walks.
I began the hike at Hemlock Lodge and completed the loop clockwise. The trail starts with an uphill climb for a bit and then turns left towards the natural bridge. When you reach the natural bridge from below, there is a slim rock staircase that will take you to the top of the bridge. The stairs are quite narrow and feel a little like a slot canyon!
When you reach the top, you can walk across the bridge and enjoy views of the surrounding area. Just like Sky Bridge, there are no railings and there are drop offs on both sides of the bridge, so use caution. After crossing the bridge, you’ll pass a chairlift that provides another way to get to the top of the bridge.
Continue on after the bridge for an amazing view of Battleship Rock and the natural bridge behind you. After Battleship Rock, follow a short spur trail for a great view of the rock called “Lover’s Leap.”
To complete the loop, descend back down into the Devil’s Gulch. There are a couple paths down and one narrow section is called the “Needle’s Eye.” During my trip, part of the steps of the Needle’s Eye had been destroyed by a recent storm so we took the next trail going down.
The path we descended down was quite steep and may be difficult for some abilities. (All Trails ranked this easy but I would definitely consider this portion to be moderate). As you descend into the gulch, you’ll be right next to some beautiful and impressive rock shelters.
The path to complete the loop continued through the forest and we saw lots of mushrooms and interesting plant life. This trail is quite beautiful and this park is a lot of fun to explore!
- 2.3 miles
- Rated Moderate
- Out and back trail
- 298 feet of elevation gain
Gray’s Arch is a 2.3 mile trail that descends down to a grotto and large arch. Most of the trail is forested but you will also pass through a beautiful meadow on your hike.
After a mile of relatively flat terrain, you will take a series of steep staircases to get down to the arch. After taking most of the steps downward, you will first reach a grotto with a large cave wall. Just beyond the grotto, you will find Gray’s Arch.
Climb back up a little bit and you can walk underneath the large rock formation. This arch was more rounded and is different from most of the others on this list because it is not a natural bridge, but only an arch.
- 1.4 miles
- Rated moderate
- Loop trail
- 311 feet of elevation gain
- Pit toilets at Trailhead
Rockbridge is unique in that it’s the only natural bridge that goes over water in Red River Gorge. We hiked the trail counterclockwise which made for a less difficult climb going back up. The trail is forested and you will pass a few different grottos as you continue onward. From the counterclockwise direction, you will first reach Creation Falls.
The waterfall is small but you can walk right up to it. The water was not deep enough to swim during my visit but we saw some people wading in it. Just a bit further down the trail is the Rockbridge. The bridge has greenery hanging off of it and felt very unique as compared to the other bridges we saw during the trip. There is no trail that goes over the bridge, but enjoy views of it from multiple angles.
To reach Rockbridge, you will take a gravel road about 3 miles to the parking area. The parking area has bathrooms, shaded picnic tables and there was even a ranger there to answer questions during my visit.
- 0.5 miles
- Rated easy
- Out and back trail
- 42 feet of elevation gain
The Whistling Arch trail is short but a nice quick hike if you’re passing by. You will walk a relatively flat quarter-mile to reach a large rock face. The Whistling Arch itself is small. It is called the Whistling Arch for the sound of the wind as it flies through the hole in the rock shelter.
The arch was interesting, but the real treat was the view just beyond the arch. You can either climb on top of the rock shelter, which is a moderately difficult rock scramble, or walk a bit further and find views through multiple breaks in the trees. This is a great, quick trail for families!
More Hikes to Consider
These are the hikes that I didn’t have time for, but are highest on my list for next time:
- Silvermine Arch Trail, 2.8 miles
- Princess Arch Trail, 0.6 miles
- Half Moon Arch Trail, 0.8 miles
- Indian Staircase to Cloudsplitter, 5.2 miles
- Sheltowee Trace Trail, 12.3 miles
- Rough, Koomer Ridge, Buck, Pinch-em Right Trail Loop, 12.2 miles
What To Do Other Than Hiking in Red River Gorge
The Nada Tunnel is a very unique feature of the gorge. It is located on Nada Tunnel Road about two miles off of the Bert T Combs Mountain Pkwy.
The tunnel is carved out of stone and only allows one way traffic. It is 900 feet long, 12 feet wide and 13 feet high. I was really excited to drive through this tunnel, but my experience ended up being a bit scary.
Coming from the East (where I was coming from), you can barely see through the tunnel because it’s on a slope and quite long. A car about five cars ahead of us went into the tunnel and we, along with several more cars behind us, followed.
About halfway through the tunnel, we came to a complete stop. Cars had entered from both sides of the tunnel and two lines of opposing cars were stuck at an impasse. The only solution was for one side to back up, but stubborn people on both sides refused to relent and a yelling match ensued. Our car was one of about 5 cars stuck in the middle of people refusing to leave on both ends.
Eventually, one side gave in and we were able to continue forward after being stuck for about 20 minutes. The tunnel is very narrow so if you are claustrophobic or if getting temporarily stuck inside the tunnel gives you a lot of anxiety, you may want to avoid it.
For a unique experience, the Gorge Underground offers a variety of boating tours inside an abandoned limestone mine. This is also a great thing to do in Red River Gorge when it rains. Options include riding on a boat, kayaking in either a regular or a clear bottom kayak, paddleboarding and more. Around Halloween, they also offer a haunted mine tour! I did not have a chance to try out this experience but it sounds like a fun and a unique adventure.
Red River Gorge Ziplines
Red River Gorge Zipline offers ziplining tours with incredible views of the gorge and the Daniel Boone National Forest. You will fly 300 feet above the ground and enjoy amazing views. I have not been ziplining at this location, but always find it to be an exhilarating experience.
The Gladie Cabin and Visitor Center has a historic barn with artifacts and signage about the history of early pioneers.
Where to Eat in Red River Gorge
Red River Rockhouse
The Red River Rockhouse is a wonderful place to eat after a day of hiking. You will enter through a door covered in stickers, order at the counter and then enjoy your food either indoors or on their outdoor patio.
They serve burgers, tacos, burritos and have a good amount of vegetarian options. They also have a great selection of local craft beer!
I really enjoyed the vegetarian burrito, it was full of flavor and very filling. Note that parking is somewhat limited here and the restaurant gets crowded at peak times.
Miguel’s Pizza is another popular place to eat after hiking in Red River Gorge. Miguel’s serves not only pizza and sandwiches, but also has a pizza sandwich! They also serve several breakfast options in the morning, including bagel sandwiches, pancakes, omelettes and more.
Where to Stay in Red River Gorge
There are several great cabins in Red River Gorge! I stayed at Boone's Bluff on Airbnb, which was quite convenient to the various trails in the area. The cabin was super cozy and included a firepit, fast wifi and all of the kitchen essentails you could need.
Nearby Red River Gorge
If you looking for locations to combine with your trip to Red River Gorge, check out these spots:
Lexington is an hour away from the geological area and is a great place to stay, eat and explore on it’s own. I recommend staying at the 21C Museum Hotel, visiting a distillery and enjoying some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had from Crank and Boom!
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Did you know that 95% of the world’s bourbon supply comes from Kentucky? There are 37 distilleries between and around Lexington and Louisville. You can visit the distilleries on a tour or on your own (drive responsibly!). Most of the distilleries offer tours and you can purchase a bourbon passport to track your progress. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail website is a great resource for planning your bourbon trail trip.
Mammoth Cave is an incredible Kentucky National Park located 3 hours from Red River Gorge. The cave is the world’s longest known cave system and over 400 miles of explored caverns. The national park service offers a variety of cave tours for all ranges of abilities.
Red River Gorge is such a unique and beautiful place to visit, and I hope you love it as much as I do. Whether you are taking a day trip from Louisville or spending several nights camping the area, there are wonderful trails for every ability. I hope you enjoy your visit to this underrated part of Kentucky.
For More Hiking Destinations Nearby, check out these guides:
- The Best Hiking in Yellow Springs, Ohio
- The Best Things To Do in Hocking Hills, Ohio
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio
- The Best Hikes near Cincinnati, Oh
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