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I have discovered the most magical place, one which seems like it fell straight out of a fairytale land. What may have been a secret from me for the last several years, has been a prime destination for rock climbers for ages.

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Wooden Suspension bridge over the Red River on the Sheltowee Trace Trail

This area is reasonably reachable from many major cities (6.5 hr drive from Detroit MI, 2 hrs from Cincinnati OH, 1hr from Lexington KY), making this an ideal location for a long-weekend getaway. There are several marked trail systems in the gorge that are maintained by the US Forest Service, including the Sheltowee Trace Trail, a 319 mile route which runs through the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest.   The official marked trails are well maintained and in most cases have some jaw dropping view points and rock features.  Many of the popular sites in the park are easily accessible to the public so you don’t have to be a hard-core hiker to experience them.

You knew this was coming… As one of my favorite quotes goes:

 

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” -Herman Melville

This holds true for the Red River Gorge more than any place I’ve visited yet. The main trails, in my opinion ultimately function as main arteries to transport hikers from point A to B.

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This is one of over 100 arches found in the Gorge

While I encourage you to use and explore the sights on these marked trails (because there are some truly spectacular ones), there are also some unique treasures to be found on the unmarked side trails and secret paths; so many in fact, that one could spend an eternity exploring the uncharted nooks and crannies of this giant gorge.   Kentucky is painted with steep cliffs, cascading waterfalls, delicate but massive sandstone arches, never-ending rock caves, staggering drop-offs, and so many micro ecosystems with unique treasures. It feels like no other place I’ve ever visited.  I didn’t know what to expect when I set out on a long weekend adventure in the gorge. There aren’t a lot of resources or trail guides for the area. It’s primarily used by rock climbers, so I had to get a bit resourceful in planning a backpacking trip.

 

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You won’t find this cave on any official map. But tread carefully, an endangered plant grows inside the cave.

 

These are 3 references which I found to be extremely helpful, and I would recommend to anyone who is looking to hike beyond the main, marked trails:

A. Hinterlands by Jerrell Goodpaster – Unofficial Hiking in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge 

  • This book is basically the trail bible of the gorge.  It has all of the  off-the-beaten track hikes you could ever desire, complete with GPS coordinates and descriptions of landmarks to find the trails you seek.
  • H@H TIP: Don’t over-think the trail descriptions provided.  Things like “the trail on your left past the foreboding hemlocks and the stream emerging from the rock cave” (what the heck do foreboding hemlocks look like?) Trust me, you will know when you see it. The trail was always way more obvious than I expected it to be.

B. to Red River Gorge.com Blog: http://toredrivergorge.com. This blog has a great variety of hikes with varying difficulty levels, topped off with sweet pics and trail descriptions. I also love the top ten articles.

C. OutrageGIS Maps

  • These contain all of the marked and several of the unmarked trails in the gorge. It has a lot of the unmarked side trails from the Hinterlands book, but I found it most effective to use a combination of the maps and the book’s trail descriptions.
  • I recommend getting the waterproof ones. I opted for regular and the rainy weather got the best of them over the course of the trip.
  • I loved the map included which shows ridges and spots for viewing sunset and sunrise.  If you’re lucky like me, you’ll find an epic campsite that blesses you with both.
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Epic Sunset from a secret campsite in the Gorge. 

 

I’m not going to go into details about trails notes and locations. There are references for this out there if you wish to seek them out.  Such a special place deserves a special person who is willing to research,  branch out and explore to find the most spectacular hidden spots.  Since back country camping is allowed in most places in the gorge (see park rules), the possibilities are endless. There are NO shortage of campsites with expansive views.  The gorge is your canvas for adventure.

 


H@H Tip: There is a wild web and maze of trails and side trails that present themselves off the main arteries and side branches (we shall call them arterioles). None of these are marked. Some lead to deadly drop offs, some lead to breathtaking vistas, and some lead in circles. But one may just lead you to the most spectacular place in the park.


 

Get a good map, and know how to navigate and use a compass.  I carried detailed trail descriptions and carefully researched trail plans to ensure that I stayed on track. For the most part, a worn path is usually visible. If you do undertake any of these trails in the gorge, please do so with extreme caution.  The trails can be narrow and have steep ledges, drop offs and slippery slopes. Use your thinker on these and know when something is too uncomfortable for you to do safely.

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Doing the “Daniel Boone” move to peer over the edge. Don’t do as I do. 

What I loved most about the gorge was the diversity of life and variety of ecosystems you could pass all in one hike. High on the exposed ridge lines, the trail can be arid and sandy, while other shaded ridges could be moss-covered with a variety of short coniferous trees and shrubs. Descend into the heart of the gorge and another world unfolds around you. Moss, ferns and rare wildflowers cover the forest floor.  A mix of coniferous and deciduous trees stand tall like giants, tropical looking leaves the size of your head fill the forest canopy. The trees drip with moisture from the humidity they hold in.

Unique mushrooms grow in the most inconspicuous places.  Birds are always singing and hawks soar over head. The eerie mist floats up from the depths of the gorge and before you know it, floats around you as if doing a dance. If a place this alive doesn’t make you feel alive, you should check your ticker… because something’s wrong.  Safe to say the Red River Gorge exceeded all of my expectations.  This is such a unique and magical place, you truly have to see it to appreciate its diversity. It was like the lush rain forests of Costa Rica meet the towering rock faces of Zion National Park (two of my most favorite places, so it’s no surprise why I fell so in love with it). I will, without a doubt be back to the gorge as soon as the opportunity arises… there is still too much left to explore. It’s special places like this that are the reason that I hike.

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Stay tuned for my next post of my favorite spots on my trip to the Red River Gorge


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