Welcome to Red River Gorge!
Recently, my family and I took a long-overdue trip to take in the best day hikes in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. It’s one of the best climbing spots in America and has some beautiful hikes around the area as well. It’s only 2 hours from Louisville and Cincinnati, 3 hours from Knoxville, and 4 hours from Nashville, Evansville, and Columbus. For this caliber of hiking, it is definitely worth the drive.
And as far as spending the night goes, they have almost every type of accommodation around Red River Gorge. From cabins on the ridge that sleep 13 people to tiny camping cabins with two bunk beds to the $5 tent camping that you see around places like Miguel’s, you’d be able to find something that suited everyone.
Finding the Best Hike for Everyone
As for the hikes, they’re something for everyone too. If you’re a serious backpacker and want to “get lost” in the wilderness, there’s the 282-mile Sheltowee Trace Trail that runs through the Daniel Boone National Forest. Red River Gorge and the Natural Bridge State Park are nestled in the Daniel Boone National Forest, so you’re bound to see the Sheltowee Trace. If you’re just staying in the Red River Gorge for day hikes, you may join the Trace for a while between trails. However, if you’re passing through on the Trace, I definitely recommend hitting some short hikes in the Gorge before moving on.
If you’re not up for a 282-mile hike, don’t worry! There are so many beautiful hikes in this region that feature arches, bridges, sandstone embankments, beautiful rhododendron groves, ridges, and lush forests. During our recent trip there, we chose to do a multitude of short day hikes.
None of the hikes are too difficult, but I’ve rated them for you. A level 1 trail would be a nicely paved and flat trail suitable for wheelchairs, whereas a 10 would be a strenuous forest hike with very steep grade, mucky trails, and uneven rocky or rooted paths. My list of amazing Red River Gorge hikes sits between those two extremes.
Without further ado, here are the best day hikes in Red River Gorge.
Sky Bridge (#214)
Distance: 0.8 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (staircase)
This was definitely my favorite trail in the Red River Gorge. It’s a relatively easy one but has amazing views along the way. From the car park, you walk down a slight hill to the paved start of the trial. It’s a small descent on the paved trail before meeting up with the sandstone Sky Bridge. With the steep drop-offs on either side, it’s important to pay attention while crossing this one. Keep a close eye on your dogs and kiddos here.
Mind your feet on the bridge, as it can be a bit bumpy and you wouldn’t want to trip. Continue across the bridge, enjoying the views of the forest down below. At the end of the bridge, the trail curls around to the right and heads down a staircase.
Descending the staircase, you wind along the side of the bridge before reaching the massive arch below. There’s even a smaller arch beneath Sky Bridge. The views down here are even more impressive than at the top, as the size of the bridge is revealed. An amazing place for a picnic!
Rock Bridge Trail (#207)
Distance: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (moderate grade on unpaved trail)
After Sky Bridge, this is one of the best hikes in Red River Gorge. During our walk of this trail, we ran into less than 5 people and two dogs around the Rock Bridge. It’s a very peaceful descent through hemlock forest with dense rhododendrons.
As you come down the first big hill, you’ll hear a waterfall up ahead. If you’re looking for an adventure, you can scramble down and explore the waterfall area before heading on.
Just around the bend is the highlight of the trail. The Rock Bridge is the only arch in Red River Gorge that actually passes over water. If you hit it early in the morning, you’ll get beautiful reflections of the Bridge in the water below. Another great picnic spot!
Past the Rock Bridge, it’s a steep climb out up onto the ridge. Again, beautiful views from the lookout up here.
Hidden Arch (#208)
Distance: 1 mile
Difficulty: 3/10 (moderate grade, staircase)
Another secluded hike, the Hidden Arch is a beautiful forgotten trail. To get there, you’ll have to drive back into the Koomer Ridge Campground. Mind you, there is no parking at the trailhead. Leave your cars at the entrance.
The trailhead leaves from the campground and heads up a slight hill. From there, you’ll descend a slight grade until arriving at a staircase. Below, you’ll find the Hidden Arch tucked away. If you like scrambling, you can climb up to sit underneath of it.
The trail continues around the left side of the arch and heads up a steeper grade. You’ll pass by some beautiful pocketed sandstone with little bug apartments.
Another staircase will bring you onto to the top of the ridge again. The trail butts into another trail as you leave, but the campground should be marked. Either trail will take you to the same place, though one is a bit quicker.
Tower Rock (#229)
Distance: 0.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (steep grade)
Tower Rock was an unexpected climb. We knew that we were setting out for an uphill climb, but I didn’t expect the grade. The trail sets off steep and doesn’t stop until you reach the top.
It passes through a beautiful forest before reaching the base of Tower Rock. It is massive! Be prepared to be impressed. If you’re lucky, you may even see some climbers scaling its walls.
Natural Bridge Original Trail and Laurel Ridge Trail
Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (steep grade, staircase, walk along sheer cliff faces)
This trail isn’t actually in the Red River Gorge area. Park at the Natural Bridge Resort Park and head up the main path up a rather steep hill. Once up the hill, the trail flattens out. You’ll round a bend with a shelter and then ascend to the bottom of the Natural Bridge.
I’m not sure when it’s best to hike this one. In the morning, you’d have beautiful photos from down below. However, afternoon sunshine makes for nice photos on the backside of the bridge. Once at the top, look to your left for a staircase carved in the bridge. Head up it, and you’ll be on the top of the Natural Bridge.
We continued to follow this trail toward the Laurel Ridge. It passes by a nice lookout toward the Natural Bridge called Lover’s Leap. Eventually, it comes to the Lookout Point, where you can see Miguel’s and the climber camp down below.
This trail then passes down an incredibly steep, slippery, wet, sandstone staircase called Devil’s Gulch Stairway. Be careful on your descent, either taking it backwards, on your bottom, or sideways like a crab.
Once down, you’ll descent Needle’s Eye Stairway as well. It can be a bit mucky here, so be prepared.
Angel Windows (#218)
Distance: 0.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (optional sandstone scramble at the end)
This trail is located beneath a high cliff and walks through another rhododendron-dense forest. At the end, you’ll find twin arches called the Angel Windows. They’re a nice place to sit and peek through or do some crow practice.
If you’re up for a scramble, you can head beyond the windows to the sandstone ridge beyond. Look above you in the “ceiling” of the ridge, and you may find large circular holes where boulders have fallen out. We took a peek in one and actually found some exposed fossils–left here back when the Red River Gorge was under the ocean.
Whistling Arch (#234)
Distance: 0.2 miles
This is another beautiful trail through a nice forest. There’s a bit of a slope as your begin the trail, but it’s not too difficult. At the bottom, you’ll find the Whistling Arch tucked next to a massive sandstone buttress. They say that if you sit in the arch very quietly, you can sometimes hear it whistling on windy days.
There’s a nice little climb up the butte if you feel like giving it a go.
Suspension Bridge Walk (Sheltowee Connector Trail, #211)
Distance: 0.1 miles (to the bridge, but you could continue on and explore)
Difficulty: 4/10 (moderate but short grade, rickety bridge)
We did this little hike on a whim after passing the bridge the day before. There is a small area for parking near the bridge where you’ll find the beginning of the trailhead. There’s a bit of a slope down to the river where you’ll be able to walk across the suspension bridge.
The only reason I’ve given this one a higher rating is because this bridge MOVES. Don’t expect to walk across something stable. If you’re afraid of heights, bridges, water, or falling through a rickety bridge into the water, this is not for you. That being said, the bridge is obviously safe. Just be warned.
Chimney Top Trail (#235)
Distance: 0.3 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (slightly uneven pavement, small stair and footbridge at the end)
This one was the easiest hikes that we did in Red River Gorge. It consists of a paved trail across a ridge. At the end, you’ll find a little lookout area built onto the ridge. Though it’s paved all the way to the end, it’s not entirely handicapped accessible and has a very short, steep descent nearing the lookout. That being said, you can get some beautiful views of the canyon as you follow the ridge, so it may be worth taking it for part of the way.
It can be especially busy, but if you pick a good time, you can have a little picnic along one of the unofficial pull-offs. Just be sure to pack out everything you carry in! Respect nature, and she’ll respect you back. Also be super careful with children, dogs, and impulsive friends. This (and many other trails in the Red River Gorge area) has been an area of many accidents.
It’s a perfect time to get down to Red River Gorge, as the rhododendrons are probably in full bloom now. Definitely take your family down and enjoy it this weekend or the upcoming Labor Day!
What are your favorite hiking spots in Red River Gorge or the surrounding areas? Leave me a tip in the comments below!
Be kind to one another,