A Day in the Red River Gorge
Word on the street is we’re all getting sprinter vans, attempting custom camper conversions, and hitting the road. Nature is calling. Not sure if it’s the mountains or the desert. Who knows. But it’s probably out west somewhere. Or east? Really not sure which voice you’re hearing. But however you choose to answer, be it a weekend getaway, Pinterest dream board, or selling your house to go full #vanlife there are hundreds of amazing opportunities to get out in the wild. There are always the well-known, Instagram hot spot locations like Arches National Park in Utah or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that straddles Tennessee and North Carolina. By all means, don’t skip those. Just get ready. A lot of very beautiful public land can be found not just in national parks, but also state parks, national monuments, national forests and more. Each area comes with its own requirements on designation, management agency and more.
But let’s talk adventure. If you’re looking for a lesser known (read fewer social media influencers) but beautiful wild place, then Daniel Boone National Forest is a must. Plus, you get a slight mashup of Arches and the Smokies. This federally protected forest spans more than 700,000 acres and includes state-managed parks, wilderness areas, and the Red River Gorge, a national natural landmark. This is where the fun begins.
The Red River Gorge is a canyon system with cliffs, rock features, natural bridges and more. One could argue it rivals Arches just a bit. If you know an avid rock climber, chances are good they already know about Red River Gorge. While this area is known for excellent climbing, it’s also an amazing place to hike, mountain bike, kayak, and more.
Unfortunately, road trip itineraries fill up fast. So much to see. So little time. Even if your visit lasts only a day, it will be well worth it. The following recommendations will give you a great starting view, literally and figuratively, of the gorge. (For a much more in-depth and robust resource, check out the Kentucky Hiker Project. Michael Harr runs the website and has put together fantastic guides to exploring hikes all throughout the state.)
Start easy. Like super easy. Basically, you’re going to drive in, park your vehicle and walk to the pristine Princess Arch. Whichever way you enter the area, you’ll need to get to Chimney Top Road. Follow it to its terminus at the Chimney Top trailhead for parking. There will be plenty of signs directing you to the graceful 32-foot long arch. Overall, the trail is about .25 miles. While you’re at the Chimney Top trailhead, don’t miss the overlook. Again, the path is super clear with plenty of signage. The Chimney Top trail will drop you out onto a platform that towers far over the Red River with clear views of the surrounding cliffs. And just a note…you’re in the Cumberland Plateau. The surrounding cliffs and valleys are the result of some epic erosion.
Step it up. We’re still keeping it easy, but now chasing waterfalls. Good news, there’s a lovely one at the end of this 3-mile moderate hike that’s a little off the beaten path. Prepare to cross the creek multiple times to get to Copperas Falls. The hike starts just west of the one-lane concrete bridge at the Copperas Creek parking area and will lead you along the creek past massive boulders and dreamy forest settings.
Forge your own path. Okay, not really, but this one is definitely a challenge. The Hopewell Arch is a delicate and beautiful arch hidden up above Copperas Creek. The turn-off to see happens early on the hike to Copperas Falls. Thankfully the Kentucky Hiker has an excellent guide with photographs and waypoints. (It’s recommended you download this or print or something before you go.) This hike can get a little sketchy. At some points, you’ll basically be climbing up large boulders and parts of the cliff face. If heights make you nervous or getting dirty is not your thing, maybe skip this moderate to strenuous hike. No judgment.
Take a well-deserved pit stop. Follow Sky Bridge Road out of the Gorge and you’ll pass by Sky Bridge Station. This restaurant/hostel is the perfect end to a day in the Red River Gorge. You’ll find local and delicious beers on tap along with simple but freshly prepared American fare like hotdogs, grilled cheese, chili and more. Plus, sit out on the porch and you’ll have a first-row seat to the variety of folks that visit the area. Hiking enthusiasts, rogue climbers, #vanlife trekkers, vacationing retirees, and more. This is your chance. Find your tribe.
Really, the best way to end a day at the Gorge is sharing stories with the people you meet…and collecting ideas for more adventures going forward. Who knows what other little-known natural jewel you’ll learn about. The Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge could just be the start.