With over 100 natural sandstone arches, deep forests, and ancient rock shelters, the Red River Gorge, located in Daniel Boone National Forest, has earned a reputation as one of the most beautiful places in Kentucky. Only two hours from Louisville and one hour from Lexington, it’s an easy weekend retreat for city folk looking to hit the reset button and spend some time in nature.
Red River Gorge’s most popular attractions (like Natural Bridge and Chimney Top Rock) may be spectacular, but check out these ten trails if you want to escape from tourists, challenge yourself, and discover some truly unique landscapes, all while enjoying the serenity of the paths less traveled within the Gorge.
10. Rock Bridge Loop
Okay, this one may be partially paved and only a 1.5 miles, but the scenery makes up for it. It’s also located in Clifty Wilderness, so it’s not as congested as some of the more popular attractions a few miles away in Natural Bridge State Resort Park. It is no leisurely stroll either; it descends quickly for about 250 feet into the forest, so you will have to eventually climb that on your way back to the trailhead.
A little less than a half mile in, you will find Creation Falls, a stunning waterfall that is as picturesque as anything in the Gorge. Around the 0.75-mile mark, you will be underneath Rock Bridge, which is exactly what it sounds like— a bridge, made of rock, with a creek flowing through it. In fact, it is the only true arch of its kind in the Gorge.
9. Whittleton Branch Trail
This 2.5-mile trail leads you through a dense forest, surrounded by rhododendrons and wildflowers. Most of the hike follows alongside a small creek. Eventually you will find a large arch with a stream of water flowing off the top and splattering onto the large boulders below. This is Whittleton Arch.
If you are brave, there’s a fairly easy rock scramble to the left of it that takes you the top. A small stream pools before spilling over the edge of the cliff.
8. Double Arch Trail
While this trail begins on a gravel road, it eventually descends into the forest, and takes you up to one of the most breathtaking views in all of Red River Gorge.
Double Arch looks out over the valley separating it from Auxier Ridge, and you can see for miles. Hang out underneath Double Arch, eat some snacks, and watch for other hikers walking along Auxier Ridge. The journey to Double Arch and back to the trailhead is roughly 4.5 miles.
7. Auxier Ridge Loop
Get ready to work out your glutes, because they’ll be burning after this five-mile-long journey! The panoramic ridgetop views are worth it though. You’ll get a stunning look at Haystack Rock, Courthouse Rock, and even Double Arch if you look hard enough.
After passing Courthouse Rock (and spending some time exploring the area), turn onto the Courthouse Rock Trail to make a loop back to the Auxier Ridge trailhead.
6. Rough Trail, Section D
The entirety of Rough Trail is a grueling 8.6 miles, and stretches all the way across the Gorge from KY-77 to KY-715. It has several trailheads, so people often hike it in sections. This particular portion is only about a mile from one trailhead to the other, but it is a difficult workout.
It starts at Gray’s Arch, which is a popular spot and will inevitably be crawling with people; however, Gray’s Arch is quite a spectacle and is worth the effort to brave the screaming children and people getting in your way to take pictures. Rough Trail is less traveled; don’t be put off by the crowds right off the bat! You will begin a rapid descent to a stream crossing, and before you can catch your breath, you will start a difficult 400-foot ascent. Take a rest and soak in the magnificent views once you make it to the top.
5. Rough Trail, Section I
This section of Rough Trail is about two miles from one trailhead to the other. It starts in a parking lot on Chimney Top Road and ends on Route 715, where Rough Trail ends and Swift Camp Creek Trail begins. The trail quickly drops into a thick forest, where you will have to cross Parched Corn Creek several times to stay on the trail.
It can be quite a challenge to successfully cross the water without submerging your feet or slipping, but this just adds to the fun of it all!
4. Wildcat Trail
While only 1.8 miles from the trailhead to its intersection with Swift Camp Creek Trail, this trail is full of history. As it traverses through the forest, you will cross an old logging road. Not quite a mile in, the path forks. To stay on the official trail, go left, but definitely consider going right if you’re looking for an eerie detour. After heading a few hundred yards uphill, you will stumble upon a small cemetery. There is only a handful of graves here, but it’s a cool place to explore or have a lunch break.
Back on Wildcat Trail, you will pass some rock shelters and engulfed by a rhododendron tunnel. Once you get to the Swift Camp Creek sign, Wildcat Trail has technically ended, but you can turn either direction at this intersection for some extra hiking.
3. Buck Trail
Do not let this 1.5-mile hike fool you; it is strenuous and you can only get to it via connections with other trails, so you are going to end up hiking far more than just a mile and half anyway. You can start at either Koomer Ridge or Pinch-Em Tight Trail, which are both over a mile from their respective trailheads to the start of Buck Trail. Regardless of which trail you choose to start your journey, you will experience an intense 400-foot descent to a majestic valley with Chimney Top Creek cutting through it.
This is what Buck Trail is all about. Moss-covered trees litter the landscape. Rocky cliffs covered in vegetation are 360° around you. You might as well be standing in an ancient forest, thousands of years in the past. Soak it in, because you have a 400-foot climb back into reality.
2. Indian Staircase
While not an “official trail,” the Indian Staircase is iconic, but not for the faint-hearted or clumsy. It is (literally) pockets sculpted into a not-quite-vertical sandstone cliff. The hike will end up being a difficult 3.5 miles and involves a scary rock scramble and some serious balancing skills.
To get there, park in the Bison Way Trail Parking Area on KY-715 N. Follow the Bison Way Trail to Sheltowee Trace #100 and start counting the number of times you cross a stream - we promise we aren’t using a pirate’s treasure map to navigate! This can be confusing, but after crossing the stream for the second time, be prepared for the trail to make a hairpin turn. A few feet past this turn, look for an obvious, but unmarked, trail off to the right. Congratulations, you have found the base of Indian Staircase! Just be careful.
1. Swift Camp Creek Trail
This trail is a true gem. It is strenuous and dives deep into the Clifty Wilderness, so the trail often isn’t as maintained as some of the others and may require some fancy footwork!
It is a 7.2-mile one-way trail, so this one is definitely not for beginners. This hike has everything the Gorge has to offer— rock shelters, extreme elevation gains and losses, dense forests, scenic overlooks, and a gorgeous stream. Take a break along Swift Camp Creek to find a swimming hole. This creek is dotted with huge boulders that cause the water to pool, which can be extremely refreshing on a hot day. Like Buck Trail, the forest here looks ancient and might as well be in a medieval fairy tale.
If you are looking for a more adventurous day hike, places to do some primitive camping, and jaw-dropping scenery, try some of these incredible hikes in Red River Gorge! You could hit these trails hundreds times and still find something new on every journey.