The Ultimate Red River Gorge Guide

Haystack Rock Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge is one of the region’s best-kept vacation secrets. This beautiful natural area offers one-of-a-kind scenery that inspires the adventurer’s soul. 

You can find massive sandstone arches, incredible rock formations, and towering cliffs on numerous family-friendly excursions.

As part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, you’ll discover camping, hiking, canoeing, and other recreational opportunities to enjoy. Whether you prefer renting a cabin or staying rustic with a tent site, the Red River Gorge meets your needs.

If it is time to plan your next memory-making adventure, this guide to the region can help you create the perfect itinerary.

Red River Gorge Camping

The only developed campground near the Red River Gorge on National Forest land is the Koomer Ridge Campground. It opens in March each year and closes in November. 

Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis with quiet hours from 10 PM to 6 AM.

It’s located in the Cumberland Ranger District. You’ll have trail access to the Red River Gorge, time to relax in the forest setting, and access to some amenities. Restrooms and a shower are typically open when sites are available.

The amphitheater at Koomer Ridge opens around Memoria Day each year. A twilight program is held on the weekends through Labor Day for those who wish to attend. 

Can You Camp Anywhere?

Dispersed camping within the forested areas of Red River Gorge is generally permitted. Tunnel Ridge Road offers recreational opportunities and several primitive sites. 

The designated areas have vault toilets and a parking lot.

When you set up tents in a non-designated area, you must be at least 300 feet from a designated trail, parking lot, or road in Red River Gorge. Street parking is not permitted.

You cannot set up camp within 100 feet of a cliff base or build a fire within a rock shelter.

You’ll also need to purchase a pass for overnight camping at the Gladie Visitor Center or a local business. 

Campgrounds Outside of the Red River Gorge

Several excellent camping opportunities are available around the Red River Gorge region. Most are within a 15-minute drive of the area so that you can maximize your time hiking, kayaking, or climbing.

If you decide that camping in the park isn’t right for you, consider these options during your stay in Kentucky.

  • Natural Bridge State Park. It’s about five minutes from Red River Gorge. You’ll have plenty of hiking opportunities and natural views to see at this destination to make it an all-day adventure during your stay. Camper and primitive sites are available with two campgrounds, Middle Fork and Whittleton. You can make reservations online or call 1 (888) 459-7275 to get your spot.
  • 4 Guys RV Park. This new campground offers space for primitive camping or to park your RV. It has a playground and pool for the kids, showers, and Wi-Fi to share your memories or check up on your inbox. It even has a stocked fishing pond! You can visit their reservation page online to get your space.
  • Natural Bridge Campground. This site is about ten minutes away from the park. It’s also not affiliated with the state park of the same name. You’ll find it right off of the Mountain Parkway at exit 33. Most sites are shaded, come with fire rings, and a picnic table to use. Hot showers, Wi-Fi, and fishing are also part of the experience. You’ll want to make reservations online to ensure you get the best site possible.
  • Land of the Arches. You’re only two miles from the Red River Gorge at this campground, and you’ll have access to plenty of amenities. Set up your tent in the large field, watch the sunset, and enjoy the affordable camping. A small general store, games, hot showers, and Internet access are available. The only disadvantage: no dogs are allowed.  You can call (606) 688-7074 for more information about this opportunity.

You also have the option to reserve cabins within the Red River Gorge region. Some campgrounds offer this choice, while private operators and property owners create unique spaces for the entire family to enjoy.

If you’re interested in more information on cabins, we’ve recently detailed some great cabin options in our article, “Red River Gorge Cabins: A Helpful Guide.”

Treehouse Options at the Red River Gorge

If primitive camping isn’t your style, consider upgrading to a treehouse during your stay at the Red River Gorge.

Canopy Crew and Red River Gorgeous provide several adventurous properties for those who want to see the cliff lines from their window. Many of the properties are family-friendly structures, although you may need to call ahead if you plan to bring pets.

Some of the treehouses are complete off-grid homesteads that support stays of two days to 20 in the Red River Gorge. You’ll find drinking water and solar power provided while you bring the rest of the supplies.

Other properties have hot showers, cable television, hot tubs, and Internet access.

You can reserve your preferred treehouse today by visiting Red River Gorgeous online or calling (606) 663-9824. Pricing starts at $164 per night, although rates are subject to change at any time. 

KOA Camping Options Near Red River Gorge

If you prefer a more formal camping experience with developed amenities and recreational opportunities, KOA Campgrounds provides a handful of properties worth considering around the region.

The Corbin / Laurel Lake KOA is your best choice for exploring the Red River Gorge. It’s right off of I-75, and you’ll also be at the closest property for this franchise to Cumberland Falls State Park. 

It features a pool, kitchen, and pavilion. The maximum length for an RV is 80 feet, with cable TV hookups available. Propane and firewood are offered for an additional charge. Tent sites and cabins are options, and the property is pet-friendly with a dog park.

You can start your reservation at the Corbin / Laurel Lake KOA by visiting their website.

The only other viable option for a KOA is in Mt Vernon, which is further up I-75. You could also stay at the Russell Springs property to the east and make your way along Highways 80 or 90 to reach the Red River Gorge.

There are other great camping options in Kentucky if lakes and fishing are more of your style. Check out our article on Nolin Lake.

Red River Gorge Hiking

With 60 miles of hiking trails to explore, the Red River Gorge offers different views in all four seasons. It is a wonderland for anyone who experiences trekking wanderlust.

The best way to start planning your hiking holiday adventure in the Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge region is to download the current trail map. You’ll receive an overview of the area, including the various campgrounds and cabins available, to plan how to access the wilderness.

You’ll find developed and undeveloped trails to explore. Although some don’t have markings throughout the excursion, the trail map does offer a general path to follow that you can coordinate with your GPS equipment.

Many of the natural arches found at the Red River Gorge are accessible along these trails. The best known and most accessible one is Sky Bridge, which stands 23 feet high and is 75 feet long.

Horses are permitted on the designated trails found in Red River Gorge. Because they are all listed as National Recreation Trails, no motorized vehicles or bicycles are allowed.

Best Trails to Hike in the Red River Gorge

Several hiking trails are rated as easy or moderate within the Red River Gorge. You can also find a few expert options for those who prefer a challenge!

Consider adding these trails to your itinerary when staying in the area to see the gorge’s most spectacular views. You’ll find that it is rare to be alone on almost any adventure on many days because of how beautiful it is.

  • Gray’s Arch. The short loop trail is four miles, but an alternative longer route is also available to try. You’ll see one of the gorge’s best arches on this hike, which stays busy throughout the year. Wildflower bloom in spring, while the fall colors are breathtaking in their beauty. It takes about four hours to explore, linger, and do some sightseeing.
  • Whittleton Arch. Although this trail can develop slick wet spots, it’s a relatively easy hike to reach one of the arches in the gorge with a waterfall. It isn’t as popular as some of the other excursions, making it the perfect option for a fall adventure.
  • Rock Bridge Loop. This hike takes you to one of the few arches in the Red River Gorge that has water underneath it. The trail is mostly paved, with steps carved into the climb, but it is mostly uphill on your way there. It takes about two hours to cover the 1.5 miles for this excursion.
  • Auxier Ridge Loop. For hikers who want more of a challenge, take this moderate trail to see some of the best landscapes offered in the Red River Gorge. It takes about five miles to complete the journey, with the last four to the trailhead a gravel road. Bring along a picnic lunch to enjoy at the ridge, but please remember to pack out what you take!
  • Indian Staircase and Arch Loop. This trail is arguably the most challenging one in the area. It is not one you should hike alone, especially if you intend to climb the staircase. It leaves the “official” trail at times, which means you’ll need a compass and a topographical map to complete the adventure. 

If you plan to hike the trails at the Red River Gorge, it is essential to plan ahead and prepare for unexpected circumstances. You’re in Kentucky, which means the weather can change rather quickly. You may encounter natural hazards, so bring enough supplies for at least one extra day if something happens.

Kids love to grab rocks, twigs, sticks, and other souvenirs when hiking. Some adults have the same habit! At the Red River Gorge, you’re asked to leave everything as you find it while avoiding introducing non-native species to the area.

If you camp in the area, don’t dig trenches, build furniture, or use natural items to make a shelter unless you have no other options in a life-threatening situation.


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    Red River Gorge Kayaking

    One of the best experiences offered at the Red River Gorge is the Underground Adventure. You’ll get into a kayak or be a passenger in a guided boat to explore the sights beneath the surface.

    You’ll go into the darkness of the Gorge Grotto. As you paddle your way through the mountainside, follow the guide to learn more about how the natural formations developed.

    You can choose an LED paddleboard tour if being in a kayak isn’t the experience you want. The passenger-style boat tour fills up fast, so call (844) 254-6244 to get your reservation set during your stay at the Red River Gorge.

    One of the best events held each year is the haunted boat tour. You’ll head into the “abandoned mine” that fills with water. In the pitch-black, as you float, guides start talking about the paranormal history of the area. The tour operator recommends that you reserve a spot on the last tour of the evening if you want the best scares.

    SUP Kentucky provides a similar service, but they used standup paddleboards exclusively for the tour. You would want to choose their Cavern Glow tour. With your reservation, you’ll receive a one-hour guided tour, a photo album uploaded to Facebook, and the premium equipment needed for a fun experience. 

    FAQ About Kayaking at the Red River Gorge

    If you rent kayaks for the Underground Adventure, single and tandem models are available. You can request the option to stay together upon arrival or during your reservation. The prices remain the same.

    Here are some additional questions that come up when contemplating this experience as part of your overall Red River Gorge itinerary.

    Can I bring my dog on the Underground Adventure?

    Unfortunately, pets are not permitted to join any part of the underground tour at the Red River Gorge.

    Are children allowed on the Underground Adventure?

    Young children are invited to join the passenger boat tour of the underground caves. All kids need to weight at least 40 pounds, wear a helmet, and keep their personal floatation device on during the entire trip. No one under the age of three is permitted on the excursion.

    What happens if I fall in the water?

    Although it doesn’t happen often, kayaks can capsize, and people fall off of their paddleboards. The company that manages the underground uses guides with water rescue training to reduce an emergency risk.

    How much kayaking experience do I need?

    Most beginners can manage a kayak or standup paddleboard in the conditions found underground. Since there are no waves, wind, or current in the mine, paddling is easy. Everyone gets a helmet with a headlamp, while the guide will spotlight different areas to learn more about the region. 

    What should I wear while underground?

    It gets chilly while kayaking underground. You’ll want to wear pants and a sweatshirt or jacket if you get cold quickly. Stout shoes and jeans are discouraged in case an overboard event occurs. 

    Additional Kayaking and Canoeing Options at Red River Gorge

    If you don’t like the idea of being underground in a kayak, additional opportunities to be on the water are available at the Red River Gorge.

    Red River Adventure is the only equipment provider within the Red River Gorge offering kayak and canoe rentals. You can park at their campground, and their guides will take up further upstream to start the adventure.

    Your kayaking or canoeing ends when you return to the campground and your vehicle. Shuttle services can also take you to the various trailheads in the area or different river locations for multi-day excursions.

    Three tours are available to consider if you want to take a Red River Gorge trip.

    • The Adventure Tour is an eight-mile self-guided trip that lets you see the gorge from a different perspective. You’ll stare up at the cliffs guarding the area, traverse the deep forests, and travel at whatever pace you prefer. Shuttle services take you to the drop-off point.
    • The Swimming Hole Tour is an option when water levels are below average. You launch and return from the campground to visit some of the natural landmarks along the river.
    • Private Tours for those with privately-owned boats are also available. You can have your kayak or canoe shuttled to a starting point for a low fee.

    These Red River Gorge Trips are all through the same rental provider. Call them at (606) 663-1012 for more information.

    Red River Restrictions to Monitor

    When water levels rise along the Red River, local authorities sometimes place age restrictions on kayaking and canoe trips. Even if you plan to visit Split Rock, Gorilla Rock, or the Swimming Hole in a private vessel, the entire family may not have the option to participate.

    You can check the current conditions of the Red River near Hazel Green before bringing or renting your vessel to ensure your adventure can continue without a hitch.

    Local levels in the gorge may be different than what is reported. It is also a good idea to call (606) 663-5258 or (606) 663-1012 to verify your reservation before proceeding. Some trips can be changed or canceled without notice because of the river levels or local weather conditions.

    If you can’t be on the river, you have a couple of other kayaking and canoeing options to consider in the Red River Gorge region.

    • Lake Reba is over near Richmond. It has lots of excellent fishing opportunities, jogging trails, and a dog park. If you love golfing, the course there is fantastic. You’ll need to call ahead for reservations and current pricing by dialing (859) 310-4693.
    • Mill Creek Lake is a little closer, located at Natural Bridge State Park. It’s the perfect place to explore at your own pace, especially if you haven’t been in a kayak before. Standup paddleboards are now available to rent. Call (859) 300-1330.

    You’ll need to fill out a liability waiver if you work with Red River Adventures for your excursion. Filling out the paperwork in advance can save you some time. The current release is available here to download. 

    Red River Gorge Climbing

    The Red River Gorge offers one of the best climbing crags in the United States. Whether you’re a beginner or have decades of experience, the sandstone here provides some of the most fun you’ll ever have.

    The number of routes and areas available are so numerous that you could spend a lifetime finding something new to try each day!

    If you’ve never visited the Red River Gorge for climbing, this guidebook from the RRGCC outlines some of the best routes available in the region.

    1. Phantasia

    You’ll find some of the biggest jugs in the region on this wall. It’s a 12a steep-line climb that will make everyone dig deep inside to find the will to continue. When you want or need something a little easier, the 5.9 Creature Feature is something fun that a first-timer can tackle. With over 20 routes in total, you can stay busy here all day.

    2. North 40

    With every route rated 5.11 or higher, it is rare to find novice climbers coming here. Use the Summer Breeze climb for your warmup before tacking Amarillo Sunset, which is full of slopers at the bottom. As you reach the top, the climb transitions to underclings that test your strength and endurance. If you want something even more challenging, try Swine Flu.

    3. Bob Marley Crag

    You’ll find many climbing enthusiasts coming to this area of the Red River Gorge because of the simple Gettin’ Ziggy With It climb that introduces everyone to this sport. It’s the perfect transition from a gym wall to the real thing. Another option is Your Heaven, My Hell, with its monstrous climb. The one that stands out is Ultra-Perm, which is one of the best routes in the region. Its overhang requires more forearm strength than you might think, with minimal resting areas between clips.

    4. Midnight Surf

    With the walls overhanging like an ocean wave, you’ll find the best mid-12 climbs in the Red River Gorge at this location. Cell Block Six tries to crush your soul, with dynos and heel hooks required to reach the top. Mellow Yellow is still a beast because of this area’s steepness, but an expert will want to try Shiva to see how good they are.

    5. The Motherlode

    The Madness is the signature climb for many enthusiasts at Red River Gorge. It features about 120 feet of 50-degree overhang. You’ll need some bouldering skills and the boldness to make some big moves to manage this area. Locals can spend months trying to conquer all of the sport climbs found here, which means it’s the perfect challenge for your holiday itinerary.

    A conversation about the Red River Gorge’s best climbing opportunities is incomplete without talking about the trad lines to be led. Tower Rock, Pebble Beach, and Fortress Wall had proto-climbers coming to the area as early as the 1950s with the scrambles you can find out there. You can also head to the Roadside if you want to mix some sport into your day.

    Classic gear lines include the 5.10a Rock Wars, 5.7 Roadside Attraction, and 5.6 Bedtime for Bonzo.

    Consider visiting during the spring or fall for the best climbing conditions. Kentucky tends to be humid in the summer, and the mix with the higher temperatures doesn’t make for ideal conditions. Winter tends to be the off-season, but a sunny day is still a welcoming opportunity to explore. 

    Guided Climbing at the Red River Gorge

    Although it can be fun to find a route to climb by yourself, it may be better to work with an experienced team who knows the Red River Gorge intimately for your adventure.

    Red River Outdoors is the oldest establishing guiding service of its type in the gorge. The introductory trips can introduce you to the sport, hone your skills, or be the safety line you need when visiting solo. All of the gear you need for the experience comes with the cost of your guided trip.

    You’ll want to give a 24-hour notice if you plan to use guided climbing services at a minimum. If you get the itch to scale a cliff on a whim, call (606) 663-7625 to see if they can fit you into their schedule.

    You can find more information about this fun climbing opportunity on the Red River Outdoors website

    Rappelling at the Red River Gorge

    If going down is more of your style when seeing the cliffs at Red River Gorge, providers like Southeast Mountain Guides provide ways for the entire family to have fun. It takes about 5-10 minutes to climb to the top of the cliff. Once you hook up to the rope, it won’t be long before you safely drop up to 120 feet!

    Although there are no age restrictions, the activity is recommended for ages six and up.

    When you make your reservation, you can rappel as many times as you want within your designated period. Pricing is by the participant, with discounts available for kids nine and under.

    You can choose half-day or all-day options to get up to eight hours of rappelling action. The price depends on your group size, with the current rates listed on the company’s website.

    You can also call (606) 668-6613 for more information or to book your reservation by phone. 

    What Will You Discover at Red River Gorge?

    If you live an active lifestyle, a Red River Gorge trip must be on your bucket list. You can zipline across the area, go kayaking through caves, take a horseback ride, or strike out on your own to see what you can find.

    All of those activities are sure to leave you feeling hungry! The restaurants in the area are as spectacular as the scenery. You can visit Red River Rockhouse for burritos and vegan options in Campton, Miguel’s Pizza in Slade (although they close for the winter), Sky Bridge Station for a cold brew in Pine Ridge, and many more places to eat that meet your tastes and preferences.

    With over 100 natural sandstone arches, stunning cliff-lines, and rugged natural features to see, the Red River Gorge is an ecological masterpiece worthy of any bucket list adventure. When you come to relax, you’ll be tempted to stay for a lifetime!


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      Featured Image: “Haystack Rock Red River Gorge” by Steve Sellers. Used Under CC BY4.0

      Andy Beckman

      Andy and his wife Niki had their twins Adilynn and Archer, in 2014. By 2017 the whole family was camping. It is a great way to unplug from the daily grind and focus on what it means to be a family. They started a YouTube channel in early 2020 and enjoyed creating content that new RVers find useful.

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