The 4 Best Places to Eat and Drink After Exploring the Red River Gorge
Tucked away in the hills of southeastern Kentucky, the Red River Gorge features an intricate network of box canyons tapering to massive natural amphitheaters, towering rock faces, gorgeous streams, and lush forests. Over the decades, "the Red" has blown up as one of the most famous rock climbing destinations on the planet, inspiring some of the world’s strongest climbers to sample its insanely steep sandstone walls. But the wilderness playground surrounding the gorge offers so much more, including some great local businesses. Whether you’re visiting the Red to climb, paddle, bike, hike, or just contemplate your existence among its tranquil forests, there’s one dilemma every adventurer will inevitably have to confront: where to eat?
While the Red River Gorge is pleasantly rural and surprisingly remote, there are a handful of establishments tucked into hills and hollows that serve great food and cold libations. Although a simple Internet search will turn up additional restaurants and shops, we’ve hand-picked the Red’s must-visit establishments.
How can one speak of the Red without mentioning Miguel’s Pizza? Located on Highway 11, just a few miles south of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, Miguel’s is much more than a pizza shop—it’s a deep-dish slice of the climbing life, with toppings that include a gear shop and a full-service campground. Many rock climbers that scale the Red’s overhanging cliffs might even argue that Miguel’s played an integral role in making the Red River Gorge the world-class climbing destination that it is today.
Originally opened in Slade as an ice cream shop by Miguel Ventura in 1984, Miguel’s Pizza grew into a campground as the growing numbers of visiting climbers found it to be the only place to get a bite. Now known as "the Camp Four of the East," Miguel’s has become a world-famous melting pot where you’ll find rock climbers of all nationalities stuffing their faces alongside motorcyclists, hikers, tourists, and local families. It’s a cross section of the modern world that you wouldn’t expect to find in rural Kentucky, let alone anywhere in Appalachia. Working in Miguel’s kitchen is a highly coveted job for climbers who pine to live at the Red, and you’ll likely have your order taken by a smiling climber proudly boasting Miguel’s famous T-shirt and bulging forearms.
Pizza options include regular and gluten-free crusts, with a whopping 45 toppings available to build your own custom pie. The pizza house also does coffee and breakfast in the morning—prerequisites for all-day climbing outings—as well as sandwiches, salads, and pasta bowls. Keep in mind that Powell County is a dry county, and imbibing your favorite adult beverage is technically illegal, even on the grounds of a private business. Fortunately, Miguel’s has seemingly endless crates of Ale-8-One, the local non-alcoholic ginger beverage of choice. Miguel’s is open seven days a week, March 1 through November 30.
RED RIVER ROCKHOUSE
Located on Highway 11 in wet Wolfe County, the Red River Rockhouse is the place to go if you absolutely must have a drink with your post-adventure feast. This family-owned café was recognized by the Appalachian Regional Council in 2014 as one of the top farm-to-table cafés in Appalachia. In the true spirit of keeping things local, most of the materials used in the building and its furnishings came from wood reclaimed from Kentucky barns.
Dru Mack, a pro climber who has been climbing at the Red for 11 years and now calls the gorge home, is sponsored by the Rockhouse. "The Rockhouse is special because it’s the perfect place to visit after a long day of climbing or hiking," says Mack. “A burger and a beer is the best way to cap the day, and the small town vibe and quality of the food would hold its own in any big city.”
The Rockhouse specializes in grass-fed burgers, salads, tacos, and burritos packed with locally sourced ingredients from area farms and artisans. And don’t forget draft beer, wine, and some classic Kentucky Bourbon to wash it all down. "The Rockhouse is unique because the food is top-notch quality," says Mack. “They use locally sourced, farm-raised meat, and the food tastes great and is good for you, too. The Rockhouse is surrounded by the poorest counties in Kentucky, which means they bring money to an area greatly in need.”
SKY BRIDGE STATION
Perfectly situated in the middle of nowhere on Kentucky Route 715, Sky Bridge Station is the best (and only) option for those visiting the northeastern reaches of the Red River Gorge and the Daniel Boone National Forest. Similar to Miguel’s, but much more intimate, "the Station" is a restaurant, tap house, 11-person hostel, and gear shop all packed into one large, rustic cabin. It’s also home to Kentucky Rock & Adventure Guides, the climb guiding service started by Sky Bridge Station owners Brian Gillespie and Clifton Gifford.
In a celebration of their own freedom and their desire to run a business in a place they love, Gillespie and Gifford opened Sky Bridge Station on July 4, 2013. The restaurant specializes in gourmet hot dogs and quesadillas, but has vegetarian options as well. Plus, the bar features 12 rotating taps with Kentucky microbrews from Lexington, Louisville, and beyond. According to Gillespie, Sky Bridge Station has the largest collection of Kentucky draft beers in the Red River Gorge. Demonstrating their passion for beer, the owners converted and old Jeep into a six-tap mobile kegerator for use at local events and festivals.
Aside from the great beer and food, the Station offers travelers a unique vibe. "One of the reasons it’s cool is the building itself. It’s got a real homey feel," says Gillespie. “Our idea is to let people come in and feel great where they’re welcome.”
C&S CARRY OUT
Prefer to get your fix to go? Located just south of the Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure, The C&S Carry Out (aka The Beer Trailer) is a charming business where the bottled beer flows like water and the good vibes register off the charts. It’s one of the few places in the world where you get to indulge in the bizarre colloquial fusion of various European and Kentucky accents, all while browsing an incredibly good craft beer selection as the trailer’s family of adorable kitties weaves between your feet.
Tom Robertson, a rock climber from Pittsburgh who frequents the Red, said a stop at the Beer Trailer is mandatory for any visit to the gorge. "From the outside, you really don’t expect to get anything special, but once you’re inside, you’re pleasantly surprised by the crazy craft beer selection."
You can even create your own six-pack from a cooler of singles featuring many of Kentucky’s local microbrews. They’ve also got you covered if you need some carby snacks to soak up the suds. Make sure to spark up some conversation with the friendly cashiers—they sincerely love the diverse groups of happy visitors that pass through and enjoy hearing how your experience in the Red has been.
Written by Dylan Jones for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.