A Complete Guide to Kentucky's Wild and Scenic Red River

While Kentucky has more than 49,000 miles of rivers, just one short section of the 97-mile-long Red River is officially designated as Wild and Scenic by the United States Congress. How that small stretch of water got its special title is a tale that is as long and winding as the water’s path through the dense forest and towering cliffs.

The History of the Red River

The Red River floods—a lot. The steep canyons here act as a funnel, diverting rushing water downstream, as it has for 60 million years. After the "Great Flood of Clay City" hit in 1962, with the worst flooding in 102 years, downstream residents successfully lobbied the state legislature and the Kennedy administration for the construction of a flood control dam.

However, a few residents recognized the incredibly varied ecosystem and the area’s striking natural beauty, and by 1967, a powerful opposition spearheaded by the Sierra Club had formed. They enlisted the help of Supreme Court Justice William "Wild Bill" Douglas, an early environmentalist, who led 600 hikers on a dam protest hike and drew both local and national attention to the situation.

After decades of political wrangling, lawsuits and two proposed alternative dam sites, the battle ended. In 1993, President Bill Clinton declared a 19.4-mile stretch of the Red River as a National Wild and Scenic River system, eliminating any chance of new dams being constructed and preserving the area for the future.

What to Do at the Red River

Red River
There are plenty of things to do in and around the Red River. Photo courtesy of Boyd Shearer. 

While its history is fascinating, the Red River is best experienced in person. The rugged wilderness is a spectacular mix of sandstone bluffs, impossibly steep canyons, boulder-strewn creeks with secret waterfalls, and the largest concentration of natural arches east of the Rockies. It is also home to more than 600 known archaeologically significant rock shelters, some more than 11,000 years old. 

The diverse topography has contributed to a massive variety of habitats with an extraordinarily large number of plant species. Over 750 different flowering plants and 170 species of moss take root in the area, including many that are considered endangered, threatened, sensitive or rare. More than 60 mammals, from bears and bobcats to fox and voles, call the area home. There are also more than 100 bird species, including hawks, owls, woodpeckers and hummingbirds.

Fortunately, there are countless ways to enjoy this unique and memorable place. The Red River Gorge is the place to go for outdoor recreation.

Paddling

Upper Red River, Big Branch to "Concrete Bridge" (KY 715) Season: November—June

This 10.8-mile section is considered by many as some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery in the East, if not the country. The first four miles are especially breathtaking Class I with decent flow. Below Stillwater Creek, you’ll find technical, class II/III rapids, then continue on to the "Narrows of the Red River": a series of three twisty, challenging class III rapids that are no more than six-feet wide in some places. Usually, this section runs at class II from December to late May with average rainfall.

Middle/Lower Red River, KY 715 "Concrete Bridge" to Schoolhouse BranchSeason: November—June

This is the section to do if you’re looking for casual class I flatwater. Perfect for families, this 10.5-mile section floats through the very heart of the Red River Gorge. Bring your camera for gorgeous pictures of Sky Bridge Arch, Tower Rock, and Chimney Top Rock.

Hiking

Swift Camp Creek
Take a peaceful hike around Swift Camp Creek in the Clifty Wilderness Area. Photo courtesy of Boyd Shearer.

There are three connected areas that make up the larger Red River Gorge: the Red River Gorge National Geological Area and the Clifty Wilderness, both within the Daniel Boone National Forest and Natural Bridge State Resort Park. Daniel Boone has more than 600 miles of hiking trails alone, so when you add to that the 19 miles of trails at Natural Bridge, it’s easy to see why hikers love this area.

Some of the best short, easy hikes include the Laurel Ridge Trail and Chimney Top Rock/Princess Arch/Half Moon Arch. Must-do moderates include Auxier Ridge/Courthouse Rock and Turtle Back Arch/Rock Bridge. To bump-up adventure and difficulty, try the iconic Indian Staircase. Not for the fainthearted, this unmarked hike scrambles up a steep, 200-foot sandstone slab via polished pockets and demands attention, respect, and good footwork. But the views are worth it.

Mountain Biking

The Daniel Boone National Forest proudly features more than 300 miles of single track, ranging from flowy spins to black-diamond gnar, all under the shade of lush, ancient hardwood forests. Most of the riding is centered in the Cumberland Ranger District, south of Slade. If there is only one "can’t miss" trail, it would have to be the Sheltowee Trace Trail. It’s a 323-mile back country backbone of the Daniel Boone, connecting Natural Bridge to Cumberland Falls and through the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area into Tennessee. The trail is broken into easy-to-digest sections, so it’s very easy to just loop smaller sections or go big. And honestly, it doesn’t matter what section you tackle—the whole thing is spectacular.

Rock Climbing

The Red, as climbers call it, has been a Mecca for climbing for decades. People from all over the world have come to experience the worst (best?) forearm pump ever from some of the steepest, most improbable lines. With more than 1,600 sport and trad climbing routes, there is a lifetime of sandstone pocket-pulling to be done. Most are in the 5.10-5.11 range, but there are plenty of easier lines and of course, tons of hardcore test pieces.

Fishing

The middle section of the Red offers some of the best fishing in the state, either by canoe or in waders from the shoreline. Be on the lookout for smallmouth and Kentucky bass, as well as sunfish and various panfish. Several tributaries are stocked with rainbow and brown trout, though some patience and a little more work needs to be put in because recreational activity and clear water makes them skittish. Check out Swift Camp Creek, East Fork of Indian Creek and the Middle Fork of the Red River.

As you can see, no matter how you like to spend your time outside, you can probably do it in the Red River Gorge. And with so much to see and do, don’t be surprised if you find yourself coming back year after year and just scratching the surface.

Originally written by Shaine Smith for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.