Finding Adventure and Solitude Paddling the Red River
Not for the faint of heart, the Upper Red River offers one of the most remote and worthwhile paddles in all of Eastern Kentucky.
The Red River flows through massive boulders, twists along narrow gaps, and though a largely inaccessible hemlock gorge offering spectacular scenery and solitude. This river is classified as National Wild and Scenic River, the only one that is entirely within Kentucky, and it offers what many say are some of the best paddling options in the state.
Located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Red River Gorge was at the heart of controversy in the 1970s when local and national advocates successful fought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the building of a dam. Now this pristine river and surrounding area is available for outdoor recreation of all kinds.
What Makes It Great
The Red River offers a diverse landscape showcasing stands of Eastern Hemlock, dense thickets of Rhododendron, exposed sandstone cliffs, and unique geological formations all while offering some of the best kayaking in Kentucky.
The challenges of the rapids on this ten mile run down the Upper Red River is the draw for most adventure seekers. Many of the paddling opportunities in Kentucky are Class I, easy floats. The chance at some excitement on tougher water is a real draw. Not to mention the spectacular natural wonders such as rock houses, small streams cascading in along the way, waterfalls and the majesty of the sheer cliffs dropping down to kiss the waters. If a river could be considered intimate, the Red certainly would be. Remaining narrow throughout with sheer cliffs, it’s recommended for kayaks or only the very experienced canoeists, due to tight turns and the very remote location. The bonus? It’s possible to be the only paddlers out there on any given weekend.
Flowing beneath rock ledges covered in mountain laurel, the run begins with a nice warm up on Class I water with good currents and a few areas of playful chop. Flowing on beneath imposing bluffs, eddying pools, and a few small rapids the river leads over the Red Falls and down to the section popularly known as The Narrows of the Red where the Class III rapids begin. With several boulders to dodge and a finish into a lovely pool it’s the highlight of the day's journey.
Next up is the off- puttingly named feature the Dogs Drowning Hole that deserves to be scouted. It can be very technical in low water and has unpredictable currents with high water. But it remains a key feature on the run. It’s recommended to run the Red in the morning, otherwise the afternoon sun can create an obstructive glare.
Who is Going to Love It
Kayakers looking to try out something new and perhaps a little bit challenging will find the Upper Red River like a fresh cool breeze. While not a run for rookies, especially with volumes over 350 cfs, intermediate paddlers will love a chance to use their hard earned skills on this delightful float packed with natural wonders and enough attention getting fun to keep it interesting. The Red River Gorge offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in Kentucky and there is no better way to see it than from the cockpit of a kayak.
Directions, Parking & Regulations
There is an official put-in which is reached by taking the first right after crossing the river on KY 746, and then going about 1/2 mile on this back road, and then taking a right onto a one-lane gravel road which dead-ends at a parking area by the river. There are signs leading to the put-in or consider a shuttle from a local outfitter which may be a better option, particularly if making a weekend outing out of your trip.
Difficulty: (Class III)
This section of Red River is rated intermediate to advanced, at water levels higher than 350 cfs. Due to its remote nature and steep walls, there are not any options to ‘bail’ if it’s too hard - down river being your only option. Some rapids can become ‘easy’ class IV if the water volumes are high and some will require scouting and/or portage.
Time to Complete: 4 hours - can vary depending on water flow
Distance: (10.3 Miles)
This distance is the Upper Red River section. For those looking for a beginner or family friendly option, try the Middle and Lower sections of the Red which are rated Class I and also offer great fishing opportunities.
Seasonality: (Spring, Winter)
Generally runnable from late December to late May in years of average rainfall. The water levels fluctuate rapidly, and without previous heavy rainfall, the river is more of a creek and if it’s too high and it can become dangerous and unpredictable.
Fees: No fees, however be sure to park in the approved areas and not on private land.
Dog Friendly: N/A
Put in: Latitude: 37.79869 Longitude: -83.48941
Take out: Latitude: 37.824 Longitude: -83.58181