Guide to the Red River Gorge Area

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Date: 05/22/2021

Written By: Jon Shumaker


View from the Campsite at Cloud Splinter


The Red River Gorge area is a tourist driven economy manned by locals who are proud and hardworking. The counties that makeup the Red are ranked as some of the poorest in the country, but with pride in their hearts and an eye for fairness they are wonderful folks. The area is known for its quality hiking and rock climbing. The rock climbing is world class and draws folks from around the world to partake. The folks who visit the area are generally the outdoors type who do not mind finding a place to park for the night or paying a few bucks to basic camp. With many excellent hiking options to choose from, one can explore endlessly. Checkout the unmarked, less traveled trails because they often can be the best as one of the explorers’ I met told me, but hey that is also true about life.


Food

The local food scene has limited options, with a few standouts (but considering the local population, plenty). Many of the places will limit there hours or close entirely during part of the week due to being tourist focused and pricing out the locals. There are two restaurants that are standout must do’s when in the Red. The first is named by all who know the area, Miguels Pizza. The quality ingredients and somewhat unusual toppings custom made to order, is what makes this place special. The location at the climber campground and minimalist outdoor seating also adds flavor. Checkout the amazing photo glass prints on the walls of climbers. The only complaint I heard was about the price. The second is a little-known restaurant in a converted gas station in Campton called Sweet Art by Stephanie. They serve up to the locals and some more adventurous visitors, quality homecooked food and some amazing desserts (they have local specials from 1000-1500 most days)! I had a change to talk to Miss Stephanie. She is a wonderful, humble woman who knows how to cook and make desserts that will have you going back for seconds. Thank you, Miss Stephanie, for sharing some useful tips on how to make that caramel! You will not regret eating here (except maybe in your waistline, but you are in the Red to be active). These two places will show visitors that the Red knows how to cook.

Boys resting on a fell tree on Rough Trail


The restaurants that the locals recommend in Slade are Miguels Pizza and La Cabana Mexican Restaurant. As one gal said that she determines which to go to, by who has the shorter wait. La Cabana Mexican Restaurant is a bit overpriced, but quality TexMex. A tasty and cheap menu item is the Speedy Gonzales. Those who seek out authentic Hispanic food, probably will not be a fan of this place. The local barbeque joint is Thatcher Barbecue Company that has good barbecue and a unique Cilantro Citrus coleslaw. For good local beer and underwhelming, overpriced food goes to Sky Bridge Station. The highlight is the chill atmosphere, local beer, and live music. It is extremely popular with visitors on the weekend.

The lift at Natural Bridge Resort Park


For drinks in the area, there are two notable spots. The Sky Bridge Station for local beer and Daniel Boone Coffee Shop for mixed cocktails.

For local flavor try the Ale 8 brand of soda. The soda is produced in Winchester, KY and has a factory tour that is on hold due to covid. For a quick and low-cost protein snack of solid popcorn chicken, the Broaster Chicken located in the Marathon on 15, near Chimney Top Rock.

The first big question for myself when I go to a new area, is “where is the best coffee”. The choices in the area are slim, but the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop has more experienced staff and generally create a consistent, quality cup. They also have best fudge in Slade. The smoothies are very natural and refreshing. The other and only choice in the area is near the Chimney Top Rock area is The Brink. They are a new shop and improving on quality. For them (and for any place, my method is to ask what they make best), I would recommend getting what that barista makes the best to get what you ordered most places. The black coffee is excellent.



Venom extraction at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo


For ice cream, there is a best shake stand and an amazing ice cream place. The Brandenburg General Store, LLC has amazing shakes with unique flavors. The place with amazing ice cream has been mentioned before, The Brink. The ice cream is deliciously smooth and creamy. They also have wonderful pottery from Turtle Farm Pottery, a small local co-operative of potters. The locals place is Dairy Queen, but that is due to being the low-cost leader and not so much the best quality.


Activities

The areas central activities are hiking and climbing with, a touch of kayaking. The area has some paid activities that are decent if a bit overpriced. My favorite paid activity and a good cause to support is the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. The owner has a passion for reptiles with a lean staff and interns. Make sure you call ahead to watch the venom extraction. The other activity is the Underground kayaking/SUP and the ziplining. The underground kayaking is a unique experience that is a bit overpriced. The tour guides are experienced, but the one issue was the headlamps barely worked and we had to relied on the guides lights. The other experience is the ziplining. A probably worthwhile experience depending on what you like to do, but it is also a bit overpriced. My recommendation is to focus on the climbing or the hiking opportunities, with possibly a visit to the Kentucky Reptiles Zoo as a unique experience.

Chimney Top Rock from Hanson's Point


View From Hanson's Point

For climbers, there are many opportunities in the area to climb. I have largely photographed climbers and climbed a little bit myself. The campgrounds focused on climbers are Miguel’s for the younger and less experienced climbers (generally considered more of a party scene). They have an onsite climbing shop. More experienced climbers tend to center around the Land of the Arches Campground (location of Rocktoberfest) and Lago Linda Hideaway. All three offer inexpensive camping and other options. For new climbers, there are guidebooks to the routes and guide services offered.

For hikers, there are trails a plenty to explore. The big trail for backpacking is the Sheltowee Trace is 333 miles long and it was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979. If you are looking for a view, without any effort the best trail is Chimney Top Rock Trail. This trail is largely paved with a similar view as Half-moon Arch Trail and Hanson’s Point. Both trails are very enjoyable in their own way. Half-moon Arch Trail is an unmarked trail near the Chimney Top Rock Road circle and is a short trail. The challenge with this trail is the first bouldering problem. It looks like an easy problem but go from the center large foothold with the left foot and move the right up the small friction ridge. There is a hand hold that you can propel yourself up. The view is worth the effort and I would say both trails have a better view than the easy trail. Hanson’s Point is a bit of a hike with several ways to get there. There are many dispersed campsites and is a popular place to camp. I would highly recommend this spot but arrive earlier if you want to camp since the spots get picked over quick on the weekend. For a couple of fun final bouldering problems, Indian Staircase trail and my favorite view (and campsite in the park) is Cloud Splinter. Indian Staircase is more of a all-fours trail (depending on your shoes) going up the final bit, but the view is good and there is a campsite at the top. My personal favorite trail in the park is Cloud Splinter for the best view and the fun assent. Go to the back of the ridge for an excellent view and campsite. The short-cut is an uphill workout. Also, known for a view is Auxier Ridge Trail. Another highly rated trail is Copperas Falls trail. Angel Windows Trail is a beautiful hike with several cool side trails. Right after the Angel Windows, is a fun trail to the right down into the ravine. The obvious place to visit is the Natural Bridge State Resort Park. There is the original trail to the top or the new trail by the lift, with my favorite being the original trail. The lift is a unique experience and view, also good for those less mobile. The store at the lift is something of a tourist trap with subpar fudge. For other trail options in the area, use an app like AllTrails.

Kayaking on Campton Lake


Kayaking at Mill Creek Lake


Soft Shelled Turtles at Mill Creek Lake


The kayaking opportunities are limited. The Red River is designated a Wild River and requires a scheduled pick with a company or a staged vehicle due to the current. There are kayak rentals available and companies that have rafting or tubing adventures. The Mill Creek Lake has rental kayaks available every day from 1000-1700 weekdays and 1000-1800 on the weekends (weather permitting). There is a nice couple that operates the rentals. The lake is small, but if you stay quiet there are birds and a rare soft-shelled turtle that sun themselves on the logs. Some of these turtles are quite large. The other lake is small, but pretty in Campton called Campton Lake (the locals I talked to called it Wolfe Lake). I would recommend Mill Creek Lake, but unless you have a lot of time, Campton Lake is a low priority. For myself, as an avid kayaker and photographer, all these lakes were interesting in their own way.

One of the unique manmade works in the area is Nada Tunnel. It is a nearly 1000 feet long one lane tunnel what was hewn threw the mountain. It is quite an experience to go thru, but the wait has gotten a bit long on busy weekends.

The area has several festivals throughout the year. The Swift Silver Mine Festival in Campton on Labor Day weekend with music and small-town fun. The Artisan Festival at the Natural Bridge on August 20-22. There will have local artisans and local bands. The Festival of the Red in Slade will be on June 25-26th with 33 bands at the event. A fun climber and groupie event is Rocktoberfest. The evenings are fun climbing centered events. If you feel up to the challenge, you can do the bouldering competition. One of the more unique events is Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine at the end of April. It is a festival for those who enjoy mushroom hunting or just unique experiences. If you want a corny good time, the Stanton Corn Festival in Stanton is a corn centered festival on August 6-8th.


Lodging

There are many camping, cabins, motel, backcountry, and parking (with a permit) lodging options in the Red. Many of the campgrounds cater to individuals for a low per person fee of generally less than $4/day with different focuses on target markets. Daniel Boone Campground is a full-service campground with a store, coffee shop, café, drinks, and internet that caters to generally younger groups. The common climber campgrounds are mentioned in the Climbing section of Activities. For families, the top options according to The Dyrt are Red River Adventure Campground for river access and Koomer Ridge has a nice location near trail heads. There are many cabin options in the area from a broad price range, that should be booked in advance. The motels in the area are not always on the internet, so check around if you want the best price and if the quality is not a priority. Backcountry options are everywhere, but my personal favorite is the top of Cloud Splinter for that epic view. Hanson’s Point is a popular option, but a bit overcrowded for my taste. For those who park for the night, Chimney Top Rock is a prime spot that fills up quick on the weekends but get a permit for your vehicle. Regardless of where you stay, be safe and leave no trace.


Shopping

The area is not known for its great shopping, but there are a few gift shops and essentials in the area. For camp supplies there are two stores in Slade: the Brandenburg General Store and the Daniel Boone Campground. The Brandenburg General Store has a good selection, and the fudge is ok, but go to Daniel Boone Coffee shop for fudge. You will not regret trying Brandenburg’s shakes.

The Red River Gorge is an area that is inhabited by honest and hardworking folks that love where they live. They own and man the businesses that support the visitors, providing good service. Even thou the Red was once targeted to become a lake; it has become a world class rock climbing and hiking location. Even with the increasing tourism, the area still has local charm that has not been eroded, but with prices that the locals are often unable to pay. As one local said, they charge excessively because they know visitors will pay the price. This area still is highly recommended for all who enjoy the outdoors. Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace.


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