There is a long history of rock climbing at Red River Gorge in Kentucky, USA, and a trip to the rock climbing mecca of the East will inspire you to climb technically and climb hard.
Located inside the Daniel Boone National Forest, the sandstone geology is a wonder to look at, let alone to scramble up. We have written a quick guide with all the information you will need, from Red River Gorge camping to Red River Gorge climbing maps. Here is the ultimate guide to climbing at Red River Gorge.
History of Red River Gorge
Where Is Red River Gorge
In East-Central Kentucky, in the north of the Daniel Boone National Forest and roughly an hour East of Lexington is where you will find The Red River Gorge. The Red River Gorge Geological Area is roughly 45 square miles (120 km2).
What type of rock is at Red River Gorge
The Red River Gorge is made of Corbin sandstone. There is an abundance of high sandstone cliffs, sandstone arches and natural bridges in the gorge. It is particularly appealing to climbers who enjoy overhanging, pocketed sandstone sports climbs.
History of the Red River Gorge
The Cumberland National Forest was established in 1937 and changed the name in 1966 to The Daniel Boone National Forest in honour of the explorer of the same name. Before federal protection, the area suffered long term damage from industrial logging, and if you pay close attention to your surroundings, you can still see evidence of this today.
In the 60s a proposed dam would have flooded the entire gorge and created an artificial lake. A protest hike in 1967 put an end to the proposed dam by showcasing the natural and unique beauty of the area. This helped towards its introduction on the National Register of Historic Places.
Due to the rising popularity of climbing in the area, The Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition has been buying the land to help preserve the cliff line, protecting the delicate and unique geology for generations of climbers to come.
Rock Climbing at Red River Gorge
Because of the large climbing community and strong development of climbing in the area, most of the routes are well protected with permanent bolts. That being said, there are a decent number of trad routes hidden amongst the sport routes. Fortress Wall, Pebble Beach and Tower Rock are home to an abundance of trad routes.
While there are a couple of multi-pitch routes in The Red River Gorge, it is primarily known as a single pitch climbing destination. The few multi-pitch routes usually consist of 2 or 3 pitches. A couple of more known multi-pitch sport routes are “Day Trippin’” and “Fox Fire”, both located around Eagle Point Buttress.
The majority of routes in The Red River Gorge are single pitch sport routes, with some climbing pages referring to the area as “The Sport Climbing Mecca of the East”. There are more than 3000 routes sprawling up around 100 cliffs. The area is particularly famous for overhanging single pitch routes, with mostly pocket holds.
There are sports routes across the entire spectrum of climbing difficulties, all the way from 5.3 to 5.14c. The climbing is split across multiple areas, often privately owned or purchased by the local climbing coalition, who maintain the permanent equipment and upkeep the strong community spirit. The best place to find this documented is in one of the many climbing guidebooks available.
Climbing Grades at Red River Gorge
While the vast majority of routes are around the 5.11 and 5.12 mark, there are climbs suitable for beginners and experts alike in The Red River Gorge. The climbing difficulty is measured using the Yosemite Decimal System. Many believe that “The Golden Ticket”, established by Adam Taylor, is the hardest route in the area, coming in at 5.14d.
Red River Gorge Climbing for Beginners
There are more than 400 routes rated 5.9 or lower, established all over the ecological area. Most of these are sport climbs, so knowledge of complex trad equipment is not required.
One of the most popular areas for beginners within the Red River Gorge is called “The Nursery” which is close to Serenity Point. Here, the climbing ranges from 5.3 to 5.12c, with the majority of climbs rated around 5.6. There are also two trad routes to try here – one easy and one hard.
Red River Gorge Climbing Guide Book
There are multiple climbing guidebooks for The Red River Gorge, however, the most extensive and complete guide is simply called “The Red”. This is exclusively for sports climbs, and if you are interested in a guide that has the trad routes, check our “Red River Gorge North” and “Red River Gorge South” which both come with a digital interactive version that can operate from your smartphone.
Best Climbing Routes on Red River Gorge
- Lip-Service (5.11c) – a steep climb with some rather sensual-looking rock features.
- 72-Hour Energy (5.12a) – a climb of two parts, starting with a difficult slab and ending with a difficult overhanging head wall.
- Thunderclinger (5.10c) – a vertical route consisting of many underclings. There is also a short crack in the middle of the route.
- Eureka (5.6) – an easy but pleasant 85ft sport route.
- Bedtime for Bonzo (5.6) – an easy sport route with a hand-ledge traverse and a right-leaning fist crack.
- The Golden Ticket (5.14d) – considered by many as the hardest route in the area, bolted by Kenny Barker in 2007.
Best time of the year to climb the Red River Gorge
While every season for climbing in the USA has its pros and cons, most people agree that October is the best month for climbing. This is after the sweaty summer heat and before one requires a cup of tea after each climb to be able to feel their fingers again.
As The Red River Gorge is such a popular and dense climbing area, it is subject to crowds at peak times, especially in Autumn and Spring – the best seasons for climbing. One way to beat the crowds is to go in summer but climb in the evenings and even into the night. This is only possible if you are comfortable climbing in the dark, guided by the beam of your head-torch.
How do I get to Red River Gorge by Car?
The Red River Gorge is roughly a one hour drive East from Lexington. Once you find your way to Route 77, you will notice that the road twists and turns through some dramatic scenery, including an impressive tunnel called “The Nada Tunnel” which some people refer to as “The Gateway To Red River Gorge”.
It is also possible to get to The Red River Gorge on Highway 11.
Where should I stay when visiting Red River Gorge
The most popular campsite for climbers by far is at Miguel’s Pizza. At only 3$ a night, right in the heart of the climbing area and right next to the throbbing heart of the climbing community, Miguel’s is the place to be. Miguel’s place in the climbing community is explained in depth in the Patagonia Documentary “Stone Locals”:
Close to the gorge, but just outside the gorge itself is the Woodstock Campground. From Woodstock Campground it is easy to access a lot of the local hiking.
Cabins and Accommodation
Another popular campsite in the area, although more suited to those who would rather stay in the South of Red River Gorge, is Lago Linda’s. This campsite is a little quieter than Miguel’s and a great place to find yourself a quiet cabin to stay in.
The Red River Gorge is also home to numerous cabins and homestays, far too many to list in a single article. The quality of cabins ranges from cheap and basic to luxurious with hot-tubs.
What is there to do around Red River Gorge?
Almost every climber who visits The Red River Gorge knows about Miguel’s pizza; a pizzeria, campsite and climbing shop at the heart of the local climbing community. This is a great place to connect with other climbers and visitors, to camp close to the action, and to fill your face with delicious home-made pizza.
Being a huge nature reserve, The Red River Gorge is also home to a variety of mostly easy hikes. Hiking, as well as climbing, is an excellent way to check out the unique geology of the valley. Some of the more famous walks are Indian Staircase, Whittleton Arch and the Rock Bridge Loop.
There are also a plethora of other outdoor activities to immerse yourself in. As well as hiking and climbing, there is fishing, horse riding, ziplining and even underground kayaking.
Here are some commonly asked questions about climbing and other outdoor activities in The Red River Gorge Geological Area.
Can I download the Red River Gorge Climbing Map?
Both of The Red River Gorge Climbing Guidebooks (North & South of Miguel’s Pizza) come with digital access for those who do not wish to lug around a heavy book. The interactive map also helps you to navigate towards the crags. There is also an online climbing guide
How much does it cost to climb at Red River Gorge?
While it is free to climb in the Red River Gorge, areas are often privately owned. Donations ensure that each area is well maintained and keeps the community strong. Each area has its own rules, for example, if you are to go Muir Valley, you will be required to sign a waiver before you climb. There may be a small fee for entering, but if you drive, parking fee will be about US$8.50-US$10.
Is Natural Bridge part of Red River Gorge?
The Natural Bridge is a 65 foot tall and 78 foot long natural stone bridge located near The Red River Gorge, but technically not inside the gorge. It is a short walk from the Hemlock Lodge Parking Area, and well worth the short diversion away from the gorge.
Are dogs allowed in Red River Gorge?
Pets are permitted in most parts of The Red River Gorge, please verify and check on this before you enter the zone. But in the interest of the local wildlife and also for the safety of climbers in the area, please do ensure your dog or pet is under control at all times. Certain cabins and accommodation options in the area do not permit animals.
Is Red River Gorge a state park?
The Red River Gorge National Geological Area is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest and next to the Natural Bridge State Park. The gorge itself is not in a state park.
I hope you enjoyed reading up about climbing in Red River Gorge. If you are keen to check out other destinations in in USA, do consider Devils’s Tower or Tucson as well.