Nestled on the outskirts of the Daniel Boone National Forest in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky, the Red River Gorge boasts some of the best sandstone single-pitch rock climbing known to humankind.
It is an unassuming place with local spirit lent by small businesses and backcountry tourist attractions. Many folks in the state don’t realize they have a world-class destination practically in their backyard.
You can hardly even see the overhanging cliffs through the dense woods of oaks and maples as you make your way down the windy KY-11; but take a short hike up any approach trail and your jaws will surely drop.
Needless to say, if you haven’t fallen in love with outdoor climbing already, the Red River Gorge might very well cause the beginning of an obsession.
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About the Rock Climbing at the Red River Gorge
Photo of Melissa at the Zoo by Frank Madden
The Red River Gorge is notorious for its endless amount of steep, juggy walls – some of them steep enough to climb during a torrential downpour.
However, it also has almost as many high-quality slab and vertical sport routes, as well as traditional lines.
Each crag tends to have a concentration of one or all of these styles, at grades ranging from 5.4 to 5.14d. Route heights can be as short as 45 ft, or taller than 100ft.
If you are new to the sport, be wary that there are not too many routes below the grade of 5.10. With the exception of Bruise Brothers wall at Muir Valley, most easier routes are interspersed amongst different areas.
If you are new to the Red River Gorge in general, be emotionally prepared for your ego to get shut down. Depending upon your proficiency level, it can take a couple weeks or even a couple months to build enough endurance for sending stuff anything more than vertical. Don’t fret it too much, though – everyone goes through the same process!
Getting Around The Red River Gorge
The Red River Gorge is divided up into two regions: North and South.
The dividing line is the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, which intersects with the Slade exit where you would get off to drive to Miguel’s Pizza from the Lexington direction.
The Northern Region
The Northern gorge consists of Daniel Boone National Forest, and is notorious for its high concentration of traditional climbs.
To access it, you must drive northeast from Slade and get on Highway 715. This highway runs through historic Nada Tunnel into the National Forest, and past numerous trailheads, river access points, and sight-seeing spots until looping back around to KY-11.
Between the N Fork Rd turn-off from 715 and spots right along 715, there are numerous fantastic climbing options:
- The Highway 77 turn-off has several five-star traditional crags including Long Wall, Pebble Beach, and Pistol Ridge.
- Highway 715 is home to the popular beginner trad spot, Fortress Wall.
- Also on 715 are some ultra-classic sport climbing crags like Left Flank, Military Wall, Phantasia, Eastern Sky Bridge, and Funk Rock City.
The Southern Region
The Southern gorge is a little more familiar amongst climbers. This is likely because it is more developed, and less of a drive from the central accommodations than the North gorge.
As you make your way south from Slade onto KY-11, Miguel’s Pizza and Natural Bridge State Park serve as the gateway into the more traveled sport rock climbing locations:
Emerald City and Global Village
Emerald City and Global Village are two crags that can be accessed via an approach trail branching directly off of KY-11. There is a small parking lot parallel to the highway that is fine to leave your vehicle in for the day.
Such properties include Pendergrass Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP), Bald Rock Fork, and Miller Fork Recreational Preserve (MFRP). Each area contains multiple crags, and has a sizable parking lot to hike in from.
Muir Valley requires a $10 parking fee. They are still a non-profit and utilize your donations to maintain the trails and replace hardware. If you plan on going to Muir Valley more than ten days throughout the calendar year, get an annual parking pass.
Note: On your first, you must fill out a waiver online to climb on RRGCC lands and at Muir Valley.
Such is normally also the case for Roadside crag, but it is closed indefinitely.
The Torrent Falls crag is on property owned by Southeast Mountain Guides. To climb there, you must either rent a nearby cabin through Red River Outdoors or hire one of the Red River Gorge guides.
Seasons: Red River Gorge Weather and When to Go
Kentucky’s prime rock climbing seasons are the Spring (March through late April) and the Fall (October through late November).
This is when the temperatures are the crispiest, and moisture levels in the air are low enough for near-perfect friction.
However, it is also when the crowds come. Expect hundreds of folks to be camping at Miguel’s and long lines at the most popular crags. Yikes!
To minimize your risk of running into these issues, try to plan the bulk of your visit during the work-week. If you end up having to climb on the weekends, explore the many less-traveled crags that are just as good of quality.
Unfortunately, shoulder seasons are not much of an alternative as general temperatures rise and drop there pretty quickly. As is the case for the southeastern United States, there’s often just two seasons – summer and winter.
That being said, getting out on the rock is still possible in the summer and winter.
You just have to have an open mind, decent psych-levels, and be willing to take stretches of days off due to high-humidity or below-freezing weather.
Getting out on milder days in the summer wearing shorts and tank tops can be much more enjoyable than pulling on plastic. I have spent three summers there rock climbing, and to be 100% honest: I had a blast and sent some of my hardest projects to date. Rumor has it, someone even sent Zookeeper (14a) in July.
There are also windows of days in the winter-time where the weather is far more perfect than could ever be experienced in the spring or fall. You just have to be patient, and have good arrangements for enduring stints of freezing cold and snow.
Many long-termers stick around for all four seasons, and manage to have awesome days year around.
Recommended Crags per Grade
Between Mountain Project and Red River Select, there is no shortage of information out there regarding which routes and crags are the best to visit.
In fact, there are so many 3 to 5 star lines, that a “best routes” list requires an entire book.
As a compromise, here is our list of great crags to climb at based on difficulty-level and type, beginning with 5.10 sport:
Funk Rock City
Eastern Sky Bridge
5.12 and up sport
Best Crags for Trad Climbing
Besides a few minor exceptions, the handful of multi-pitches that exist there are trad lines.
Some are more difficult to find and provide for some good adventure. Many can be done as link-ups if you have a 70m+ rope.
Be prepared with the necessary multi-pitching gear and do your research – like checking if the route has bolted anchors.
Here are some Wandering Climber Favorites:
Bedtime for Bonzo (5.6; 2 pitches; Fortress Wall)
White Out (5.8; 2 pitches; Emerald City)
Foxfire (5.7 R; 5 pitches; Eagle Point Buttress)
Diamond in the Crack (5.6; 2 pitches; Jewel Pinnacle)
Party Time (5.7; 2 pitches; Fortress Wall)
Nevermore (5.9+ PG 13; 4 pitches; Raven Rock)
A special mention also goes to Caver’s Route, a four-pitch chimney climb at Tower Rock said to be the first route ever climbed in the area sometime in the 1960s. There is basically no protection on this climb, so it must be done as a free-solo. Although the route has been given an easy grade, any attempts by beginner climbers are ill-advised.
A Note on the Bouldering
You can leave the crash pads at home.
There are a handful of “boulder problems” littered amongst the crags, but not anything worth sacrificing a day of clipping bolts for.
If you find yourself sticking around for the long-term and, for whatever reason, get a hankering to go bouldering, check out Foxtown.
Rainy Day Rock Climbing at The Red
Are a couple days of mediocre weather causing you to reconsider your trip? Not so fast!
Due to the overhanging nature of so many of the cliffs, there are multiple crags that are climbable on rainy days.
Such walls are steeper than average, so they tend to have only harder routes. Sadly, there are not many sub 5.11+ climbs protected from the weather.
Whether its dumping rain at-present or finished drizzling a couple hours ago, here is a solid list of crags that stay decently well protected from the elements:
Be wary: rainy days can cause dew-point levels to increase. If the temperature outside is lower than the dew point, the rock might condense. This lends the rock a damp or “manky” feel which is not ideal for send burns on your project.
Also, overhanging routes still have the potential to become less reliable the more days it rains. Long periods of heavy precipitation can cause the rock to seep in particular spots. It’s never fun when that spot is right at the clipping hold for anchors!
Top Roping and Via Ferrata
Almost every route can be top-roped. However, most of them have to be set up by a lead climber (except for the not-so-inspiring Practice Wall).
If you are interested in trying outdoor rock climbing but have never done it before, or just have a low experience level, consider going on a guided rock climbing trip. Red River Gorge guides can set up routes for you at much better crags and teach you basic technical skills.
There is also a super fun Via Ferrata option at Southeast Mountain Guides. Located right along KY-11, the office Southeast Mountain Guides butts right up against a massive amphitheater of rock that you surely won’t miss.
Red River Gorge Climbing Accommodation
Where to Camp at the Red River Gorge
Miguel’s Pizza & Campground
There’s likely at least one person who climbs at your gym and dons an iconic Miguel’s t-shirt…no matter where you live.
I would be committing blasphemy were I to not put Miguel’s campground at the top of this list.
Miguel’s Pizza is like Camp 4 of the east; it will truly make you feel embedded in the world of climbers. (Which may or may not always be a good thing.)
Miguel and his family have been dedicated to serving rock climbers food since the 1980’s. Their rich history and unique connection to the climbing world has made Miguel’s the central locus of the area.
But, most importantly, their $3.50 per person, per night rate can’t be beat. Anywhere.
With a giant field for tents and a van camping area, token showers ($1 for four minutes), and a covered pavilion, you’ll have everything you could ask for to keep your dirtbag spirit alive. Not to mention, a pretty good breakfast-serving pizza joint nearby.
Pro-Tips: Get a slice of their toast at breakfast time. It’s the best you’ll ever have. Also, Frank’s hot sauce is great on pizza.
Land of the Arches (LOTA) Campground
You may have heard of LOTA campground before, as it has been the annual host of Rocktoberfest for many years.
Although $8 per night per person in a tent, this campground is usually much quieter than Miguel’s and more central to the main spots in the southern gorge. For $10 per night, you can even lay out a pad inside their cozy pseudo-airplane-hangar building.
Their showers are super hot and don’t shut off on you because the time ran out. Not to mention, they also have a snack shop and games in the hangar…like ping-pong.
Bald Rock Campground
If you plan on only rock climbing PMRP and prefer to camp away from crowds, Bald Rock is a great option. The $10 a night rate is worth the proximity to the PMRP and Bald Rock Fork area- especially if you have a project at the Lode or Chocolate Factory. They also have cabin rentals if you want a really good night’s sleep.
Between the north and south gorge, there are more campgrounds that can be counted on a single hand. The few listed above tend to be the spots most frequently visited by climbers.
Here are a few honorable mentions if you’re kickin’ it in a tent or a vehicle:
- You can camp anywhere in the Daniel Boone National Forest in the Northern region as long as you have a permit. It’s $3 a night or $30 a year and can be purchased at the Shell station in Slade. Consider this option if you are super psyched on spending most of your time in the North.
- High-rollin’ in an RV and need a reliable spot with hook-ups? Check out the Middle Fork and Whittleton campgrounds or 4 Guys RV Park
- If you prefer the utmost peaceful and private camping experience for only $6, go to Lago Linda Hideaway. It’s a longer drive to get there, but still relatively close to Pendergrass Murray Recreational Preserve and Miller Fork Recreational Preserve.
For more campgrounds and contact information, go to: http://rrgcc.org/rrg-info/lodging-food/
Hostels, Motels and Lodges
Bed Rock is a modern establishment with hostel-style accommodations, only a mile up the road before Muir valley.
A bunk bed in a shared room is $40 a night, and a private room is $98. The prices may seem a little high compared to a night at the other campgrounds, but the quality of your stay there might arguably be worth every penny.
Between the fully-outfitted community kitchen, super cozy gathering space, and proximity to Muir, Bed Rock is a rad spot for climbers who want a quick weekend away without the hassles that come with car camping.
Lil Abners, Black Bear Lodge, and Natural Bridge Resort
Lil Abners, Black Bear Lodge, and Natural Bridge Resort are motels situated along the main drag of KY-11 near Miguel’s Pizza. They are fine places to stay, and central to both the North and South Gorge.
Don’t worry about not having a kitchenette; there are plenty of restaurants to eat at nearby.
Cabins and AirBnbs
Climbers aren’t the only people recreating in the area.
In fact, its primary tourist traffic tends to be non-climbers like hikers, folks going off-roading, and weddings.
Thus, there are also endless cabin rentals and AirBnbs…and treehouses.
- Want an overnight experience you’ll remember forever? Stay the night in a Canopy Crew treehouse.
- If you are planning a visit with a large group, check out the Big House right behind Miguel’s Pizza.
- Beattyville Cabin, Red River Outdoors, and StayOver have a wide selection of cabin rentals available that are centrally located between the North and South gorge. Red River Outdoors even offers packages that include lodging and guiding services for climbing in the Red.
Whether you’re travelling as a group or prefer the creature comforts, cabins and AirBnbs are essential.
Red River Gorge Food and Restaurants
On your visit, be sure to eat out at least once!
Help keep the local businesses alive – they are what lend the destination its unique charm and community vibe.
Pro-Tip: Be sure to try an Ale-8! It is a delicious, locally made soda that tastes like a cross-between of ginger beer and a Sprite. You can hardly find it anywhere else.
Yes, Miguel’s isn’t just a campground but a restaurant, too.
They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner 7 days a week. And pizza. Lots of pizza.
What separates Miguel’s pizza from any other joint is their toppings. You can get nearly anything imaginable on a single slice or a whole pie – noodles, black beans, sweet potato, mango salsa, you name it.
As with their camping rates, the food is very reasonably priced. Parts of their menu were almost made for dirtbags. A big, baked pasta bowl with cheese and sauce for only $4? Oh yes.
Red River Rockhouse
The Rockhouse is a must-visit restaurant. Their high quality, locally-sourced food tastes phenomenal and helps support small farmers operating along the Mountain Parkway.
It’s a place to feel good about the food you’re spending your money on. Not to mention,their meat products are antibiotic, steroid, and hormone free.
Nothing hits the spot after a long day at the crag like a juicy Rockhouse bacon burger with Garlic Pepper Cheddar cheese, coupled with sweet potato fries and chipotle mayo dipping sauce. Or a Rockhouse burrito -notorious for their humongous size.
My mouth is watering just writing this…
Many of their entrees can be customized as vegetarian or vegan, with either tofu, tempeh, or a veggie burger.
Definitely a local favorite.
Hop’s is a new bar/restaurant located next to the parking area for the Zoo.
They carry a very large selection of craft beers, and always have new dishes to try. Starting April 2021, Hop’s will be hosting Second Friday markets for local farmers, artisans, and vendors.
Their beautiful outdoor patio seating make Hop’s a great hangout spot to grab a beer and visit with friends and family.
To stay on top of Hop’s hours and event schedule, follow their Facebook page.
Daniel Boone Cafe
If you’re a self-proclaimed coffee snob, don’t you worry. Daniel Boone Cafe can take care of your caffeine needs.
Swing by on your way to the crag for a fresh cup of joe, and maybe a sweet treat, too.
They carry a wide assortment of cafe-style beverages, along with smoothies, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches.
The Cafe is also a good place to set down your phone, curl up with a book (or your homework), and chill out in a quiet zone for a while.
We get it.
Sometimes, you just wanna get down and dirty with a plate of good ‘ole fashioned Tex-Mex.
If you’re craving a salted margarita and a plate of enchiladas or chicken fajitas, La Cabana is there for you.
Take heed of the beans; you may want to get consent from your partner for the next day first!
Zoe’s Food Mart
On the way to a full day at PMRP or Miller Fork and too lazy to pack snacks?
Zoe’s has got you covered.
A hidden gem of the southern gorge, Zoe’s is an unsuspecting gas station/quick mart on the side of KY-11 with the best low-price sandwich counter you could ever ask for.
Their stacked turkey sandwiches (or cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion hack for the vegetarians) give you that sweet nostalgia of your mom’s elementary school pack-lunches and will have you coming back every day.
Pro Tip: Don’t listen to the nay-sayers with their $6 loaves of 12-grain bread and soybean mayo. You probably still send harder than them anyway. Or not. You get a great lunch either way!
The best and only legitimate grocery store nearby is the Kroger in Stanton, KY. It is a roughly 15-20 minute drive from Miguel’s.
Go to the Kroger if you need a more serious haul, or have any sorts of dietary restrictions. That store even carries items like kombucha and vegan cheese.
For minor needs (e,g. A bottle of ketchup, marshmallows, etc.) you can go to Daniel Boone Cafe or any of the local gas stations.
Warning: A hangover is never conducive to a productive day on the wall. Let alone, a productive day of any kind.
If you’re of the legal drinking age and looking to purchase beer in bulk, or liquor to make some mixed drinks (like the local favorite, the Kentucky mule), there are a few stores you can check out.
- C&S Carryout (aka. “The Beer Trailer”) is a notorious spot to purchase beer, particularly because of their gigantic “Welcome Climbers” sign hanging at the storefront. C&S has a small selection of craft brews alongside many domestics. If you’re looking for a thirty-rack of PBR, C&S is your place.
- Beer King is up the road from C&S. Albeit very similar, the Beer King sometimes has craft beers that C&S doesn’t have in stock.
- Trails Liquor is located on the main drag, and is the only booze store that sells bottles of liquor. However, it is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
- Looking for a much wider liquor selection, or needing a bottle on a weekday? If you’re not afraid of a thirty-minute drive, go to One Stop Liquors in Campton. They have everything you need to host a cocktail competition with your campmates.
Where to do Laundry at the Red
If you’re in the midst of a road-trip or an extended stay, you may need to do a load of laundry.
Miguel’s Campground has a few machines for use on-site, but it can be tough to compete with other campers during the busy season.
There is a much larger laundry facility on the road located between the Slade exit and Miguel’s Pizza in the Gorge Underground building (previously named “Thrillsville”). They have a large sign outside that says “Laundromat”, which is true to what’s inside: several coin-operated. industrial-grade washing machines and dryers.
Be sure to have cash on hand, as the quarter-exchange machines only take $1s, 5s, 10s, and 20s.
Where to Buy Rock Climbing Gear
There is only one true place to buy climbing gear in the Red River Gorge, and that place is Miguel’s Gear Shop.
They have ropes, quickdraws, chalk, trad gear, guidebooks, clothing….and a whole lot more. It is probably the most well-stocked gear shop in the entire state of Kentucky.
And yes, it is located right next to Miguel’s Pizza & Campground.
Unfortunately, there are no places for climbing gear rentals. Most outdoor stores around the U.S. never rent rope climbing gear in particular- for liability reasons, but also because rope climbing gear takes a serious beating.
Crash pads get worn out, too, but they don’t hold up your life the way sport climbing gear does. Besides, a general rule of thumb in the sport climbing industry is to avoid using gear you don’t know the history of.
Red River Gorge Guides
If you’re totally new to rock climbing or transitioning outdoors from the gym, hire an AMGA certified guide.
A guide that is AMGA certified has gone through proper training and testing to prove they can provide you a safe guided climbing experience.
Also, guided rock climbing is not just for tourists.
A climbing guide can set up routes for you and your friends or family to have some top roping fun. But they can also help you transition from indoors to the crag by providing private instruction on the basics of outdoor climbing skills (like rappelling and cleaning anchors).
Here are a few great climbing guiding companies to choose from:
WIFI at The Red
Many travelling climbers work remotely and now, with the coronavirus, the number of people getting remote jobs is increasing dramatically.
It is possible to work there remotely, but it isn’t super easy.
As is the case in any rural area, the Wi-Fi is not always 100% reliable. Likewise, the more people on the wifi network of a certain place, the lower the internet speed.
There is no Starbucks until Lexington, and the wifi at Miguel’s and the Rockhouse can be quickly overloaded with traffic from other customers on a busy day (which is the case for most days year-around). Such places aren’t ideal if you need peace and quiet, either.
If your work does not require a lot of Zoom conferences, then you might be able to get away with using Miguel’s Wi-Fi. Otherwise, consider the following alternatives:
- Get a Verizon hot-spot cellular data plan. Verizon gets the best cell service in rural destinations. If you have a hot-spot with unlimited data, you can connect your laptop to your phone’s internet.
- Rent an AirBnB or cabin with guaranteed good wi-fi. Some campgrounds may be less busy and have better wi-fi, too. Don’t be afraid to contact rental and campground owners about the quality of their internet. If you’re staying long-term, there are also rental options in Stanton that tend to have better internet than those in the gorge proper.
Rest Day Activities
Rest days are important, and especially after putting several attempts in on such physically demanding routes.
Thankfully, there are many fun ways to pass time while giving your upper body a break.
Seriously, do it.
Between the north and south gorge, there are over 100 natural sandstone arches, as well as spectacular ecological diversity.
Natural Bridge is a famous destination for many tourists, but there are tons of other hiking trails to arches, waterfalls, and neat rock formations just begging to be explored along the 715 loop.
If you’re looking for a real adventure, check out Indian Staircase and Cloud Splitter.
In June, the rhododendrons bloom and light up the trails with their soft pink flowers. Around late October, the cooler temperatures cause gorgeous color-changes in the trees. These sorts of events are best enjoyed by a good ‘ole hike.
Get out on the Water
If it is warm enough outside, there are several water activities you can do to cool off and relax.
- Go cliff jumping into the red river at Jump Rock
- SUP or Kayak on Mill Creek Lake
- Go on an underground kayaking tour with the Gorge Underground
Nerd Out Over Reptiles
Right near the Slade exit sits the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. Its director, Jim Harrison, is a world renowned venom-extractor (for purposes of medical research and antivenom production). His work at the Zoo has saved many lives, and helped in reptile conservation efforts.
The Zoo has a wide variety of snakes and other reptiles. For $11.50, you get a guided tour and can even witness a live venom-extraction.
Unless you are terrified of snakes, going to the Reptile Zoo is a super cool experience. I know I learned a lot when I went! (For instance: if there are a bunch of invasive, venomous snakes at the crag after a big storm, I’ll know where they came from….just kidding.)
Lee County Rec Center
Traveling in a group and want something fun to do together? Go bowl and play table games at the Rec Center.
There are several lanes there, along with a killer snack shop that has food like fried mac’n’cheese bites and hot fudge sundaes. After a few days of pushing grades, you deserve a treat.
The Rec Center also has exercise equipment, along with a small bouldering section, moonboard, and treadwall. On really bad weather days, it is a great place to get a quick workout in without driving Lexington to climb at LEF.
There are two major RRGCC events that happen every year that you won’t want to miss:
Johnny & Alex Trail Day
This event is usually organized in June by the RRGCC to gather volunteers for trail-building and maintenance of their southern properties.
It was created to honor John Bronaugh and his son, Alex, who both passed away in 2004. They were true stewards of the environment, and John played an integral role in route development, trail construction, and coalition land acquisitions.
After the trail work for the event is complete, volunteers reconvene for food, raffles, swimming, and partying.
Attending a Trail Day is a great way to give back and take an active role in the community…and to have a blast doing so.
Rocktoberfest is one of the biggest climber events in the United States. It is also the RRGCC’s largest annual fundraiser, held on the second weekend of October.
Climbers arrive from every corner of the earth to participate in the event’s activities hosted at Land of the Arches campground. These include everything from clinics and professional guest speakers to raffles and competitions.
Due to the coronavirus, Rocktoberfest 2020 was held virtually. Hopefully there can be an in-person Rocktoberfest in fall of ‘21. To get an idea of the event’s awesome line-up, check out the schedule from 2019.
About the RRGCC
The Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition is a registered non-profit run by a group of volunteers.
It has done an impressive amount of hard work and fundraising since 1996 to ensure access, create sustainable trail infrastructure, and promote an ethos of good environmental stewardship amongst the climbing community.
The coalition has even purchased Miller Fork Recreational Preserve, Pendergrass Murray Recreational Preserve, and Bald Rock Recreational Preserve (the Motherlode and Chocolate Factory), while also granting easements for these properties to the Access Fund.
Their critical accomplishments could not have been done without support from Red River Gorge climbers like you.
Remember: climbing in the Red is a privilege, not a right. As many climbing areas are free of charge, it is super important that we contribute our time and money to their conservation via local coalitions and other climbing organizations.
Access can be more fragile than you think, so it’s important that climbers take a more active role in keeping areas clean and sustainable, and reducing impact on the natural environment.
If you love the Red River Gorge, make a donation to the RRGCC.
Attending the Trail Day and Rocktoberfest are great ways to do so. You can always make a donation directly on their website: http://rrgcc.org/.
Be sure to follow the RRGCC on Facebook and periodically check their websites for helpful information.
If you’re interested in helping support local re-bolting efforts, you can donate to the Fixed Gear Initiative (FGIC).
Pro Tip: If you don’t already have an Access Fund membership, get one…and shame your friends for not having a membership, too. The $50 annual donation gets you a sick t-shirt and helps support national climbing conservation efforts.
Climbing and Leave-No-Trace Ethics
Certain areas have certain ethics. You should always seek them out before your visit.
RRGCC properties and Muir Valley usually have their rules and regulations posted on-site. Be sure to read them and behave accordingly.
In general, here are five rules to follow during your time in Kentucky:
- Lower, do not rappel. (Unless the anchor hardware is spinning, super rusted, or sharp.) This is not the case for a lot of climbing areas. However, the hardware in the North and South gorge gets replaced quite frequently – and lowering after cleaning a route is generally safer than rappelling.
- Don’t hog routes and try to keep your group size small. It can be tempting to set up a classic line and have each of your friends give a top-rope burn. Or, give multiple red-point burns on a project in a single session. Either way, if other folks are at the crag, be sure to let them have a turn on it, even if it means letting them clip into your quickdraws.
- If a parking lot is full, move on. Do NOT park in non-designated spots and do NOT block roads. If you are super eager to climb at a certain wall and are going on a weekend during peak season, get an early start. Otherwise, there are tons of other options to choose from , including fantastic crags that can be much less busy than well-known ones.
- Stay away from closed crags and crags on private property. Climbers have worked very hard to develop good relationships with the National Forest service, Natural Bridge state park, local landowners, and oil companies operating in the south gorge. Respecting boundaries and avoiding closed crags is crucial for maintaining access in years to come.
- Leave no trace! Stay on designated trails, pack out your trash (apple cores and banana peels included), clean up after your pets, avoid disrupting the natural environment of the crag, and don’t use hammocks. If you need to go #2, try your best to hike to the nearest vault toilet – otherwise, dig a 6-inch deep cat hole and take your dirty toilet paper with you.
Adhering to these principles will make you a better climbing steward, and help you avoid causing or having negative experiences at the crag.
First Visit Packing List: Essential Equipment
It’s hard to know what you may need to bring to a climbing area, no matter if it’s your first trip there or your first time ever touching rock outside
Each destination has special requirements based on weather, the type and length of routes, etc.
When you go to the Red River Gorge, be sure to have the following:
- A 60m (or longer rope). There are few routes there that you can’t do with a 60m. But, a 70m is the new 60m these days, and can get you up routes even after you cut the ends a couple times.
- At least 12 quickdraws. A few classic lines do require more than that, such as Boltergeist. Be sure to have a few more than 12 if you don’t want to miss out!
- A stick clip. If you attempt to ground-up any sport climb, people will look at you like you’re insane. There’s no good reason to risk safety, and a lot of first bolts were specifically placed higher with the intention that they would be stick-clipped. Bring one with you, and become a stick-clip ninja. (They’re also great for warding off copperhead snakes if they get too close for comfort.)
- Guidebooks…are extremely useful resources for finding and navigating crags. They also tend to have tons of information about things like development history and geology. For example, if you want to learn about awesome figures like Porter Jarrard who put up many famous lines that you might get on during your visit, get a guidebook.
- Passing through for just a weekend to sport climb? The only book you need is Red River Gorge Select by Dario Ventura, Mike Williams, and Ray Ellington.
- Think you’ll be a frequently returning visitor, or sticking around for the long haul? Consider purchasing each of the following:
- Red River Gorge North 2015 by Ray Ellington and Dustin Stephens
- Red River Gorge South 2017 by Ray Ellington and Blake Bowling
- as well as Ellington’s Miller Fork Climbing
- Mountain Project and Red River Climbing apps. Guidebooks are useful, but they do not always have 100% objective, accurate, and up-to-date information. Be sure to download these apps before your arrival to have new route info, grade and quality consensus, and access to comments on-hand.
Pro-Tip: The Red River Climbing app is associated with redriverclimbing.com. It is a super cool website where you can post your sends and see where you stand against other dedicated Red River Gorge climbers.
Taking a Climbing Gap Year
The Red River Gorge has changed a lot of lives.
It is an easy place to take a sabbatical from school, or a break from the rat race to reconnect with yourself, with nature, and with other folks doing the same thing.
It’s also a great segway into the outdoor nomad lifestyle: affordable rent (you can’t beat $3.50 a night), high job availability, and the general low-cost of living are all accessible just a few minutes drive from the crag. As long as you’re willing to live in your tent or vehicle, of course.
Miguel’s Pizza, the Rockhouse, the Zipline, and many other local businesses are often hiring climbers. Consider grabbing a job at any of these establishments and spending more than a few weeks in the place if you fall deeply enough in love with it (as have so many people).
Frequently Asked Questions from New Visitors
Do I need a car to get around in the Red River Gorge?
Yes, unless you plan on staying explicitly at the Bed Rock or Bald Rock campgrounds for the entire duration of your visit.
The climbing areas are spread far apart and none are walking distance from Miguel’s Pizza.
A 4WD vehicle with high-clearance is ideal.
If you do not have 4WD, be sure to ask around for the road conditions on the way to PMRP and Miller Fork before going. Those roads are occasionally re-graveled and grated, but can get pretty nasty.
If the Miller Fork road is in bad shape, you’re out of luck. If the hill going down into PMRP (aka. The “Lode Hill”) is in bad shape, you can park at the top and hike in.
Where are dogs allowed in the red river gorge?
Muir Valley is the only climbing area in the Red River Gorge that prohibits dogs. Natural Bridge State Park also prohibits dogs. However, dogs are allowed on all RRGCC properties and National Forest lands. Just be sure to keep them on a leash, and don’t forget to bring poop baggies.
How should I train for rock climbing in the Red River Gorge?
Climb on overhanging walls and steep boulder problems at the gym. Heck, run laps on them.
Many of the classic sport climbs there are long jug-hauls and pumpy as all get out. Build endurance as best you can before getting there to minimize your transition period.
How to find climbing partners in the red river gorge?
There are two ways to find climbing partners: in-person and online.
Miguel’s Campground is partner central. You might get lucky and find a group with an odd number, or even another solo climber. However, you should also be prepared to not find a partner.
Your best bet is to hang out on the pavilion at breakfast or dinnertime and ask around. (Pro Tip: It helps if you have a sweet treat or beers to share.)
Climbing Partners Mountain Project, aka. Mountain Project’s “Partner Finder” seems to be a semi- reliable source. However, the application covers a large swath of rock climbing locations and only a fraction of climbers are active participants on there.
Your best bet for finding a partner online is to join the Red River Gorge Climbing Facebook group. Posts asking for partners are permitted.
You can also post here at The Wandering Climber’s Facebook Group to find partners The Red or just about anywhere around the world! f
Disclaimer: Always be careful when climbing with someone for the first time. Don’t do it if you do not have enough climbing experience to recognize bad belaying and leading techniques. Also, you should prefer folks who belay with GriGris.
Why is Pocket Wall closed to climbing?
Pocket Wall is located on Natural Bridge State Park property and all forms of climbing are prohibited in the State Park. This is not to be confused with National Forest land, on which it is acceptable.
Pocket Wall is not the only closed crag around. If you see the word “closed” next to a crag in a guidebook, Mountain Project, etc., do not climb there. Roadside’s closure was due to the actions of one individual who broke the rules. Don’t be the person who causes access issues in an area or prolongs any pre-existing closures.
Of the many world-class climbing destinations to choose from, The Red River Gorge of Kentucky should be at the top of your list.
Its Corbin sandstone cliffs will leave you feeling wrecked but endlessly stoked. To climb all of the great routes there would take a lifetime.
This adventurer “mecca of the east” attracts climbers of all levels from all over the globe, including professionals like Sasha Digiulian, Dru Mack, Ashima Shiraishi, Kai Lightner, and Chris Sharma. And you, of course!
For further reading see: “Absolutely everything you need to know to Climb Squamish” and “Rock Climbing City Of Rocks: A Conclusive Guide“
Melissa is a full time van-living outdoor enthusiast hailed from Florida. After deciding to spend her freshman summer of college living out of a tent to work and climb in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, her life changed forever. She found her way to El Potrero Chico, Mexico in the winters, where she fell in love with travel and community. Post-graduation, she drove from Florida to Alaska to experience its world-class backpacking, then worked her way back south to explore climbing spots throughout the western U.S.
Meeting countless amazing people, hearing their stories, and learning the histories and struggles of local areas through minimalist travel, climbing, and hiking has inspired her to share these experiences with others. Her passions include improving intersectional access to the outdoors and responsible environmental stewardship.