Summer Backpacking in the Gorge

To say that the Red River Gorge Geological Area is a popular attraction is an understatement. I cannot give accurate annual statistics in regards to visitor usage, but believe me, there are days (weekends and holidays) with long lines at both ends of Nada Tunnel, when trail-head parking overflows, when the Red River itself becomes speckled with multitudes of kayakers and canoeists, and the valleys echo with the triumphant yells of visitors who have reached a scenic overlook. As is most often the case on such days, Gladie Visitor Center is buzzing with activity as my co-workers continue to answer the same questions, help give directions and suggestions to visitors, and answer phone calls from 0900 in the morning to 1730 in the afternoon…more on that below. Some of them also host evening programs at Koomer Ridge Campground and Zilpo Recreation Area (which is up at Cave Run Lake, in the northern part of Cumberland Ranger District). Needless to say, our days-off are earned and well-deserved.

The Red River Gorge has 34 official, designated trails, one of which is the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, which currently spans over 300 miles, connecting the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee. There is also a myriad of user-created, unofficial trails which traverse much of the Gorge and Clifty Wilderness. Every year, numerous visitors become lost on these unmarked routes. Yet because so many people know where they are – or, at least, the more popular ones – and with many routes posted on the internet, these trails are here to stay. Visitors who are new to the Gorge will typically run into this information in the course of their online research, pack their rucksacks (or day-packs) and vehicle, and then head to Gladie Visitor Center and ask at the front desk where these places are, and how to get to them. If the Gladie staff were given a dollar every time they were asked about one user-trail in particular, either in-person or over the phone, they would probably raise a million dollars in a year. I know I have long since lost count.

If we tell you where these user-routes are, it becomes a liability for the Forest Service because we don’t manage or maintain those trails – hence the reason why we do not give that information to visitors. And if we mapped them out, it would look like a confusing tangle of spaghetti. If you want to travel these routes, know that you do so at YOUR OWN RISK.

That said, if you are looking for solitude, to be able to watch the sunset and greet the sunrise without being near a crowd of onlookers or hearing the echoes of gleeful shouts, many of these unofficial trails are out of the question…especially on weekends and holidays. Planning a pleasurable, quiescent backpacking trip in a place such as the Gorge requires a combination of luck, reliable information/intel, and a willingness to travel. Speaking of reliable information, Gladie Visitor Center is currently open seven days a week from 0900 to 1730. There, you can purchase a camping pass, acquire our free trail map, or, if you so choose, a detailed topographic map (cost is $11), and ask questions to help plan your outing.

Last Monday, some co-workers and myself found the time to make an overnight trip, and for our destination, we chose a moderately popular ridge-top that can be accessed by a user-trail. Readers who have been following me for awhile know how much I love my solitude. As it is, we encountered 17 people on the way, which wasn’t surprising nor discouraging. Thankfully, our chosen site was secluded enough, though I ventured farther out onto the finger of the ridge to set-up for the night. The weather promised to be warm and sunny, but not too hot, with clear skies at night…and so it turned out.

All but one of us brought hammocks, and with such fair weather, tarps weren’t necessary. My chosen hammock was a Grand Trunk Ultralight in forest green, a gift from a relative. It blends in very well. With camp established, I headed back to spend the evening with friends at their site, about 1/4 mile back on the main part of the ridge. I cooked a filling meal of lentil soup over my lightweight Etekcity stove, enjoying the camaraderie until well into the night. Before returning to my hammock, I left my food suspended in their bear bag (yes, we do have black bears in the hills of eastern Kentucky), with a promise to rouse them early so that we could watch the sunrise together.

The night was calm, cool, and tranquil, the black velvet sky speckled with hundreds of stars, glittering like diamonds. I awoke in the rosy light of early dawn, the sun not yet cresting the horizon. I ran back to the main camp, full of excitement and joy, so that they could see for themselves….and this is what we saw:


And to the north….

I haven’t seen a sunrise so beautiful in years, and to spend it in the company of friends was truly special. After awhile, they returned to their site, leaving me to hail the Sun and thank the Earth for this experience. Eventually, I packed up, and headed out with our group back to the trail-head. It was only a 6 mile hike out and back, but I think we all needed a break from the hustle-and-bustle at work.

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