Backpacking Across The Gorge

Ever since I started working here in the Red River Gorge Geological Area back in early March, I longed to set aside time for some backpacking in the area. I’ve been focused on my job for much of the year, working as much as 55 hours a week during the busy months when visitor use is high…but, on the whole, I enjoyed it. This part of the Daniel Boone National Forest receives an impressive number of visitors every year, and it is, without a doubt, among the most popular destinations (for day-hiking and camping) east of the Mississippi. As such, the Gorge is also subject to a lot of recreational impact annually…much more than most people realize.

I have seen too much abuse of the Resource here, and sometimes I wonder how the forest ecosystem manages to maintain an overall stable level of health. Then I am reminded of why I chose this career; to dedicate my life to the conservation and preservation of our natural resources, and to keep our wild lands wild. That means making a lot of visitor contact in an attempt to educate them about the Resource that is the Red River Gorge and Clifty Wilderness.

Believe me, it is not easy to get your point across to some people who think that the place is there for themselves to do with however they please, even if it blatantly violates our rules and regulations. It also isn’t easy lugging around 35 lbs of water, as well as the weight of your day-pack, hiking up to 9 miles to put out other people’s campfires that they themselves were too careless to extinguish properly (if at all), during fire season nonetheless. And it certainly isn’t easy dragging 35 lbs of trash, as well as the weight of your day-pack, a mile and a half – with over 400 ft of elevation gain within the first half mile – back to your truck, so that you can dispose of it properly because some people just don’t care. It definitely isn’t easy being a FPO (Forest Protection Officer) or a LEO (Law Enforcement Officer)…they have to deal all too often with the bad, and face the ugly. Each one of them has my most sincere respect for the work they do and are committed to doing.

Frequently I get frustrated with this bad side of humanity and I sometimes forget to stop and smell the roses. Then I see a home-school group of children being led on a Nature-walk, a troop of scouts learning outdoor ethics from their leaders, or a group of bird-watchers searching the landscape for rare avians, and I am once again reminded of why I chose this career. And I smile.

Backpacking is one of my favourite ways of “unwinding”. It thrusts you out of the bubble of society and immerses you in the natural forces of continual transformation; the same forces that bind us to every living creature on Earth. Every sound, every movement in the ecosystem, no matter how small, is the music of a never-ending orchestra, proving that each day is another song of life in Nature. This is my way of disconnecting…to reconnect to what really matters.

~ Rough and Swift ~

After receiving permission from my supervisor and the Red River Gorge Manager, I planned for a two-day hike across the Gorge and the Clifty Wilderness. I started my trek at Martin’s Fork trail-head, off of KY-77, at exactly 1000 on Saturday morning, the 2nd of December. Martin’s Fork is named for the creek which begins just below Tunnel Ridge Rd, flowing northward before joining Grey’s Branch by KY-77. This is the start of Rough Trail, which is the longest Forest Service trail in the both the Clifty and the Gorge at 8.4 miles, excluding the section of Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

Rough Trail meanders around Martin’s Fork for the 3/4 mile or so. There are several creek crossings, made easier by bridges constructed and maintained by the Red River Gorge Trail Crew, like this one below.


I made my way up to the junction of Gray’s Arch Trail before heading north and down to Gray’s Arch itself. It was in the area that I ran into my supervisor and another co-worker.


Gray’s Arch is one of our largest (and most popular) arches, aside from Sky Bridge. As such, it receives plentiful traffic from visitors, most of whom don’t really want to go back up the 88 stairs they came down, to the often crowded trail-head on Tunnel Ridge Rd, 1.1 miles away. I forget how many times I’ve been by visitors asked if there was an “easier way around”. Well… there is a loop you can make by taking Rough Trail to Rush Ridge Trail, and then following about 1/8 mile of Sheltowee Trace before it crosses Tunnel Ridge Rd, approximately 150 yards from the Gray’s Arch trail-head parking lot. What these people really don’t want to hear is that this loop is about 4 miles, with 90 stairs and over 400 ft of elevation gain up from King Branch, a little over a half-mile past Gray’s Arch. Most of them cannot suppress a groan (or two :P) before climbing back up the 88 stairs.

My co-workers stopped for a snack break at King Branch, whilst I continued on, steamrolling up and over Rush Ridge, down to Rush Branch, and then up Pinch-’em-Tight Ridge. About 200 yards before the junction with Sheltowee, there is an exceedingly popular user-created, unofficial trail, which traverses a mile further onto Pinch-’em-Tight Ridge. Out of all the user-trails we have (that I know of), I like this one the most because it offers plentiful legal places for people to camp. Our regulations require that visitors camp 300 ft or more away from a designated, Forest Service trail or road, 100 ft away from the base of any cliff or rock-shelter, and 600 ft or more from Gray’s Arch. The main reason for this user-trail’s popularity, aside from great camping spots, is because of the scenic overlooks. During the peak of the busy seasons (spring and autumn), there can be upwards of 70 campers on the ridge. The place has suffered from wildfires in the past, caused by neglectful visitors abandoning their campfires. Pitch and Virginia Pines have vigorously re-sprouted in a thick, cloistering manner all across the burned areas of the ridge.

I threaded my way under the trees, passing 5 campers before reaching the rocky overlook for a lunch-break. Due to the cooler temperatures, with nighttime lows reaching 30 F/-1 C, I took my four season fuel blend. Well,… isobutane-propane mix isn’t what I would call “four season”, but I guess it depends on where in the country you live or intend on backpacking. I haven’t tested it yet, but I doubt the mix would function efficiently below 20 F.


On my way out there, I passed an area where a camper fell 230 ft to his death, and his friend almost died trying to find him. This incident occurred back on the 10th of October. I was contacted early in the morning of that day by a friend and former co-worker who is also a member of Powell County SAR, asking if Chimney Top Creek was flowing high. I didn’t get the message until much later, by which point the body was recovered. SAR ended up having a team chainsaw all the fallen trees from the user-trail so that they could take out the body easier.

What freaked me out most, and still does every time I go out there, is that the man camped literally 6 ft away from I camped back on the last night of July. He had consumed a lot of alcohol and set-up his camp at the very edge of the cliff. His demise is the longest recorded fall in the Gorge. More information about this incident can be found on WKYT. The irony of all this, as I was munching away, was that Wolfe County SAR was making their monthly training exercise across the valley.

At 1330, I was back on the main trail, and turned onto Sheltowee Trace at the junction. For around a mile and a half, Sheltowee and Rough Trail merge and become the same; so in that section, Rough Trail is Sheltowee, and Sheltowee is Rough (or is Sheltowee rough?)…did I lose you? Essentially this section of Rough Trail and Sheltowee dips down from Pinch-’em-Tight Ridge and into the wide watershed of Chimney Top Creek. I passed three more visitors on the way.

Chimney Top Creek is a significant tributary to the Red River, extending about 4 miles long, and branching into the heart of the Gorge.


After crossing the creek twice, the trail splits at a junction, with Sheltowee heading north (following the flow of Chimney Top Creek), and Rough Trail continuing west. Koomer Ridge Trail branches in from the south, approximately 1/8 mile after the junction.

This is the same Eastern White Pine I posed with for a photo back in April. I’m a real tree-hugger :).


The climb up to Chimney Top Rd was rather steep as I gained 460 ft in elevation over the course of half a mile. That will definitely get the blood pumping. At the top, the trail leveled out, passing through the trail-head parking lot before crossing Chimney Top Rd, and descending some 480 ft down to Parched Corn Creek.


The creek is so named because it was a place where early pioneers and explorers parched their corn. We used to have a wonderful interpretive sign describing the creek’s history, but sadly it became the target of vandals seeking crude amusement. Back on the 19th of October, myself and several other people with the US Fish and Wildlife Service helped stock the creek with native Brook Trout.

After Parched Corn Creek, there’s only another half mile to the end (or beginning) or Rough Trail. I reached the trail-head parking lot off of KY-715 at 16:40, and already the sun was low in the sky. This parking lot is also the trail-head for Swift Camp Creek Trail, which starts on the other side of the road.


I had saved the best for last. Rough Trail may be the longest of our system trails (not counting the Sheltowee), but Swift Camp Creek is, in my opinion, the most rugged and the most beautiful trail there is here. It spans 7.8 miles from KY-715 to Rock Bridge Trail, near Chestnut Log Branch. For 7 of those miles, you are following a water source…either Son’s Branch (in the norther part), or Swift Camp Creek itself.



I love this trail. I love the ruggedness from jumbled rocks, the short and abrupt ups-and-downs as the path snakes through the narrow valley much like the creek. It presents an enjoyable challenge for me. Aside from the assortment of rocks, where any are lacking, the trail is constantly wet and often muddy…not like the chunky peanut butter and nutella of Osborne Bend Trail that tries to suck your boots off, but a squishier, sometimes sandy mud. There are some short sections (mostly in the southern part) that lack mud or rocks, and the tread becomes enticingly deceptive…it charms you with rolling slopes or flat, easy-walking, before sending you into the mud or into the flow of water from four tributaries that feed into Swift Camp Creek.


This steep, narrow valley in the Clifty Wilderness retains moisture year-round because of these waterways, as well as its topography – many areas only receive a few hours (if that) of sunlight each day. It is the perfect habitat for a plethora of flora, such as Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Canada Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), Big-leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), and even rare species like Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum). Over 750 angiosperms dwell in this Wilderness. The hemlocks and pines reach enormous sizes, towering over everything else at heights over 100 ft, and providing more shade to an already sheltered watershed.

I didn’t hike that far into the Clifty Wilderness before setting up camp for the night. I found an ideal stealth spot around 250 paces off the designated trail, on the finger of a ridge facing south into Son’s Branch. My shelter was just a simple hammock, my Grand Trunk Ultralight in forest green. I wasn’t worried about rain due to the forecast of clear skies.

I hung my bear-bag 100 yards downwind from camp. Food storage is required here in this part of the Daniel Boone N.F., and that includes Indian Creek. This is for not only your safety, but for the safety of the bears. Food-conditioned bears are problem bears…when they learn to associate people with food, due to irresponsible campers who don’t store their food properly (or even attempt feeding bears), they will lose their natural fear of humans and begin approaching other people in the hopes of receiving an easy meal.

Dinner consisted of more instant spuds, with some choice bush tea…I had saved some Fraser Fir needles from my trip on the AT back in early November. I am so glad I did, because that fragrance and taste is unbeatable if you ask me. No other wild tea that I have tried is as aromatic or flavourful, and I have tried and experimented with many.


The night was bright with the glow of an almost full moon, and sometime around 2215, I was startled from a half-sleep by the most bizarre coyote howl I’ve heard. I am used to hearing coyotes at night, and unlike a lot of people, I have no irrational fear of them. However, these particular vocals had me wondering, “What on Earth???”, because at first the call sounded much like the wail of a loon. It was at the same rolling pitch for about a second before transitioning into a howl. From what I could determine, this coyote was likely 1/8 mile away, somewhere in the drainage of Son’s Branch. A few minutes later, I heard a chorus of ‘yotes having a party down by Swift Camp Creek. I’m not sure what all the excitement was about, unless they were overjoyed about the upcoming super moon on the following night.

I awoke again in the early hours before dawn feeling somewhat cool. The temperatures were supposed to drop right around the freezing mark, and I was inside my beloved Snugpak Sleeper Lite mummy, which is well-suited for this temperature range (I’ve tested its limits twice before – once at 18 F/- 8 C, and again at -10 F/-23 C). The culprit turned out to be cold spots created by my arms extending over the insulation of my sleeping pad. I tend to move around quite a bit when I snooze, so I put on my uniform winter jacket before plunging back into dream-land.

I awoke later in the morning than I expected, by which point the sun had risen over the horizon. After breakfast, I packed up and started back on Swift Camp Creek Trail at 1110. I stopped after 1/4 mile to filter some water from Son’s Branch. That water was bloody COLD. Soon after, I descended further down to the rushing water of Swift Camp Creek. I immediately noticed that the temperature dropped several degrees (10 F lower in some places), and many hollows remained dark, or received only splintered sunlight from a dense canopy of hemlock and pine.

I was able to maintain my steady “cruising” pace of 3 mph for much of the hike along Swift Camp Creek, despite the mud, rocks, and rolling climbs. Along the way I stopped a few times for a minute or two in an attempt to improve the drainage in some areas by shifting fallen logs around. After trekking in the shadow of towering cliffs, I crossed Wildcat Branch, and soon reached the junction of Wildcat Trail, where I stopped for a brief water and munchy-brunchy-lunchy break. Despite the cool, 50 F/10 C temperatures in the valley, I often got quite toasty wearing my just my base-layers (long-sleeve uniform shirt and trousers).

I pressed-on, heading further south, when I reached the crossing of Dog Fork a little more than 1 1/4 miles past Wildcat. Dog Fork extends over 2 miles into the Clifty, almost reaching KY-715 to the west. Ruffits Branch feeds into the creek about a mile upstream.


Generally speaking, the further south you travel along Swift Camp Creek Trail, the greater your chances of seeing other people around. This is because of the immense popularity of Rock Bridge Recreation Area (especially during the summer), which is adjacent to the Clifty Wilderness.

I passed and chatted with ten day-hikers before reaching the junction with Rock Bridge Trail. Instead of going the longer, more scenic way up to the trail-head parking lot (which takes you past Rock Bridge itself and Creation Falls), I opted to tackle the small, half mile climb, which also leads to the parking lot. My hike ended at exactly 1500. My supervisor picked me up shortly afterwards and dropped me off at Martin’s Fork back to my truck. By my calculations, I trekked a total of 18.7 miles: 10.9 the first day, and 7.8 on the second…from the upper-left corner of the topo map photo, to the bottom-right.


I’m brewing up a plan for another trip sometime (hopefully) soon…probably a hike on the Sheltowee Trace N.R.T., from Corner Ridge trail-head at the north end of the Clifty Wilderness to Whittleton Campground in the nearby Natural Bridge State Park.

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