Red River Gorge: Kentucky Backpacking

This past labor day weekend, I decided to take a little jaunt down to Kentucky to do some backpacking. Red River Gorge is located in the Daniel Boone National forest and has some great hiking trails, stone arches, and natural rock climbing sites.

There are several options for “out and back” style backpacking trips. However, I was looking to do a loop hike and this required combining multiple different trails into a continuous loop back to my car.

After doing some research, I realized the Red River Gorge backpacking loops require some creative trail combinations. I managed to craft together a 12 mile loop through the central part of the park. My plan was to sleep on an unmarked viewpoint located off an unmarked spur trail. The camping spot is roughly 7-8 miles into the loop and the area is called Hanson’s Point.

Red River Backpacking Loop 2018
12 Mile Loop through Red River Gorge

To begin the loop; I parked at the Koomer’s Ridge backing area. There is also a campground in this location if you want to stay here the night before. I believe they charge about $25.00 per site. They looked very nice and perfect for car camping!

After parking; I began hiking up the Koomer Ridge trail heading north. There is a side trail to the “Hidden Arch” that is well marked. Its not exactly worth it, but it adds an extra half mile to your day, so decide if you want/need the added portion. Splitting off from Koomers Ridge to Hidden Arch on the first day will slightly limit the amount of repeat trail on the second day.

After this side trail, I continued until I reached the intersection with the Buck Trail. The offshoot onto Buck is well marked and should be 1 mile from the parking. This area begins to rise in elevation after dropping quickly to a small river. Its a very pretty section of this loop and I encourage you to enjoy.

After a fair amount of uphill and ridge line hiking, you will reach the Gray’s Arch parking area. The trail crosses this section and you can easily tell where to get to the Arch trail. Also, this location has some limited facilities and pit toilets. You should be roughly 3 miles into your hike now.

Underneath Gray’s Arch

The Gray’s Arch trail is popular and therefore this was the most crowded area of my hike. The arch is roughly .5 miles from the Gray’s Arch parking area. There are several stone overhangs that are cool to look at on the way.  A small offshoot trail will get you underneath the Arch itself. Leave your pack when the trail splits and head downhill and then uphill to get underneath the archway itself. Definitely take this trail and enjoy some rock scrambling and picture taking in this location.

After viewing the arch you will continue on the trail until you reach the Rough Trail and head southeast. The Rough Trail is very beautiful and involves several ups and downs. This area  isn’t as well traveled and therefore you should have seclusion. There is a variety of stone overhangs, rock ledges, and great natural areas. You will cross two small streams. The second one is named Rush Branch creek and this puts you less than a mile from the offshoot to Hanson’s Point.

Getting to Hanson’s Point is not difficult. The trail is unmarked and has no signs; however, it is an obvious offshoot from the main trail. The spur trail narrows quickly and it is obviously well traveled but also not maintained. There are several sections where you need to cross downed trees or squeeze through tight pathways. After walking for a half mile, you will cross several large flat camping areas. These had many fellow backpackers; about 20 other people were camping near Hanson’s Point. This might have been higher than normal because there was a large youth group. We managed to get the closest (albeit smallest) camping spot to the actual viewpoint. This location equated to many people passing by our tent to view the sunset/sunrise….but it was totally worth the views!

RedRiver Hansons Luke 2018.jpg
The top of Hanson’s point during the day
RedRiver Sunset Hansons Luke
Sunset view Hanson’s Point

Make sure to see both the sunrise and sunset from the flat rock outcropping on the point. The fog fills the valley and creates the feeling that you are actually sitting on top of clouds. It’s breathtaking. Also, if you look across the valley you will see other hikers on Chimney Top Rock; enjoy waiving and hollering at your fellow distant hikers.

Red River Hansons Sunrise 2018
Sunrise on top of the clouds from Hanson’s Point

In the morning, make your way down the spur trail and return to the Rough Trail. Turn the opposite direction from where you came yesterday and continue on the backpacking loop route.

After a couple of miles, the rough trail combines with the Sheltowee. Keep plugging along until the Koomer Ridge Trail juts off southward. Follow this all the way back to the parking area. There is a steep elevation gain on day two but mostly the trail is easy and pretty. It crosses a couple of streams and gives adequate areas to resupply water.

If you are here to only backpack a single night….congratulations you have finished this 12 mile backpacking loop in Red River Gorge!

If you would like to camp a second night, you have now completed your loop and need to choose a different camping area. We took a quick drive down to the Swift Camp Creek trail’s southern terminus off the Rock Bridge loop. This is a popular out and back backpacking trail and includes several good back country camping spots along the river. After viewing the Rock Bridge and nearby waterfall on the way to Swift Camp’s trail-head; continue North along the river. Understanding that we had already hiked 6 miles this morning, I began searching for a site about 2 miles down Swift Camp.

This section of the trail is pretty high off the river and its hard to get down to a flat spot for camping by the river. We came upon a small waterfall surrounded by a flat section. There is no way to walk down to this spot and it required about 10 ft of rock climbing. I would not recommend this for anyone uncomfortable with climbing…especially with a 40 pound pack on your back. The only way this was possible was with a partner to pass the backpacks up/down.

Red River Waterfall shower 2018
Showering underneath a VERY cold waterfall off Swift Creek Camp trail

Sleeping to the sound of the small waterfall and rippling river was beautiful. This spot was the exact opposite from the high viewpoint offered from the night before. I feel as if I got both extremes Red River Gorge has to offer.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this hike. I am happy to provide more route details or trail information.

Written by:

Luke Langhals

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