There’s a point after the air cools down a bit in the beginning of fall when all I can think about is getting my hands on Kentucky sandstone. It’s this time of year, around October, when the humidity is just right, the air is crisp enough to keep you cool on the wall and cozy in your tent, the maple leaves are starting to change colors, and kindred spirits are pulled magnetically to the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, one of the largest climbing areas in the East.
The Red is dynamic. Situated inconspicuously near the town of Slade, Kentucky (about six hours southeast from Chicago, or eight hours due west from Washington, DC), it offers nearly inexhaustible climbing. With over 1,800 developed routes listed on MountainProject (an online crowdsourced climbing guidebook), two-thirds of which are sport climbs, the Red is a cornucopia of climbing and a global destination for single-pitch enthusiasts of all levels.
Even on a rainy weekend, the Red offers many sheltered crags. On a recent weekend trip to the Gorge, I spent my time at The Infirmary, one of twenty-three crags in Miller Fork Recreational Preserve (a small section of the entire Red River Gorge region). The Infirmary offers classic Red River Gorge climbing—sustained, slightly overhung sandstone littered with perfect holds. The climbs on this wall range from 5.6 to 5.13b, so there’s something for everyone.
My friends and I climbed all day, staying dry while the rain fell just twenty feet behind us. When we were too exhausted to continue, we zipped up our rain gear, hiked the half mile back to the car, and gunned it to Miguel’s Pizza.
Eating, sleeping, perusing:
A trip to the Red would be incomplete without a visit to Miguel’s. More than a pizza shop, Miguel’s is a cultural hub, the kind of place an anthropologist might go to immerse herself in “dirtbag” culture. Just south of Slade along KY-11, Miguel’s is a sprawling establishment where college weekenders converge with veteran climbers and gung-ho dirtbags in the afterhours to trade stories and tips. With a gear shop, two pavilions, a lounge, a basketball court, dishwashing stations, a field full of dirt cheap campsites (climbers only), and some damn good fresh-from-the-oven pizza, Miguel’s is an icon, synonymous with Red River Gorge Climbing.
While Miguel’s Pizza is a great food option, it is not the only in the area. Other restaurants are located nearby like the Red River Rockhouse (on KY-11 south of Miguel’s), Sky Bridge Station (KY-715 and Sky Bridge Rd.), and others. If you’re like me and enjoy doing your own cooking, I’d recommend stocking up on food before leaving for the Red, although you can always grab a snack at Daniel Boone Coffee Shop, Deli, and Trading Post, or head about 15 minutes south from Miguel’s on the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway to the Save-A-Lot (located off the exit for KY-15/Campton) for a more extensive restock.
As for beverages, don’t forget to have a taste of the classic Kentucky soft drink, Ale-8-one (just call it “Ale-8”). Ale-8 is like the lovechild of Sprite and ginger ale, sweet but with a subtle bite. It’s perfect after a long day of wrestling sandstone.
If you’re in the market for something with even more bite, you should also know that Powell County is a “dry” county. While no alcohol can be purchased within county limits, it can still be consumed in private settings such as campsites. Neighboring Wolfe County is conveniently a “wet” county, which means good business for The Beer Trailer, just a couple minutes south from Miguel’s on KY-11 over the county line.
If you choose not to pitch a tent or sling a hammock at Miguel’s, there are some other options. One place to check out is Land of the Arches Campground (LOTA). While it is less of a cultural scene than Miguel’s, LOTA is a great place for larger college groups who may stay up later than the early risers at Miguel’s. For $8 per person per night, LOTA situates you within a 9 minute drive from the Pendergrass-Murray Nature Preserve (known as the PMRP), one of the Red’s major climbing areas.
Feeling fancy? Scattered across the area, there are also cabins available to rent. These are good for large groups, especially if you’re planning to stay for more than a weekend. To help with the prices, you can always pack your entire crew into one cabin.
The other option in the area is Daniel Boone National Forest. Boone’s undeveloped campsites are the cheapest and most isolated in the area, providing more of a backcountry feel.
On my last trip, we opted to stay at a primitive site in Daniel Boone National Forest, paying a total of $5 for a vehicle permit. Our site was situated about half way between two of the Gorge’s many hiking areas. To our south, right near Miguel’s, was Natural Bridge State Resort Park. As the name suggests, the park is home to a fantastic sandstone arch on top of which day hikers are treated to a view of cliffs and rolling hills. To our north was Chimney Top Rock, a similarly short hike out over exposed rock to a spectacular view of the gorge below. Both hikes are great options for rest days, or as I sometimes prefer, quick scenic walks on Sunday mornings before heading back home.
Additional Trip Beta:
Purchasing a Red River Gorge guidebook for either the North or South Gorge is very worthwhile. While the North Gorge is less developed, has longer, more adventurous approaches, and offers a good amount of trad (though still mostly sport), the South provides a much more developed feel. For college outdoors clubs, I would recommend buying guide books to be used as shared resources for members to check out.
As the Red is such an extensive area, it makes it difficult for weekend warriors to decide how best to divide their limited time. Choosing one or two classic climbs to go after for a weekend, getting on those, then filling your time with the other routes nearby, can be a good strategy for picking out crags. Here are a few of my favorite climbs to consider in no particular order:
- To Defy the Laws of Tradition (5.10a), Sport
- Famous for being the first bolted route at the Red
- Low technical crux followed by sustained face climbing
- Crag: Left Flank
- No Place Like Home (5.11c), Sport
- 100 feet of exposed arete climbing
- Crag: Emerald City
- Crack Attack (5.9+), Trad
- Sucker for splitters?
- Crag: Indian Creek
- Monkey in the Middle (5.11a), Sport
- Pumpy, overhung Red River Gorge climbing
- Crag: The Zoo
- Bedtime for Bonzo (5.6), Trad, 2 pitches
- Two short pitches of old-school adventure
- Crag: Fortress Wall
These are just five out of the hundreds of fantastic climbs at the Gorge, which means climbing at the Red can never get old. Each time I’m there, I grow as a climber, picking up new triumphs as well as challenges and future objectives. But it’s not only about the climbing. Returning from a weekend spent at the Red, I feel rejuvenated. The protracted Appalachian pace combined with the acute hyperintensity of climbing all wrapped up in the jovial climbers’ culture can revitalize me even after the most stressful week of midterms and papers. If you’re within driving distance of Slade, I hope to see you down there someday. Let’s talk climbing over some Miguel’s pizza.
Ready to make your own trip down to Red River Gorge? Here’s a few things you’ll need for climbing all day and camping all night:
- Climbing gear
- Camping necessities
- Good To-Go meals
- Layers for the cool fall evenings (Men, Women)
- Stove and cooking supplies
Want your meals to even outshine Miguel’s? Check out these easy but delectable camping recipes: