Trip Log for 17 Miles in The Red River Gorge

An overlook along the Rough Trail in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

This past Saturday (April 4, 2015) I did a 17-mile hike through the heart of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. This trip was originally meant to be a 2-day adventure, but that’s not quite how things worked out. The trip presented its own set of challenges, but at the end of the day, it was a great time. This post will outline the 17-mile adventure.

A planned loop of Rough Trail in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
The planned route.

The day was to start at 5 a.m. with the approximately two-hour drive from my house to The Gorge. From here I would park in the nearest parking area to the trailhead.

The route for this trip was quite simple, making use of portions of Rough Trail (FS #221), Koomer Ridge Trail (FS #220), Buck Trail (FS #226), Pinch-Em-Tight Trail (FS #223), and Gray’s Arch Trail (FS #205). It is also worth quickly mentioning that I highly recommend taking the small detour to the base of Gray’s Arch. Gray’s Arch Trail (FS #205) doesn’t actually take you to the base of the arch. After you descend the last set of steps on Gray’s Arch Trail and right before you reach the intersection with Rough trail you will see a small, unnamed trail leading up towards the arch. If you take this short detour you can climb up to the base of the arch. I personally don’t think this is any place to try to cut out some miles!

The original plan was to have a laid back hike and camp somewhere between the beginning of Koomer Ridge Trail (FS #220) and the end of Buck Trail (FS #226). This would leave a fairly short hike back to the parking area on Sunday, which would leave me more than enough time to make the two-hour drive back home and still have time to get ready for work on Monday morning. Somewhere along the way, however, I got a little carried away with the hiking.

Before I knew it I only had about three or four miles left in my hike! I would have set up camp but it was still quite early in the day and I didn’t feel like having quite that much downtime. On top of this I was not in a good area to camp (at this time I was up on a ridge and low on water). This left me in the position of backtracking about a mile to set up camp. In the end, I decided that it would be less effort to just hike the last few miles and make the trip a long day hike instead of an overnight. If only I had known this was the plan before I toted around all of that gear!

Challenges Along the Way

High water level in the Red River Gorge.
The water level was much higher than anticipated.

As I’ve already mentioned, things didn’t exactly go as planned as far as camping, but there were more challenges than just this. Most of these were the usual challenges you would expect, uphill, downhill, etc. There was one greater challenge, however. You see, for a few days before the trip the area received a lot, and I mean A LOT, of rain. This caused a considerable amount of flooding in the Red River and surrounding streams (the graph to the left shows the amount of water discharged on average).

During my drive down the East Mountain Parkway to begin my trip I was extremely concerned that my trip would not work out at all. The Red River had flooded many of the farms in the area and the water was not far from coming up over the bridges. I thought for sure this would make parts of my planned route nearly impassible. Luckily, this was not the case.

The streams were definitely elevated, but they were nowhere near being impassible. It did make for an extremely wet trip, however. Also, parts of Rough Trail actually looked more like a stream than a trail. The vast majority of the hike was done with sopping wet boots and socks.

The one upside of this, however, was that there was no problem at all resupplying on water!

The Trip

Despite the challenges caused by the previous days’ deluge, the trip was a great deal of fun. I arrived at the parking area by about 7:30 a.m. and was on the trail around 8:00 a.m. The loop starts off with some nice, even terrain featuring several stream crossings (though all the streams on this stretch have bridges over them). After about thirteen or so crossings the trail begins to gain some elevation as you climb to the top of a ridge. Along the way, you will encounter a few outcroppings that will give you a decent view of the terrain.

An overlook along the Rough Trail in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
An example of the scenery from this hike.
Steep elevation on the Rough Trail in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Some areas require going up some steep elevation.

Once you’re up on the ridge things become fairly uneventful until you reach Gray’s Arch Trail (FS #205). From here you will be able to get a nice overlook of Gray’s Arch. I took the short detour up the Gray’s Arch side trail and spent around an hour just hanging out at the arch. The great part about getting there early is that you will rarely get the area to yourself any other time since it is one of the most popular destinations in The Gorge. Next to Gray’s Arch you will notice an obvious waterfall, but if you venture to the backside you will see another waterfall off in the distance. At the time of my trip, however, you could not get too close to this waterfall as they had a fence up to protect some endangered species’ habitats.

I backtracked up the Gray’s Arch side trail and continued to follow Rough Trail. It’s shortly after this point that you will start to see where Rough Trail gets its name. You start off by crossing a creek. I can say from experience that this is usually a pretty easy crossing, but on this particular day, it was about halfway up my calf due to all the flooding in the area. It was still a pretty trivial crossing, however. From here the trail will start to gain a lot of elevation as it climbs up to the top of another ridge.

You will notice that the area along the top of this ridge is much more sparsely populated with trees and other fauna. This is the result of forest fires that tore through this area several years ago. You will reach several places with some decent views, but I don’t think you would get such good views if it wasn’t for the fact that so many trees were wiped out in the area as a result of the fires. You will notice along other portions of the ridge that the trees make it near impossible to get a decent view.

After hiking for a bit along the ridge you will once again start to lose elevation. It is through this stretch where you will encounter the worst of the stream crossings. I can’t say how these streams are when there isn’t any flooding (this was my first time in this particular area), but I can say that on the day of my hike they were up rather high. To make matters worse parts of the trail throughout this section resembled fast-flowing streams more than they did a trail. I would have to say that this was mostly a result of all the flooding, but I would have to think that this area would always be pretty wet.

After slogging through wet and muddy trails and doing a few stream crossings I stumbled upon a nice area to have some lunch. I broke out the MSR stove and prepared a Mountain House spaghetti with a meat sauce meal. I have to say that the extra calories were greatly appreciated for the coming parts of the trail.

Once you reach Koomer Ridge Trail (FS #220) and Buck Trail (FS #226) you will be in for a bunch of ups and downs (literally). The rough trail to Koomer Ridge trail is all directly up the hill and is a pretty decent climb. Don’t think that you will be rewarded for this climb, though, as the views from the top all obstructed by trees. Besides, you will start to go right back down to do a few more stream crossings and to do one more grueling climb back to the top of yet another ridge. The good news is that once you get past this you will have reached Pinch-Em-Tight Trail (FS #223).

From here you will be welcomed by a nice change of pace… some nice, flat terrain! Pinch-Em-Tight will take you all the way back to Gray’s Arch Trail, which in turn will take you back to Tunnel Ridge Road (the gravel road that leads to the parking area for Gray’s Arch). All you have to do is backtrack up Tunnel Ridge road to the Gray’s Arch parking area and continue to follow the Gray’s Arch trail back to the first sections of Rough Trail that we did earlier. At this point, it’s just a matter of backtracking up Rough Trail back to the parking area.

 Final Thoughts on this Trip

I have two differing opinions about this loop. From a purely photographic standpoint, I didn’t feel that the trail was anything all that special. There are far better photo opportunities elsewhere in The Gorge (like at Auxier Ridge). From a hiking standpoint, however, I thought the trail was great. This loop will give you a little taste of everything that the Gorge has to offer. You will go from the low lying areas that are cut apart by streams up to the top of ridges where you can get some great views.

All in all, I think that if you’re looking for a challenging hike that will expose you to a few of the different extremes found in The Gorge then this hike is for you. Just don’t do it expecting to find the most photographic areas in the park.

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