Climbing at the Red River Gorge

Climbing Red River Gorge

Climbing at the Red River Gorge 

The Red River Gorge, situated in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, holds a long history as a prime climbing spot. It holds great significance in the sport of outdoor rock climbing, and has become a hot-spot for climbers from all over the world. A few reasons you might want to go explore this area are for the striking nature (such as natural sandstone arches) and for the vast amount of climbing routes (covering 29,000 acres). This area is unique in that there are many steep, juggy walls, as well as slab climbing. There are diverse grades, ranging from 5.4-5.14d, catering to all levels of climbers. 

History of the Red River Gorge

It all started back in the 1960s when climbers from the Midwest were drawn to its rugged sandstone cliffs. Initially, climbers stuck to traditional (trad) climbing, forging new routes over the years that are now considered classics. By the 1980s and 1990s, the introduction of bolted routes revolutionized the sport, making (lead) climbing more accessible. Fast forward to the 2000s, and the Red River Gorge had solidified its status as one of the top climbing destinations in the U.S., celebrated for its wide variety of routes and stunning scenery.

The Red River Gorge remains a hotspot for climbers of all skill levels, offering a multitude of routes to suit different preferences. Its appeal is further bolstered by hosting numerous climbing events and other unique experiences, firmly establishing its reputation as a premier global climbing destination. Before embarking on your journey to "The Red," there are several essential factors to consider.

Red River Gorge Climbing

Planning and Preparation

We always recommend doing your research before planning a trip, especially one involving climbing. 

Researching climbing routes

There are a number of different ways to research the routes in a certain climbing area. The most accessible way is probably downloading the “Mountain Project” app. This app gives you directions, tips, and advice for certain routes and areas that you are looking to visit. I also like this app because you can map out which routes you can get to, even without the internet. 

Another way to research routes would be through climbing literature such as the ones featured on the Red River Gorge’s official website

The third, and probably best way to get to know the area would be to go with a group of friends, or at least get their advice on where to climb. During the summer months, groups from On The Rocks will go to the Red together, ensuring a more fun and safer climbing experience. 

If it’s your first time down, it’s always better to consider going with a guide. They will show you the ropes and specifics of the terrain. A popular guiding service in the Red is the Bluegrass Climbing School.

Checking weather conditions

Always check the weather before making the trip down to the Red. While climbing in more extreme weather is technically possible, it is more conducive for injuries. Look out for rain, or overly cold or hot conditions. Typical climbing months are in the spring and fall, with the prime month for climbing usually being in October. 

Obtaining necessary permits

Before deciding where to stay, make sure you double check the necessary requirements. Many people choose to stay at Miguel’s campsite. Miguel’s is a legendary pizza shop turned climbers retreat and gear shop. For only $3.50/night, you can set up a tent there, or park your van. This is a great spot to grab a slice of delicious pizza after climbing all day, and get any gear that you might have forgotten at home, as well as meet other climbers. 

Another option would be to try backcountry camping in the Daniel Boone National Forest. You can get a camping permit for only a couple dollars at almost any gas station in the area, and camp anywhere in the designated locations. My personal favorite spot is in Indian Creek. Located alongside a beautiful, peaceful creek, you can reconnect to nature in your own private campsite. There aren’t any amenities, but the nearest store is only about 10-15 minutes away. 

There are also several other campsites and lodges where you can stay at a fair price.

Camping at Red River Gorge

Safety & Ethical Measures and On-Site Logistics

Outdoor safety

Climbing outdoors can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. However, it’s important to be prepared in every sense. Not only should you make sure to do your research, you also have to be aware of the differences in climbing indoors versus outdoors. We recommend taking our Gym-to-Crag class to help you prepare. There is a lot more involved in outdoor climbing than “simply” lead climbing. Moreover, it’s essential to know and practice proper techniques. 

Gear and Equipment

-Climbing essentials & rope management (harness, shoes, helmet, quickdraws, etc.)

When climbing, you’ll want to take the proper gear with you. Not only will you need all the indoor essentials, like a harness, climbing shoes, and a rope, but you’ll also need a few pieces of specialized gear for outdoor climbing such as a helmet and quickdraws.

-Safety equipment (first aid kit, headlamp, etc.)

Safety first- avoid the worst! Climbing is an inherently risky sport- carrying gear such as a first aid kit, headlamps, or instant ice packs can really come in handy. 

Respecting environmental and local regulations

Make sure you check the regulations specific to that area before planning your next trip. Some regions have different rules. Check out this website to see camping and climbing regulations specific to Red River Gorge. In general, it is widely encouraged that climbers leave no trace after leaving a site. 

Navigating approach trails

Navigating trails for inexperienced hikers and climbers can be tricky. One time, I got so lost that it took me over an hour just to get back to right where I started, achieving no climbing, and having scratches all over. It could have ended way worse, and there are horror stories all over the internet about hikers getting lost. Be aware of your surroundings, carry a map, use a GPS if possible, and plan ahead. While these all seem obvious, it can be easy to forget a step in the excitement. Just do your best, go with someone experienced if possible, and trust your instincts. 

Emergency procedures and communication plans

It’s hard to know exactly what to expect when you’re in a new place and it’s important to be prepared for an emergency. Make sure you do your research about the area before traveling, always inform friends and/or family of your travel plans, and pack emergency supplies. 

Other Activities in the Red Include

Check out websites like Red River Gorge Tourism or the Red River Gorge official website to see more things to do!

Red River Gorge is a place full of rich history and exhilarating experiences. Beyond its renowned climbing routes, it offers a captivating blend of natural wonders, quaint shops, and thrilling adventures. Whether scaling cliffs or simply immersing in its beautiful nature, there's something for everyone in the Red River Gorge.

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