Updated: Aug 29, 2022
What does it mean to be a naturalist? That’s a normal question to ponder when you’re swarmed by two dozen fish who are biting at your bare feet while scanning the dense tree line for Bigfoot. Red River Gorge, in the heart of Eastern Kentucky in the American South, is an outdoor mecca for naturalists and adventure travelers of all kinds. Rock climbers, hikers, kayakers or in our case…glampers flock to this region for some much-needed Mother Nature and seclusion. There are more than a hundred natural sandstone arches, thousands of acres of lush green forests and estuaries, and hidden waterfalls you can hike to on a whim.
But the region’s most famous resident, aside from the blue-ribbon thoroughbreds, lives deep in the hollows near the Daniel Boone National Forest and is one of history’s most elusive and mythical creatures; ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about Bigfoot. But there’s so much more than folklores and legends in this part of the Bluegrass State, it’s also a great place to unplug, decompress and get back to oneself. As a couple of west coasters, we had no idea that traveling to Kentucky would be this pretty and peaceful, so here’s a reminder to take every chance you get to go out and explore. We all have a limited number of days left to let our curiosities guide us, and who knows what wondrous surprises lay ahead if we just choose an unfamiliar destination and go. Here are 10 things to do in Red River Gorge including hiking to a secret waterfall.
1. Hike to Creation Falls, a secret waterfall & swimming hole
Hiking is probably the No. 1 thing to do in Red River Gorge, and there are only a few places in the U.S. where you can find natural waterfalls that are not completely overrun with people all vying for the same photo. This is one of them. The hike to Creation Falls via the Rock Bridge Trail is a relatively easy 1.5 mile (2.25 km) out-and-back trail that takes you down a canopy-covered winding dirt path, crossing through mossy rock formations and shelters until you reach the waterfall and swimming hole. The crisp, cold waters of the Rockbridge Fork and Swift Camp Creek intersection make for an invigorating dip, in a place that feels like the best kept secret in the entire state. The day we went, it was drizzling and there were only a few people on the trail and at the waterfall.
You’ll be tempted to stay at the waterfall, and you should, at least for a while to really soak in Mother Nature at her finest. It feels a little like being in a crater, with a sandy beach and towering trees surrounding you on three sides. The water is shallow, making it easy to wade in up to your thighs, climb the primitive wooden ladder and slip down the natural slide that has been smoothed by the rushing waters. But don’t just stay at the waterfall. If you follow the creek around the bend, you’ll discover one of the beautiful sandstone arches that makes this region famous. The waters are full of swarming fish who will nibble at your feet if you stand still long enough. Creation Falls truly feels like a gift from our planet. Just remember, what goes down, must come up. The hike back out is all uphill and much more strenuous than the way down, especially if you’ve burnt off quite a bit of energy splashing around in the falls. Keep this in mind if you’re hiking with small kids, they can pretty easily get down, but they may be too tired to get back up the trail without help.
2. Take a chairlift to see a natural sandstone bridge
Here’s a fun fact, the only place with more natural bridges than Red River Gorge is the Arches National Park in Utah. According to Zoe Strecker, author of “Off the Beaten Path: Kentucky, A Guide to Unique Places,” Red River Gorge was formed much of the same way the Grand Canyon was, with the Red River carving its way through the cliffsides for millions of years. One of the most popular arches in the area is the Natural Bridge, a 75 ft (23 m) wide and 65 ft (20 m) high sandstone arch overlooking 2,200 acres of lush green forests, rivers and a sprawling lake in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
You can get there a couple different ways, on a sky lift that takes you up 600 feet (183 m), accompanied by a short and easy hike, or you can hike up to the arch since there are more than 22 miles (35 km) of trails in the area that are just waiting for your sweating, panting body. Being the extreme gondola riders that we are, we chose the former and enjoyed a scenic ride on the chairlift where we gawked at baby deer chewing grass in the meadow below us, a babbling stream and whipped cream clouds swirling across the sky. Once you reach the top, you will actually cross the arch before you see it. A few stairs down, and one tight squeeze through a crevice between two boulders, and you’ll be standing at the base of the towering arch. It’s an easy walk and worth the visit.
3. Go kayaking underground
One of the absolute coolest things to do in the Red River Gorge is to explore five miles of an abandoned mine by boat, paddle boards or kayaks. Limestone had been mined in the area since the 1800s, and workers had to keep pumping the water out of this one otherwise it would flood. When it was abandoned in 1985, the pumps stopped and the natural spring took over, swallowing everything in the mine, including old equipment you can still see on the tours. Bring a jacket because it’s chilly, at around 50-50 degrees (10-13 °C) all year long, and a pitch-black darkness like you’ve never experienced before. At one point in the tour, your guide will let you turn off your headlamps so you can get a taste of exactly what the Kentucky miners experienced when it was still in use. The water is clear and smooth as glass and if you reserve one of the clear kayaks, you can see all the fish who now live there because your tour guide will illuminate the water for you. For those who don’t want to operate their own watercraft, The Gorge Underground offers a boat tour too.
4. Do a Bourbon tasting
Did you know that 95% of the world’s Bourbon is produced in Kentucky? Neither did we. If you are even remotely interested in craft cocktails, you are not going to want to miss Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Bourbon has been officially recognized by the United States Congress since 1964 as a distinct American product, which means that just like Champagne from Champagne, France, no one else in the world can create Bourbon. While in the Gorge, take a visit to Hop’s for a Bourbon tasting. While it’s not an actual distillery, they have more than 50 different Bourbons in house. But this is more than just ordering a flight of whiskey, they’ll provide you with tasting notes for each of the barrels, including the signature scents and finishes. While you’re there, you can also order Rye, Moonshine, Gin, Rum, Scotch, Brandy, Tequila, Vodka…and Whiskey. What’s that, you say? Isn’t all Bourbon also Whiskey? Why, yes, it is. Just remember, not all Whiskey is Bourbon. Make sure you ask the locals for the difference, it’s a fascinating story of history and culture.
5. Zip line through the trees
Red River Gorge zip lining is one of the top attractions in the area for a couple of reasons. There’s room to be really outdoorsy, as in trekking through the wilderness, backcountry rock climbing and repelling, exploring canyons and caves, and then there are activities for the vanilla adventurers. Now, don’t take offense to that description. If seeing that one movie where the guy gets stuck in the Grand Canyon and saws his own arm off made you think: “yeah, that’s not for me;” we are one in the same. Zip lining is for people like us, those who want a little bit of a sweat and a thrill but appreciate that it’s a controlled adventure. There are five lines that crisscross 300 feet (91 m) through the canopy above the Gorge, the longest of which is just shy of 2,000 feet (579 m) long. There’s no age restriction, but you do have to be between 70 and 250 pounds (31 to 114 kg).
6. Go Glamping
There are lots of people who like to camp in Red River Gorge, and it’s hard to blame them when the campgrounds are surrounded by rolling green forests and tons of peace and quiet. But our advice is to find a fantastic cabin, like the S’more Fun in the Gorge A-frame cabin that we booked, with a great hot tub to rest your weary bones after a day of hiking through the woods. There are many beautiful cabins that are well appointed, if you’re willing to do a little searching. We booked this a-frame during our trip and spent lots of time out at the fire pit, in the hot tub, and listening to the crickets on the double balconies. But if you want a truly one-of-a-kind experience you won’t get in many other places around the world, book a Red River Gorge treehouse. You can get as rustic or modern as you like, the latter featuring hot tubs, hot showers, grills and even WIFI with super cool features like slides, rope bridges connecting the treehouses and hammock netting you can lounge on high above the forest floor.