Red River Gorge Backpacking: Everything You Need to Know

women at sunrise red river gorge

Located in Eastern Kentucky, the famous Red River Gorge Geological Area spans 29,000 acres in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Designated as a National Natural Landmark and a National Archaeological District, you can expect sandstone cliffs, over 40 natural sandstone bridges, spectacular rock features, multiple caves and rock shelters, and GORGEous waterfalls. 

If you’re a biology junkie, the Gorge is a great place for you too! It’s home to diverse wildlife including owls, black bears, fox, and venomous snakes like the copperhead and timber rattler. It also has endangered plant species such as the white-haired goldenrod, which is only found in this area of Eastern Kentucky. 

And the best part?

The hiking trails in this area offer seemingly endless opportunities for primitive or backcountry camping. Get all your burning questions answered and all the information you need right here to enjoy a stellar backpacking trip in the Red River Gorge. (Seriously, we’re dishing out some of our hard-earned secrets here just for you!)

What You Need to Know About Red River Gorge Backpacking

woman in the red river gorge backpacking
Red River Gorge Backpacking Trip

Whether you’re heading out for your first time in the backcountry or are a seasoned backpacker, these are all the details you need to know about backpacking in the Red River Gorge.

Can You Backpack in Red River Gorge?

Heck yeah!

There are lots of opportunities for backcountry camping within Red River Gorge’s scenic natural area. 

Whether you’re looking for a spot with incredible views or a peaceful wooded setting, backpacking is allowed in most areas 300+ feet from any road or developed trail. The Gladie Visitor Center, located at the Gladie Historic Site, provides information and maps for the Red River Gorge.

Do you need a permit to backpack Red River Gorge?

Permits are not required for backpacking in Red River Gorge and Indian Creek areas. However, backpackers will need a permit for overnight parking (10pm – 6am) while on the trail from $3/day, $5 for 3 days, or $30 for an annual pass. 

The permit covers the car, so no need for individual permits if your group came in the same car. If your trip is a multi-car situation, you’ll want to have one for each car that’s parking overnight.

Are there bears in Red River Gorge?

The short answer: yes.

The longer answer: There are less than 1,000 black bears in all of Kentucky, but approximately 400-500 of them are known to reside in the Daniel Boone National Forest. While forest service officials say bear encounters are rare in the Red River Gorge area, they have increased in recent years, and staying educated on bear encounter safety is essential. 

Food storage options are available in parts of the park, and the National Forest Service publishes guidelines to Be Bear Aware.

Is alcohol allowed in Red River Gorge? (Only the Important Questions Here)

No, alcohol is not permitted in Red River Gorge (sorry). The state of Kentucky prohibits possession or consumption of alcohol in public areas, and this extends to the National Forest. 

4 Backpacking Routes to Take In The Red River Gorge

Five women wearing backpacks and hiking in the forest.

With over 600 miles of trails to enjoy, getting the full Red River Gorge experience can’t be found in a traditional campground. Sure, established toilets are great, but setting up your own site and having it all to yourself is even better.

Use these trips to help guide your backpacking adventure, or join us on our group overnight opportunities in the Red!

The Best 1-Night Backpacking Trips

For a first backpacking trip or if you’re just in it for the weekend, a one-night trip is a great choice. The nice thing about the Red River Gorge is you don’t have to go out too far to feel like you’re in the wilderness. 

1. Pinch Em Tight, Rough Trail, and Rush Ridge Loop

pinch em tight backpacking loop
Map clip from Forest Service map of Red River Gorge.

Total distance: ~3.8 miles in length, +751 feet elevation gain

Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Highlights: Beautiful forest setting, scenic overlooks into Red River Gorge 

This loop starts near Gray’s Arch Picnic Area on Tunnel Ridge Road. It begins on Pinch Em Tight Trail (#223), which links up with the famous Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

With a gradual climb, you’ll pick up Rough Trail (#221) and get several views into the gorge. Along this part of the trail, keep an eye out for unmarked side trails with ample opportunities for the perfect place to pitch your tent. 

From the top of the ridge, you’ll enjoy vast views into the valley. In the spring, you’ll also get the added joy of seeing tons of wildflowers too. Continue west toward the next junction, and take Rush Ridge Trail (#227) on the left. Follow it back to where it meets Pinch Em Tight Trail and return to Tunnel Ridge Road.

2. Red Byrd Arch via Forest Trails

red-byrd-arch-backpacking
**Because this is not a named trail, this is not an exact route. If you choose to do this route, make sure to use a topographical map, compass, and GPS to map out your exact route.

Total distance: ~4.0 miles in length, +450 feet elevation gain

Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult

Highlights: Natural sandstone arches, waterfalls, and ample backcountry camping

The trail to Red Byrd Arch begins on the unmarked trail just past the concrete bridge around Copperas Creek Unofficial Trailhead. It’s largely unmarked and considered fairly primitive, so using an offline map or GPS is recommended to be sure you keep to your route.

Heading upstream along a creek, you’ll pass a waterfall almost right away as the trail winds moderately through holly groves. At mile 1.2 are several great spots for camping, nearby Moonshiner’s Arch. One brief scrambling section just before you reach the arch leads you to incredible up-close views inside the natural bridge, where a small waterfall sometimes trickles in. Return the way you came after enjoying this natural scenic area.

We’ve mapped out a very simple idea of what your route will look like BUT this is not an official route! You’ll want to spend some time officially mapping out your route on your own.

The Best 2-Night Backpacking Trips

3. Rock Bridge Trail Loop and Swift Camp Creek Trail

rock bridge trail loop
Map clip from Forest Service map of Red River Gorge.

Total distance: ~7.5 miles in length, +490 feet elevation gain

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Natural bridge, sandstone arches and waterfalls

Leading into the Clifty Wilderness, Rock Bridge Trail (#207) begins at the Rock Bridge Road Picnic Area, which has parking for about five cars. The trail is roughly paved and winds through hemlock groves and rhododendron thickets. It includes some stair climbing, but the reward of gorgeous waterfall views early on your trek is well worth it. 

You’ll also pass the trail’s namesake, Rock Bridge Arch, which is the only natural bridge in Red River Gorge that crosses over water. Just before you hit a mile on the trail, to the right will be the unmarked Swift Camp Creek Trail (#219) leading to some ideal campsites along the winding creek. After a couple of nights in the backcountry, turn back at the junction of Wildcat Trail and return the way you came on Swift Camp Creek Trail, back to Rock Bridge Trail. Follow it to the right to complete the loop.

4. Double Arch, Auxier Ridge, and Courthouse Rock Loop

double arch trail backpacking
Map clip from Forest Service map of Red River Gorge.

Total distance: ~7.3 miles, +1,036 elevation gain

Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult 

Highlight: Incredible views, natural sandstone arches, beautiful wildflowers 

This hike boasts some of the best views in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. It begins on the marked Double Arch Trail (#201) at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road in the Auxier Ridge Parking Area. 

Less than a mile into the hike are several short side paths leading to designated campsites, some with great views over the ridge. After seeing Double Arch (and getting some insta-worthy photos with it), double back and get on Auxier Branch Trail (#203) to visit Courthouse Rock, the most famous feature in Red River Gorge. You’ll have more camping opportunities as you continue to complete the loop for your second night. 

If you want to pack in even more arch views, you can also visit the Arch of Triumph, another spectacular rock formation, along this route by adding about half a mile at the start on Double Arch Trail (#201).

Our Favorite Special Touches for Backpacking in Red River Gorge

women topless in red river gorge
It doesn’t get much better than welcoming a new day topless on top of a mountain amiright?!?

There are a ton of ways you can personalize your trek while hiking such as keeping an outdoor journal, making your own backpacking meals, or seeking out epic photos. One of our favorite touches especially when at the Red is a sunrise hike!

Doing a sunrise hike adds a little extra work for you on the trail, but the payoff is absolutely worth it.

If you’re looking for a good sunrise scene to check out, Hanson’s Point is one of our favorites that you can add onto the Pinch Em Tight one-night trek. If you do plan a sunrise hike on your trek, make sure you pack your essential gear, listed below, before heading out in the dark. 

Sunrise Hike Essential Checklist:

  • Headlamp
  • Trekking Poles
  • Layers
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Map / GPS

Want to Learn Even More About the Red River Gorge?

You can find more information, maps, and opportunities for education at the Gladie Visitor Center and at the Daniel Boone National Forest official site. 

Aside from hiking, backpacking, and established camping (oh my!), Red River Gorge is also a top destination for rock climbing. The unique sandstone cliffs provide the perfect scene for high-rope adventures. An abundance of established bolted routes draws climbers from all over the world to get their fill of “The Red,” as many folks like to call it.

Feeling a little overwhelmed about planning your own backpacking trip in the Red?

That’s totally understandable — we spend countless hours prepping and planning our backpacking routes so we know it’s a lot of work! If it’s your first time backpacking or if you just don’t want to do the planning, join us on our 2-day Red River Gorge Backpacking Workshop and we’ll do all the planning for you.

Meet the Writer

April Brightman

April is an adventure lover and freelance writer based in New England, with a passion for public lands, wild places, and all things outdoors. She loves camping in any form and spends as many weekends as she can hiking New Hampshire’s highest peaks, or road-tripping with her sweet dog Marley. If not in the mountains, you can find her planning her next expedition or caring for one of her far-too-many-houseplants.

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