With natural sandstone arches, lofty cliffs, a snaking river, and rugged backcountry wilderness, Red River Gorge is a beloved spot to backpack, day hike, canoe, kayak, zip line, and rock climb.
Some of the best backpacking in Kentucky is located right in Red River Gorge Geological Area. The hiking and camping at Red River Gorge is next level. Many people don’t think there’s natural beauty in Kentucky, but I’m happy to announce that there is.
In this guide, I am going to share with you everything you need to know to backpack Red River Gorge. You will learn how to plan a backpacking route that fits your personal skill level, what to pack, how to get an overnight permit, and more!
Everything You Need to Know to Backpack Red River Gorge
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Plan Your Backpacking Route
There are nearly 70 miles of hiking trails in Red River Gorge, all official trails marked with white, diamond-shaped blazes.
Route options for backpacking Red River Gorge are endless, and you are welcome to get creative and combine as many or as few trails as you’d like to form the puzzle pieces of your backpacking journey. Hike portions or the entirety of trails, connect multiple trails to form a loop, and go as shallow or deep as you desire into the wilderness.
If you are a beginner, I’d highly recommend keeping your hike short and straightforward so that you aren’t too far from your car if the weight on your back becomes too heavy to bear or you run into some sort of problem or emergency.
If you are an experienced backpacker, there are plenty of rugged backcountry and unmarked trails to navigate.
To help you get started, I have researched three possible routes (one of which, I have backpacked myself) that would be fun to backpack in a night or two, ranging from easy to rugged.
Auxier Ridge, Double Arch, and Courthouse Rock Loop
- Length: 7.25 miles
- Difficulty: Moderately rugged
- Trailhead: Auxier Ridge
This is one of the best trails in Red River Gorge! ✨
This trail begins at the Auxier Ridge Parking area at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road. Tunnel Ridge is a gravel road and is slightly rough at times, but 4WD is not required.
There are two trail entrances at the trailhead. Choose which one you want to start at; they both loop back to the same trailhead.
No matter which way you choose to go, you will find many short, “hidden” spur trails that lead to spectacular backcountry campsites within just a mile or two.
Along this route, you will see some of the best views in Red River Gorge, including natural sandstone arches and iconic rock formations.
Whether you decide to split this into a one or two-night backpacking trip, you won’t be disappointed with the views and unbelievable backcountry campsites!
Rock Bridge and Swift Camp Creek Trails
- Length: 7.5 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Rock Bridge Road Picnic Area
This trail begins at Rock Bridge Road Picnic Area, at the end of Rock Bridge Road, which only has parking for a handful of vehicles.
On this route, you will enter the Clifty Wilderness and pass by Rock Bridge Arch, Creation Falls, and a babbling creek before heading back to the trailhead from the Wildcat Trail junction.
There are plenty of backcountry campsites along the creek off of Swift Camp Creek Trail to pitch your tent and set up camp.
Pinch ‘Em Tight Rough Trail, and Rush Ridge Loop
- Length: 3.8 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Gray’s Arch Picnic Area
This trail begins near Gray’s Arch Picnic Area on Tunnel Ridge Road.
You’ll begin on Pinch Em Tight Trail before climbing around to Rough Trail. It’s along this trail that you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for some remarkable campsites that are hidden among the canopy of trees.
At the Rush Ridge junction, finish the loop and continue back to Gray’s Arch parking area and Tunnel Ridge Road.
Don’t forget to take the short, 0.25-mile trail to the spectacular Gray’s Arch while you’re in the area!
Red River Gorge Backpacking Packing List
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Bear canister
- Enough food, water, and electrolytes
- Water filter or purification tablets
- Toiletries: toilet paper, hygiene wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray, chapstick
- First aid kit >>> Read my hiker first aid guide to see what you should put in your kit!
- Headlamp and extra batteries
- Solar lantern
- Stove, fuel, and lighter
- Waterproof matches
- Knife or multi-tool
- Utensils, bowl, cook pot, and mug
- Mosquito net (seasonal)
- Extra layers for rain, sun, and/or cold weather, depending on the season you’re hiking
- Trekking poles
- Power bank and charging cords
- Map (download Gaia GPS on your phone for backup directions)
- Trash bag
Snag an Overnight Parking Permit
Red River Gorge is located in Daniel Boone National Forest. In order to go camping at Red River Gorge, you’ll need a permit.
Though there is no fee to enter the recreation area or hike the trails, you must buy and display an overnight parking pass to park in Red River Gorge between 10 PM and 6 AM.
Passes can be purchased at local Slade gas stations or the Gladie Visitor Center and then hung on your rearview mirror.
Red River Gorge Permit Fees:
- 1 Day: $5
- 3 Day: $7
- Annual: $50
PRO TIP: If you have an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, you won’t need to purchase a permit! You can just display your pass on your windshield.
Backpacking Red River Gorge FAQs
You probably still have many questions regarding backpacking and camping at Red River Gorge! Hopefully, these rapid-fire FAQs can answer all of those burning questions!
Are there any bears in Red River Gorge?
Yes. I couldn’t find an exact number, but it seems as though there are less than 1,000 known black bears in the entire state of Kentucky. Though rare, black bears reside and have been spotted in Red River Gorge, especially in recent years.
It would be helpful to brush up on bear safety before backpacking Red River Gorge. 🐻
Are bear canisters required for backcountry camping?
Yes. Keep all food, wrappers, and other scented items like toothpaste and wipes in an approved bear canister, in your car, or in a bear bag hung on a tree while camping.
Prepare and eat your food and store your bear canister at least 300 feet from your tent. Avoid putting your bear canister on the edge of a cliff where a critter could knock it off; instead, tuck it between boulders or logs. If you have a bear bag instead of a canister, hang it properly on a tree away from your tent and out of a bear’s reach. Failure to properly store your food and scented items will result in fines.
There are also bear-resistant trash bins at some trailheads and parking areas to reduce litter and prevent bear attraction.
For more info on hiking and camping in bear country, read my guide! 🐻
Is alcohol allowed?
No, alcohol is not allowed anywhere in Daniel Boone National Forest. Kentucky law prohibits the consumption and open containers of alcohol in public places, including the National Forest and Red River Gorge Geological Area.
Can I camp wherever?
No. Camping at Red River Gorge is prohibited in the following places:
- Within 300 feet of any developed road
- Within 300 feet of any Forest Service trail
- Within 600 feet of Grays Arch
- Within any picnic area or parking area
- Within 100 feet of the base of any cliff or the back of any rock shelter
How do I find a backcountry campsite?
Occasionally, you may come across hidden spur trails that lead to some amazing backcountry campsites. They can be easily missed if you don’t know what to look for. Keep your eyes peeled for narrow, potentially overgrown paths that veer off the main trails.
Since these sites are backcountry, they are not maintained, but since others have previously camped in these spots, there may be leftover firewood, crude campfire rings, etc, onsite.
As long as you are following the backcountry camping guidelines I listed above, and you’re not camping where it’s prohibited, you essentially have unlimited freedom to scope out the area and set up camp in whichever spot you desire.
→ READ NEXT: First Time Backpacking Tips: 8 Mistakes to Avoid
Do I need a permit to backpack?
Though there is no fee to enter the recreation area or use the trails, you need a permit to park your car in Red River Gorge and Daniel Boone National Forest between 10 PM and 6 AM.
The passes are for each vehicle, not each hiker. For example, if you are hiking in a group and all arrive together in the same vehicle, you just need one pass. If your group arrives in multiple vehicles, you will need a pass for each vehicle.
Day hikers do not need a parking pass as long as they are out of the park by 10 PM and don’t arrive before 6 AM.
Your America the Beautiful pass will work in lieu of a permit!
Where do I buy an overnight parking pass for backcountry camping?
Red River Gorge backpacking permits can be purchased at local Slade gas stations and the Gladie Visitor Center. The cost is $5 for 1 day, $7 for 3 days, and $50 for an annual pass.
Where can I park?
Park your vehicle in designated parking areas only. Do not park along roads.
Can I build a fire at my campsite?
Yes, as long as you do not build fires within 100 feet of the base of any cliff or the back of any rock shelter.
Keep fires small and contained. Do not cut down and use live wood; use only dead and downed wood.
After use, drown it and ensure that the fire is completely out before you leave.
As always, before you enter the backcountry and attempt to build a campfire, be aware of the current fire rules and restrictions of Daniel Boone National Forest.
→ READ NEXT: Campfire Safety Tips 🔥
What to Do Near Red River Gorge
While you’re in Kentucky backpacking Red River Gorge, there are some other fun things you could add to your itinerary.
Paddle Red River
19.4 miles of the Red River is designated a federal Wild and Scenic River. Beginners and experts alike can paddle down the river.
Most visitors and beginners choose to launch at Copperas Creek Canoe launch located near the Osborne Bend trailhead parking lot. This 10.5-mile section of the river takes about 6 hours to complete and has mostly Class 1 rapids, so it is ideal for beginners, new visitors, and those who just want a simple, “lazy” float. Enjoy sandbars, riffles, and small ledges along this Red River paddling adventure.
If you are an expert and want a more challenging whitewater paddle with Class III rapids, consider beginning at Big Branch Canoe launch and paddling the remote, 10.8-mile section of upper Red River.
Visit Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Take a hike on one of the many wooded trails that meander past water, through forests, and up to wildly impressive natural arches and caves.
The Original Trail is the quickest and easiest way to the base and the top of the largest natural bridge.
Henson’s Arch Trail takes you to another natural arch at the entrance to a cave.
For more of a challenge, consider hiking Sand Gap or Balanced Rock trails.
Zip-Line Through Red River Gorge
Soar over the Gorge in a guided zip-line tour. Experience quite the thrill as you sweep through Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge over a canopy of trees.
Paddle Through an Underground Mine
The Gorge Underground offers experiences and memories that linger in your mind well after you’ve gone home.
Enjoy a classic adventure on a guided boat or kayak tour, or splurge for a deluxe tour on a crystal-clear glow kayak or SUP.
Explore the depths of a mine in the pitch darkness with only the colored glow underneath your kayak and the light from your headlamps to guide your way. You’ll learn interesting historical facts while you paddle over schools of bright rainbow trout, slowly delving deeper and deeper into the dark mine.
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions!
- New River Gorge National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Knoxville, Tennessee
- Biscayne National Park
- Hocking Hills State Park
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