Red River Gorge Climbing: Complete Beginner’s Guide (2023)
Published on: 04/15/2022
The Red River Gorge is a canyon system located southwest of Lexington in eastern Kentucky. It is one of the most popular rock climbing destinations and attracts climbers from all over the world. The Red River Gorge borders the Daniel Boone National Forest and sits on about 29,000 acres, filled with over 3000 routes and around 100 cliffs. The area offers an incredible variety of outdoor and outfitter activities such as climbing, rappelling, hiking, and kayaking.
Red River Gorge: Practical Travel Information
“This was our first trip to the Red from Colorado, and I can’t speak highly enough of the beauty of the area and the kindness of the people. Such a great variety of climbs with huecos that we don’t see often. If you like overhangs, then this is the place for you!” -Scott Chico from Morrison, CO (Mountain Project)
The Red River Gorge has been famous for outdoor enthusiasts and those with an adventurous spirit since the 1700s. It has some of the top rock climbing and rappelling in the world.
You’ll discover jaw-dropping crags, mystical cliffs, and world-class climbing routes at Red River Gorge. Routes here range in grades from 5.4 up to 5.14d, making it perfect for just about every type of climber. The climbing areas here consist of cliffs as tall as 45 feet to over 100, which hold sport, trad, and multi-pitch climbing.
Let’s take an in-depth look at this location, how to get there, and where to stay. We’ll also go over some of the routes in this gorgeous climb-worthy destination.
Check out our selection of the best sport climbing spots in the US.
How to Get There
Red River Gorge has two general areas: the North and the South. The northern gorge holds more traditional crags, while the southern gorge is further developed for climbers. With various sport climbs, the south is also closer to accommodations. The Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway is the dividing line between the northern and southern regions is the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway.
To get to the north gorge, drive northeast from Slade. Hop on Highway 715, which will take you to Daniel Boone National Forest. You’ll pass multiple trailheads and river access areas; Highway 715 will loop you back to KY-11. Fortress Wall, Left Flank, Military Wall, and Phantasia are all routes located directly off Highway 715. The Highway 77 turn-off also has several popular traditional crags, including Long Wall, Pebble Beach, and Pistol Ridge.
To get to the south gorge, head south from Slade and hop onto KY-11. Emerald City and Global Village routes can be accessed via trail directly off of KY-11. Miguel’s Pizza and Natural Bridge State Park are markers to the areas with the more popular sport routes. There are various routes in this area located right off of this highway. Parking lots are available adjacent to the road that is safe to park in and hike into the gorge. Keep in mind that Muir Valley does require a daily $10 fee to park.
How to Get Around
The nearest airports to the gorge are located in either Lexington or Louisville, Kentucky. Both cities are about an hour’s drive. There is no fee to get into the Red River Gorge geological area, but driving or renting a car is necessary to explore this immense area. Most trailheads are accessible by vehicle, and most crags are within walking distance via hiking trails. These trails range from easy and less than a mile to more strenuous. While traveling within the area, be prepared by packing food and water and planning for various weather conditions.
Where to Stay
There are multiple campgrounds near the gorge.
One of the most popular and climbers-only campgrounds sits directly behind Miguel’s Pizza. Here climbers can stay for $2 per night per person, and you can bring your tent or car. The nearby restaurant offers bathrooms, showers for $1, wifi, a fantastic climbing gear shop, plenty of outdoor seating, and slices of delicious pizza. Miguel’s is a great place to gather with friends and meet others within the local climbing community.
Daniel Boone Campground
Climbers report that the Daniel Boone Campground is mellow and primitive. You can find it behind the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop. For $3 per person per night, you’ll have access to a fire pit, tables, and freshwater. The coffee shop offers toilets during its business hours. RV camping is also available here, and you may be able to get a weekly discount if you plan to stay longer than seven days. Pay for your stay at the coffee shop just up the hill from the campground. This campsite is less crowded and quieter than other campsites in the gorge.
Land of the Arches (LOTA) campground
The place costs $8 per night per person and is an excellent location to tent, van, or car camp. The campground is split into two sections. The first one is at the top of the hill and is closest to the amenities. However, the rowdier campers stay down the hill. Land of Arches offers a lively place for climbers to reunite after a long day’s excursion. This campground offers fire pits, tables, running water, and a covered pavilion that holds an outdoor kitchen. Bathrooms, free hot showers, and a community space to relax and play games are also available. Please note that dogs are NOT allowed at this campsite.
Bald Rock Campground
This camp is located close to Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve. If you’re likely going to be rock climbing in the reserve for most of the trip, this campground may be perfect. Bald Rock Campground is less crowded, and each site is available for $10 per night. They also offer cabin rentals if you’re looking for more deluxe accommodations.
If you’re seeking lodging near the gorge, check out Sky Bridge Station, a restaurant, hostel, and bar. The station serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and even offers guided tours. You’ll find two community rooms filled with 11 beds in terms of lodging. You can purchase a bed for $17 per night per person. If you are looking for something more private, for $75 a night, you can rent out one of two smaller rooms available that hold 5-6 beds each.
BedRock is another hostel-style lodging accommodation located north of Mountain Parkway in Rogers, KY. You can book a shared room for $40 per night or $98 per night. Also, you can reserve private rooms.
For motel or hotel stays, Lil Abners, Black Bear Lodge, and Natural Bridge Resort all offer lodging and are central to the Red River Gorge climbing areas.
The most popular time to visit the Red River Gorge is March to October. Peak times for rock climbing are from March to late April and October to late November. The climate in this area tends to be rainy in the spring, hot and humid in the summer, and cool and crisp during fall.
If you visit during a rainy weekend, look for routes with overhanging walls as they tend to stay dryer during a downpour. Some good overhang routes are Drive-By, Bob Marley, The Zoo, The Motherlode, Midnight Surf, and Bruise Brothers.
During the summer, the heat and humidity can make it difficult to climb during the day. For this reason, many routes are best climbed in the morning or evening hours. Make sure to be prepared with plenty of water during the summer months.
Fall: The Best Time to Visit
If you are visiting during the fall, the crisp air is low in humidity, meaning that there are usually larger climbing crowds. The Red River Gorge hosts a festival in October called Rocktoberfest. This is a great place to have a good time and meet other climbers. Keep in mind that some of the walls will be extra busy this season, so choose less popular routes or hire a guide to take you to more secluded areas. With a bit of research or a guidebook, you’ll find plenty of places you can climb during this busy season.
In winter, climbing the Red River Gorge can be more difficult but isn’t impossible. If you choose to visit during this time, be prepared for weather delays, give yourself plenty of time for travel, and bring proper gear to stay warm and dry.
Rock Climbing in Red River Gorge, KY
The Red River Gorge has plenty of popular climbing areas, with routes for both beginner and intermediate climbers. The gorge is mostly Corbin sandstone, which holds cliffs, balanced rocks, arches, and natural bridges. It is ideal for sport and trad climbing, but several multi-pitch routes and a few boulders are there.
There isn’t much bouldering here, so crash pads are unnecessary most of the time. Suppose you want to check out local bouldering problems, head to Foxtown. You’ll find over 100 problems ranging from V0 to V10+, with the majority graded between V0 and V5.
Most Popular Crags
Muir Valley is in the southern gorge. The non-profit Friends of Muir Valley (FOMV) owns it. You must fill out a legal release waiver online prior to your visit to climb here. Muir Valley also requires a $10 daily fee to park in their lot. The revenue goes to trail maintenance and hardware repairs. Keep in mind that dogs are not allowed in this area.
Muir Valley contains mostly sport climbing with a few dispersed trad routes. There’s plenty of variety for all skill levels, and route grades range from 5.6 to 5.12d. Check out the Great Wall, Bruise Brothers, or Sunnyside if you’re new to lead climbing. If you’re looking for more challenging routes, try Sanctuary, Midnight Surf, or Solarium. With over 400 climbs, Muir Valley has numerous options.
Bald Rock Recreational Preserve
Bald Rock Recreational Preserve is owned by the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition or RRGCC. They are an advocacy group for rock climbers that owns over 1,000 acres, mostly within the Daniel Boone National Forest.
For the past 25 years, rock climbing has been prominent in this area. Bald Rock Recreational Preserve features 226 routes ranging from 5.2 to 5.14c. It holds some of the most famous climbs in all of Red River Gorge and has a mix of both sport and trad climbing. Notable intermediate routes include Chocolate Factory, Motherlode, and Bear’s Den.
Take Bald Rock Fork Road to get here. The parking lot is off of this road, and it often fills quickly, so carpooling is highly suggested.
Miller Fork Recreational Preserve
Purchased in 2012 by the RRGCC, Miller Fork Recreational Preserve has 309 acres of preserved land with over 400 routes for all skill levels. This area comprises mostly sport routes. Infirmary and Secret Garden have several great 5.10 to 5.12 routes for the intermediate climber, and Chaos is an excellent route for beginners.
Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve
The Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve covers 700 acres of the southern region. There are 20 separate crags in this area with over 500 routes. Similar to Muir Valley, visitors must sign an online liability waiver. Climbers began developing this area back in the 1990s, and then in 2004, the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition purchased rights to the land to make sure climbing routes were preserved. Bob Marley, Drive-By, and Gallery are great crags that have classic routes for beginners and intermediate climbers alike. The Pendergrass-Murray area hosts the Solar Collector and Gold Coast crags as well as the Chica Bonita Wall.
Crags by Grade
There are over 400 routes with a grade of 5.9 or lower in the Red River Gorge area, making it a great place for beginners. Visit the popular areas listed above or head to Tower Rock for a concentration of beginner routes.
Tower Rock Climbing
Located in the northern gorge, it has 12 routes graded from 5.1 to 5.11. This free-standing rock has some great old-school trad with a few top rope routes. The US Forest Service asks that you limit your climbing here to give all climbers a chance at the walls.
The Caver’s route has a 5.3 grade and is the oldest roped route in this location. Its namesake comes from a group of cavers in the 1950s that practiced their rope skills on the cliffs. The 200-foot multi-pitch trad route ascends a fracture and is said to be incredibly fun. It’s best climbed in four short pitches.
For Intermediate and Advanced Climbers
Table of Colors – Red River Gorge
Table of Colors is located in the northern gorge and on national forest land. This classic route was the first 5.13 established in the Red River Gorge. As the name implies, it is a multi-colored wall that stands 75 feet high. Climbers consider this crag as one of the best sport routes in the entire area.
Serenity point is a small crag within the Miller Fork area. This is a great place to start for intermediate climbers. It has 14 total climbs with a large concentration of 5.10+ to 5.12c routes. The Mohan and Hammer Time are both 5.11s that attract many intermediate climbers.
Funk Rock City
Funk Rock City has a concentration of 5.10 and 5.11 routes. These classic routes are in an incredibly beautiful setting in the north. This area has 29 total climbs and you’ll find a few top rope routes among mostly sport and trad climbing. This crag is perfect for intermediate climbers.
Recommended Climbing Guides
If you are visiting an area that is new to you, rock climbing guides are a great way to find the best crags and walls. I would highly recommend hiring a climbing guide. With their professional training, guides can be there to help you any way you need. They can personally show you the best routes, help you set up gear properly, teach you the basics, and be there for added safety. Sometimes, guided rock climbing is the best way to experience a new place.
Red River Gorge Guides
It’s the oldest established guiding service here. Red River Gorge Guides can help you go from the gym to outdoor climbing, and even show you how to rappel. Their guided rock climbing trips are perfect for beginner to intermediate skill levels. Pricing ranges anywhere from $65 a half-day to $200 per day for a group of up to 6 people.
Southeast Mountain Guides
Another great option. Whether you are brand new to rock climbing or an experienced climber, they’ve got you covered. They offer guided rock climbing trips for single climbers or groups larger than ten people for either half or full days. Be sure to call ahead and make a reservation (see their website).
If you’re interested in rock climbing the Torrent Falls Crag, it’s highly suggested to hire a climbing guide. Torrent Falls has 28 total climbs ranging from 5.8 to 5.12d. The only way to access this area is to rent a cabin from Red River Outdoors or hire Red River Gorge Guides.
Tips for the Best Experience
It’s always important to be ready with a rope, harness, shoes, helmet, trad gear, and anything you’ll need for your planned routes. Make sure to check the current weather conditions and pack appropriate clothing. Have a set plan for accommodations, a list of crags you’d like to climb, and helpful resources.
If you plan to get a guide, make reservations ahead of time and ask for a list of what you’ll need to bring along. Always bring plenty of food and water for the full day. Most crags are within walking distance but some will require a longer hike. Be aware of the time of the local sunrise and sunset and always bring a headlamp or flashlight in case you find yourself out after dark.
While on location, don’t be afraid to ask local climbers for advice and for the best crags during that time of year. Miguel’s Pizza or Land of Arches Campground are usually highly popular with climbers. It’s best to travel with a group, but if you’re going alone, try to make friends and see if you can join an established group.
Recommended Guidebooks & Resources
The Mountain Project app is a great resource and you can access it from your phone so you have access to information anywhere you go. Use Mountain Project to look up popular climbs in any area of the Red River Gorge. Aside from showing climbing routes and hiking trails, it also shows important information and advice from the climbing community.
In the last decade, rock climbing has exploded in the Red River Gorge. With over 3,000 routes to choose from, there are several guidebooks that cover the northern region, southern region, and the Miller Fork. The Red is a book written by Brendan Leader, highlights the majority of the sport climbing crags, and is the most up-to-date guidebook.
Ray Ellington wrote a series of guidebooks great for locals called Red River Gorge North, Red River Gorge South, and Miller Fork Climbing. Red River Gorge North, created with Dustin Stephens, highlights crags north of the parkway, including classic trad lines. Red River Gorge South highlights classic sport lines and crags south of the parkway, but not including Miller Fork Recreational Preserve. Miller Fork Climbing was published when Miller Fork opened and may be a little out of date, but is still a good resource.
Best of the Red – Sport Climbing Crags of the Red River Gorge covers popular climbs in all three popular areas. This guidebook covers the classics and is a great book to pick up if you’re going to be in the area for a short time.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Routes in the Red River Gorge range from 5.4 to 5.14d. The Practice Wall in Muir Valley offers five to six easy top rope routes. There are hundreds of 5.11+ routes spread throughout the area. For a larger concentration of harder routes, check out Bald Rock. No matter your skill level, you’ll find the perfect crags anywhere you go.
There are two vegan-friendly restaurants close to the Red River Gorge. Red River Rockhouse, although temporarily closed at this time, has great vegan options and the best sweet potato fries, according to reviews. It is a local favorite and all of their food is locally sourced. Miguel’s Pizza also has vegetarian and vegan-friendly pizzas with the option of dairy-free cheese and more than 20 toppings.
Guided climbing trips are not necessary to go climbing in the Red River Gorge, but if you’re new to climbing I would highly recommend hiring a guide. Red River Gorge Guides has fantastic guided trips for smaller groups of up to six people. Southeast Mountain Guides is also a great option and offers guided trips for larger groups of ten or more.
Just about every route in the area can be top-roped. Most top rope routes do require a lead climber to set up the rope. Tower Rock has a few top rope routes and the Practice Wall in Muir has a walk-up area located right where the approach trail meets the cliff. If you’re new to rock climbing or have very little experience, hire a guide to help you set up routes, and to help you with the basics of climbing and safety.
Natural Bridge isn’t technically a part of the Red River Gorge, but it is close by. This area is a short walk from the Hemlock Lodge Parking Area, just south of Miguel’s Pizza, and is definitely worth the short trip. No climbing is allowed in Natural Bridge, although there are several hiking trails to explore.
As one of the most popular climbing destinations, Red River Gorge Kentucky is an incredible, world-class location where you can explore and climb your heart out. You’ll not only gain some extraordinary climbing experience, but it may just be the best trip you’ve taken yet.
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