Touching skin with Virginia and ten hours from New York City, a spectacular gorge hides in rural Kentucky in a place not likely to be on anyone's radar as a 'holiday destination.' Beckoning hikers and climbers, an unassuming lorry driver might never know that sitting on sleepy Interstate Highway 11 is one of the most impressive sport climbing venues in the world: the Red River Gorge. In the midst of churches and religious advertisements, copious forests and quiet country roads, we find this unexpected jewel, home to more than 3500 world-class routes, the climbing ranging from sport to trad and even bouldering.
If you hadn't already guessed, the Red is a land of multiple personalities. While hundreds of climbers make the trek to Slade, Kentucky each year, it sits just a stone's throw away from Beattyville, dubbed America's poorest white town by the Guardian in 2015. The forests of the Red are dark, thick and unforgiving and the woodlands remain a notorious area for face-offs between drugs-users and law enforcement. Yet, the Red is also home to the Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition, an active community constantly developing new routes, securing and protecting access, and maintaining fixed gear. It's hard to imagine this destination, the deep American South – twanging drawl accents, backwoods, hicks, untamed wild forests and unnerving, poorly lit country roads - and the best sport climbing in the world converging in the same place.
When I first arrived in the Red, what I noticed first is nothing – empty, long stretches of road with few stoplights and only one or two cars coming from the other direction. I followed my GPS, and then hand written directions from a friend as cell service dipped out. Passing a few places, a sleeping Rockhouse, the only place for burgers in town, the Natural Bridge Resort, a hotel for hikers and visitors, and then finally a solemn collection of cars in a dirt parking lot awaiting the reopening of the restaurant over which towered the famous big yellow sign – Miguel's Pizza.
Underneath the majestic mural, hair rolling like small hills on the skyline, a few people sat in plaid shirts browsing guidebooks, reading literary novels, munching an old burrito, or looking hopelessly at their phones trying to post on Instagram with the extremely slow Wi-Fi.
Before I booked this trip, all the advice I was given implied that your choice of camping in the Red usually defined your visit. They all said, 'well, you have to stay one night at Miguel's, for the experience.'
Although it had its beginnings as an ice cream shop, over the years Miguel's Pizza has developed into a meeting place and the centre of the sport climbing community in the South East of America. But the climbing style of the Red, which often has large holds and simple movements, has been drawing in newer climbers. You often find crowds of 20-somethings taking time off or skipping out from university to work at Miguel's or the Red River Rockhouse and paying $3 a night to live the dirt bag dream, learning to climb or bettering their sport. Linda's on the other hand, caters to the quieter crowd, with peaceful nights, a 10 minute drive to the main sport crag, the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP) and delightfully free showers, although the Internet is still embarrassingly slow.
Many say the highlight of the Red is this incredible climbing community. In the high season Miguel's and Linda's are packed, tents nuzzling up to each other and conversations running into the late hours of the night. Expansive American crags tend not to offer many places for climbers to gather and meet, unlike many European locations suited to walking to the crag. With the exception of Yosemite, you'd be hard pressed to experience the same elsewhere in the USA, making the Red an even more special and unique place.
The Red expands into a Northern and Southern gorge, so big that it needs two guidebooks to cover the areas. Some of the larger crags like Muir Valley and Miller Fork even have their own separate guides. The amount of rock in the area is mind-boggling, as is the pace of development, with new cliffs and hundreds of new routes going up each year. Amongst spiders, mosquitoes, frequent humidity and sandy paths into the brushy forest, you find some of the most impressive crags you'll ever lay eyes on. The longest routes, some up to 40m, curve outward to form expansive roofs, the eye straining to comprehend the heavily featured, pocketed and textured sandstone. The views are breathtaking.
The rock is very steep. Infused with large amounts of iron, it's fine-grained and skin friendly, yet also incredibly hard. Imagine cliffs with the friction and solidity of gritstone — only three or four times as tall, madly steep, and plastered with a veritable jungle gym of holds: jugs, crimps, huecos, pockets, slopers, crazy flutings, chickenheads, and horns. Although the individual moves are often straightforward, the challenge is picking the right hold with too many to choose from. No more moaning about long moves or poor footholds, the Red offers more than enough options. The routes are long and move from overhangs to exposed roof. The holds are big, usually jugs with flat tops and rippled edges, digging deep into the base of your forearms with a pump more painful than you've ever experienced before. The Red really does have the biggest holds you'll ever fall off. Here you'll find the famous Fifty Words for Pump, a five star 8c+ in the PMRP.
Another great thing about the Red is the variety of climbing. The area has almost one hundred cliffs, each with its own unique character, and lots of routes at every grade, from French 5s to 9a+ open projects. One of best things about the area is that you don't have to climb hard to find great climbing — many of the easier routes are tall, proud overhanging lines, and I've yet to find a polished route (an advantage over many European limestone areas). And if you tire of clipping bolts, there are a thousand great trad climbs go at as well.
Where to Climb
The size of the Red can often be overwhelming, especially in the North Gorge. I'm not really a trad climber, but the locals claim trad climbing in the area is certainly worth a look. Long Wall probably has the highest concentration of trad routes in the gorge.
Top Picks: Crack Attack 5.9+ at Indian Creek Crag, Day Tripping 5.10 at Eagle Point Buttress, Rock Wars 5.10a at Long Wall.
I spent the majority of my trip in the PMRP, which is just 10 minutes from Lago Linda's if you choose to go for the quieter campsite or a cabin. Most visitors stick to the southern crags, mainly hanging at the suitably named Motherlode. It's probably the most well-known area in the Red as it offers world-class routes ranging from 7a+ and up, but in the high season it can get busy. Although crowds flock to the Motherlode and Drive By (home of perhaps the most aesthetic line in the Red - Kaleidoscope 8a+), it's worth looking for some of the treasures of the smaller areas. Many of the other areas in the PMRP also offer quality hard routes, like the Dark Side, The Chocolate Factory and Bob Marley Crag, so take a day off from Omaha Beach and check them out.
The Motherlode (RRG) Home of the 40m pump classics. If you can't resist, here are some of the Best of the 'Lode':
- Top Picks: Stain 7b+, Tuna Town 7c, Snooker 7c+, Flour Power 8a, The Madness 8a+, Omaha Beach 8b+
Solar Collector/Gold Coast Another great alternative to the Lode with an amazing concentrate of harder, quality routes.
- Top Picks: Golden Shower 7a+, Blue Eyed Honkey Jesus 7b, Golden Boy 7c+, Brilliant Orange 7c+, Black Gold 8a+, God's Own Stone 8b+.
Drive-By Crag A great selection of routes of all grades. Morning sun. Great warm-up crag and a place to beat the bigger crowds at the Motherlode.
- Top Picks: Whipstocking 6c, Hakuna Matata 7a+, Beer Belly 7c+, Kaleidoscope 8a+
Muir Valley Muir Valley is worth at least one visit and hosts a collection of easier classic routes. It has a National Park feel with a proper toilet at the entrance, elaborately groomed paths and small engravings labelling the routes, but luxury comes at the cost of a $10 fee per day to park. You can avoid the fees by walking in, but at the sacrifice of a long trek for the driver.
- Top Picks: Plate Tectonics 5+, Boltergeist 6a+, Karmic Retribution 6b, Bathtub Mary 6c, Banshee 6c, Reload 7b+, Cell Block Six 7b+, Jesus Wept 7c
Miller Fork A new crag that is increasingly popular with over 400 routes. A great area for easier climbs, mixed days of trad and sport and a little experience in the real Kentucky 'backwoods.' Make sure to read the maps carefully and be aware of falling rock on the newer routes. Be aware, you'll need to attain additional permits for some areas like Roadside.
Other Crags not to miss:
Left Flank (RRG)
If you want to stick to the best, here is my personal list of The Best Classic Climbs:
No Sleep Til Campton 6a, What About Bob Wall
Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky 6a+, Muir Valley
Breakfast Burrito 6b, Drive By
Amarillo Sunset 6c, North 40
Fuzzy Undercling 6c, Military Wall
Witness the Citrus 6c+ Miller Fork
The Return of Chris Snyder 7a, Roadside (Limited Access)
Dog Leg 7a+, Bob Marley Crag
Hypocrite 7a+, The Zoo
Swedish Fish 7a+, The Chocolate Factory
Abiyoyo 7b, Muir Valley
Mirage 7b+, The Gallery
Triple Sec 7c, Muir Valley
Snooker 7c+, The Motherlode
Easy Rider 7c+, Drive By
Table of Colors, original 7c+, Left Flank
Bundle of Joy 7c+ at Muir Valley
Cat's demise 8a, The Chocolate Factory
Angry Birds 8a+, Drive By
When's the best time to go?
March-April, October-November. Pack for all temps as The Red can vary heavily in temperature to hot and humid then freezing at night. Massive roofs allow for climbing on rainy days, but bring waterproof gear.
How do I get there?
The Red River Gorge is approximately 50 miles southeast of the city of Lexington in Eastern Kentucky. Check all the nearest airports for cheaper flights: Lexington (1 hour), Louisville (2 hours), and Cincinnati (2 hours). You will need a car to get to the Red from the airport and to get to the crags, however, it is also easy to find rides and climbing partners at Miguel's Pizza if you're solo or without permanent transport.
Where do I stay?
- Miguel's Pizza (606-663-1975) 'the Camp 4 of the East.' The campground is packed and the scene incredible during climbing season. This is a great place to meet people. Rates are just $3 per night. You have to pay separately for showers and it gets loud and busy in season. No reservations needed.
- Largo Linda's (606-464-2876) at $5 per night is just 10 minutes from the PMRP, the largest sport area. Showers are included and are indoors. The scene here is a little quieter than Miguel's – great for folks who like to get a full night's sleep! Reservation needed if you want to camp on a platform.
- Land of the Arches (606-668-7074), in the middle between Miguel's and Linda's, has become a popular camping spot, showers included at $5 per night. They also offer limited hostel rooms indoors you can book in advance.
- The Rustic Red Hostel: a new hostel close to Miguel's rumoured to have the fast Wi-Fi. Beds go at $15 a night in a shared room.
- Group cabins are available at Largo Linda's & Red River Outdoors
- Miguel's and Land of the Arches offer limited rooms as well to book in advance.
What else can I do?
The Red River Gorge also offers extensive hiking paths and trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest. At the nearby Natural Bridge State Park, don't miss the local climbers running the zip line.
Nearby climbing areas for a change of pace:
New River Gorge, Virginia – 4 hours drive – Sport climbing on compact smooth sandstone between breaks. A rivalry stands strong between the gorges. Some say it's the harder of the two sport crags known for stout grades.
World-class bouldering in the Chattanooga sandstone triptych:
- Stone Fort at Little Rock City, Tennessee – 4 hours
- Rocktown, Georgia - 5 hours
- Font-style sandstone at Horse Pens Forty in Steele, Alabama – 5 hours
What's the best guide?
There are way too many guides for the Red – to keep it simple go with Red River Gorge Rock Climbs South, 5th Edition (2017) from Wolverine Publishing for the main classic sport areas like the PMRP, including the Motherlode. Anything else, you can search for on redriverclimbing.com, the online guide including beta 'spray' and star ratings.
For the Guidebook Geeks:
- Red River Gorge Rock Climb North, 5th Edition (2015) from Wolverine Publishing for trad and areas popular among the locals like Left Flank, Military Wall, and Funk Rock City.
- Best of the Red (2017) for a short list of the best sport climbs in the whole of the gorge from Sharp End Books.
- Miller Fork Guidebook by Ray Ellington. The most recently developed and now very popular area in the Red.
Where can I buy gear and food?
Miguel's Pizza! Miguel has an extensive climbing gear shop and serves incredibly cheap and tasty pizzas, pasta and rice dishes, salads, and breakfasts. Eating at Miguel's is an essential part of the Red River Gorge "experience." Some climbers like it so much they eat here every meal of their trip! What they don't serve, though, is beer as it's a dry county, so you'll have to drive about 5 miles down the road to Beer King to have a brew with your dinner. Also, the petrol station Koops moonlightings as the local hangout and the go-to for crag sandwiches. The Rock House is the trendy climber's bar with good burgers and an eclectic selection of beer.
The nearest supermarkets are in Stanton (about 12 miles from Miguel's) although limited in size and quality. There's a Save-A-Lot for cheap groceries or Kroger for slightly more eccentric tastes. Signing up for a free Kroger card also gets you discounts. Lexington (1 hour drive) is a small city with just about every facility you could want, including Wal-Mart.
- Booze: the food shops are in a dry county, so hit up the Beer King for the cheapest beer on the way back from the crag
- Cell service: pretty much non-existent, get a sim card from Three if you need to call home.
- Clothing: downie, waterproof and flip flops
- Food storage: bring/buy a cooler, you'll need a way of keeping your food while camping
- Gear: if you love trad, make sure you pack that rack / sport climbers bring at least an 80m rope, but many of the routes have perma-draw, clip stick & rope bag with a tarp for the sandy bottoms of routes.
- Internet: the Wi-Fi at Miguel's is almost unusable. The Rock House fares a bit better but bottom line, don't expect to get much work done…
- PMRP roads: the locals get pretty upset when newbies come and ruin the steep gravel roads leading down to the PMRP. Park at the top and walk down to the crags (30 mins approx. to Drive By) if you don't have four-wheel drive