Rock Climbing at Red River Gorge
By Dan Mackey, MS
The Daniel Boone National Forest is the only national forest located completely within the boundaries of Kentucky. Established in 1937, it was originally named the Cumberland National Forest, after the core region called the Cumberland Purchase Unit. Containing over 706,000 acres in 21 counties of eastern Kentucky, the Daniel Boone National Forest stretches from Morehead, Kentucky, to the Tennessee border. It offers an array of outdoor activities including rock climbing, hiking, biking, fishing, boating and camping.
Located primarily within the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Red River Gorge is a nearly 30,000-acre canyon system filled with an abundance of natural stone arches, sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, rock shelters, bridges, and strange rock formations. It is designated as a National Geological Area, as well as a Natural Landmark. If you consider yourself an experienced rock climber, chances are you’ve been to the Red River Gorge, or have at least heard of it. People from all over the world come to this area to climb, as it is known as one of the world’s top rock climbing destinations.
The Red River Gorge, or “The Red” as it’s commonly referred to, is home to a vast series of bolted routes on overhanging cliffs offering visitors the ultimate climbing challenge. In addition to countless different, single pitch sport climbing routes, there are also numerous traditional climbing and rappelling routes in the region. The Motherlode, an area of “The Red” where the “hard climbers” spend most of their time, boasts the highest concentration of the steepest and longest routes, ranging from various 5.11s up to a handful of 5.14s. Among the 73 various routes, some of the classic and most popular are “Snapper,” “Heart Shaped Box,” “Tuna Town,” “Forty Ounces of Justice” and “Hoofmaker.”
As I’m sure you realize, rock climbing can be a very dangerous sport, especially for anybody climbing for the first time. If this describes you, you may want to consider a couple options before heading to “The Red” and trying to tackle The Motherlode. Before attempting a climb you should think about taking an intro to climbing class, where the instructors not only teach basic knot tying, proper climbing etiquette and how to belay, but they also give pointers on actual climbing skills. Most instructional climbing classes take place indoors at a rock climbing gym. Rock climbing requires several pieces of safety gear to successfully climb any route. Even beginner climbers should know and understand that a harness, climbing shoes, carabiners, and an Air Traffic Control (ATC)/Belay device are some of the most basic pieces of gear that every climber must know how to operate.
If you’re a climbing beginner but have no interest in spending time in a climbing gym, there are numerous companies that lead guided climbing trips throughout the Red River Gorge. Red River Outdoors and Fox Mountain Guides & Climbing School offer guided climbing and instruction specifically about “The Red” itself. For anyone new to climbing, I highly recommend using a guide.
Whether you’re a beginner, experienced, or professional climber, there are still many rules everyone must obey while spending time at the Red River Gorge. As the United States Forest Service makes clear, “Cliffline areas within the Daniel Boone National Forest contain many fragile cultural and biological resources. Extensive use can permanently damage these resources.” All visitors are asked to follow simple rules to help protect this beautiful, unique forest.
The Daniel Boone National Forest attracts more than one million visitors each year. One favorite activity is hiking along the cliffs of the Red River Gorge area and discovering rock shelters. These are areas of recessed rock that create a shelter from wind and rain. Because of their protection, the shelters contain clues about the first residents of the area. The Paleo Indians arrived about 13,000 years ago when glaciers still covered much of the land. From time to time, small groups of these prehistoric people took up residence in the rock shelters. In 2003, the Red River Gorge, Clifty Wilderness and the Indian Creek area were designated a National Archeological District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Digging in rock shelters and looting them for archeological items is prohibited. These restrictions are necessary to preserve the historic information and artifacts retrieved from these sites.
Most recreation activities in the Daniel Boone National Forest do not require fees or permits; however, fees are required at boat ramps and campgrounds. The rock climbing rules and additional information about visiting Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge can be found on the United States Forest Service website, www.fs.uada.gov/dbnf.
Rock Climbing at Red River Gorge