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6 Wild Adventures In The Red River Gorge

The Kentucky valley is a rock-climber’s paradise, but if you know the ropes, you can enjoy the spectacular scenery without those skills.

Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, east of Lexington and four hours from Indianapolis, is one of the area’s most visually stunning playgrounds. The emphasis is on the gorge and not the river—the waterway is anemic, but the namesake valley, known for tall cliffs and rock formations, registers drama on the scale of a national park out West. The Red, as the area is called, is also not overly developed or touristy—just pristine woodlands and sandstone crags delivering adventure and peace and quiet. But not a lot of cell service. Here’s what you’ll do instead of stare at a screen:

Stay in a treehouse.

Canopy Crew, a tree-maintenance company in Cincinnati, offers the Red’s best glamping in deluxe treehouses and a set of geodesic dome tents. All have real beds, and most have modern showers, toilets, electricity, and air conditioning. But you’ll feel off the grid in these secluded settings, even if you technically aren’t. We like Dome Town, a hillside arrangement of three private sleeping domes and a bathroom dome on wooden decks connected by hanging bridges. It’s the only rental with a canopy net you can lie on high in the trees. Rates start at about $250 per night for two people.

Canopy Crew treehouse Red River Gorge

Canopy Crew’s Dome Town treehouses in Kentucky’s Red River GorgePhoto by Adia Wells

Do your first rock climb.

Via Ferrata (“iron way” or “via iron” in Italian) is a style of beginning rock climbing that uses steel ladder rungs embedded in the cliffs as hand-and-foot holds. You’re also clipped into a cable system—you can even let go and the rope will support your full weight so you can rest. It’s a great way to get a taste of the exhilarating activity (and natural acoustics) the Red is best known for. Southeast Mountain Guides gets you vertical.

Via Ferrata rock climbing Red River Gorge

Via Ferrata rock climbing with Southeast Mountain Guides in Kentucky’s Red River GorgePhoto by Jacob Jesionek

Kayak to a swimming hole.

The Red River might not be impressive, but it’s still good for a splashy arm workout. At Red River Adventure, you’ll start upstream. If the water is high enough to clear rocky patches, you will have to paddle hard. If it’s not, you’ll need to get out and drag your kayak in a few places. The rewards, after 2 miles, are a swimming-hole party spot where people leap off Jump Rock, and the bouncy return trip downstream.

Stay cool underground.

Don’t want to work so hard in your kayak? You can paddle through an abandoned, flooded mine at Thrillsville Adventure Park. You’ll have a coat, a headlamp, and a guided group for the excursion through Gorge Grotto, where the water is crystal-clear and the air temperature is about 55 degrees. Stand-up paddleboarding is available, too—but the water is freezing, so don’t do this unless you can stay on your feet.

Walk across a rock arch.

There are about 160 natural arches in the Red River Gorge and adjacent Natural Bridge State Park. Hiking to one of them is a must. Natural Bridge is a classic, though crowded. You can walk across the flat top after you make it up the short, steep path and through the Lemon Squeezer passageway. Download any trail maps on the All Trails app before you leave home, because you might not get cell service in the gorge.

Natural Bridge Red River Gorge

Natural Bridge State Resort Park in KentuckyPhoto by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Conquer a one-way tunnel.

Nada Tunnel was largely hand-forged more than 100 year ago for a logging railroad. Now it’s a one-car passage on a two-way road (and on the National Register of Historic Places), but traffic control isn’t much more sophisticated than it was way back when—it’s just the honor system. You can see through the whole 900-foot-long, 12-foot-wide tunnel when it’s empty. When it’s your turn, switch on your headlights and drive through, slowly enough to appreciate the rough-hewn interior. But sometimes you get stuck behind a couple of cars playing chicken until someone backs out. Once you make it through, you might as well go see Sky Bridge.

Fernandez began writing for Indianapolis Monthly in 1995 while studying journalism at Indiana University. One of her freelance assignments required her to join a women's full-tackle football team for a season. She joined the staff in 2005 to edit IM's ancillary publications, including Indianapolis Monthly Home. In 2011, she became a senior editor responsible for the Circle City section as well as coverage of shopping, homes, and design-related topics. Now a contributing editor for Indianapolis Monthly, she lives in Garfield Park.
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