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Red River Gorge



The Red River Gorge is outdoor Kentucky's crown jewel and its biggest problem. It is a spectacular place that is already a national recreation area and could easily be a national park. But its convenient location just off the four lane Mountain Parkway, a short drive from Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati, invites hordes of visitors every weekend. In the words of UK biology professor Roger Barbour, "The gorge is in danger of being loved to death."

The Gorge has an uneven history. For a thousand years or so, the Adena people inhabited the cliffs and rock shelters, farming the bottoms and fishing and hunting the area. They prospered, and archaelogists are still wondering why they left.

But the Gorge remained empty for another 1000 years. Then Daniel Boone spent his first Kentucky winter at the head of Martins Fork in 1769-70.

White men extracted nitre(used in gunpowder), then iron, and finally silver, from the cliffs during the 1800s. But in 1911 they drilled a tunnel through and laid a rail line, which allowed full scale timbering of the huge trees. Remains of old splash dams, log flumes, camps, roads and railbeds can still be seen by the sharpsighted. Once the trees were gone, the rails were torn up and the place abandoned to subsistence farmers, trappers and moonshiners.

So the Gorge became a classic pocket of Appalachia, accessible only by difficult trails or a long, winding badly rutted mud road following the river up from Stanton. For most of a century trees grew back and the streams cleansed themselves. By 1960, the Gorge had been rediscovered by backpackers, canoeists, hunters and fishermen willing to make the long trek in for the isolation and beauty. University botanists discovered a hundred rare plants and oil prospectors probed the plateaus. The state finally paved a road over the old trackbed through the tunnel so children could be transported out to school.

Then in 1966 the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam across the Red River which would have inundated the whole place except for a few fingers of land. Somehow a state movement sprang into action to stop the dam. Save The Gorge bumper stickers appeared everywhere.

The battle was finally won, but by the time it was over, everyone in a five state region knew about the Gorge. And they've been coming to see for themselves ever since.

What keeps them coming is an extravaganza. The Red River Gorge has more natural arches than anyplace else in the world except Arches National Park in Utah. Rock climbers consider the cliffs here one of the nation's finest locales. Amateur archaelogists and lovers of Native American history can wander around for weeks exploring the caves and rock shelters used by Adenas. Petroglyphs mark the walls, hominy holes pock the floors, and arrowheads and shaped stones are collected by the sharp eyed. Small fish called Darters live in the small side streams and trout can be caught in larger waters. Canoeists relax on the Red River all summer, but in the Spring and after heavy rains, the Upper Red is one of America's greatest whitewater paddling runs.

Birds circle in the sky and rare plants grow down in the ravines. Fossils can be collected along the sandstone cliffs. An extensive trail network provides both day hikers and backpackers a season worth of different routes. The Clifty Wilderness and Calaboose Trailless Area invite experienced backwoodsmen to head out on their own. Campers can lay awake at night and listen to wildcats and black bear prowling around. Many lunch stops and campsites border streams with nice swimming holes. Spring and Fall offer one of the nation's greatest woodland wildflower shows, especially with white and pink ladyslipper, five species of goldenrod, the nation's largest ironweed and joe pye weed, and boneset. Photographers can spend a roll of film on one place, as the sun moving across the sky reflects differently at different angles and brings out different colors in the same cliff face or rock formation.
The Gorge is also part of a larger area, all within the Daniel Boone National Forest. which offers additional pursuits. The Sheltowee Trace, a long distance trail extending from Tennessee to Ohio, cuts across the Gorge. Natural Bridge State Park, adjacent to the Gorge boundary to the South, contains not only the magnificent Natural Bridge, but numerous trails, formations, a campground, cabins, lodge and fine restaurant. Just east of the state park is Via Ferrata, with its own cabins, lodge and extensive network of steps, cables and swinging bridges providing access to a series of cliffs. Within the Gorge is Koomer Ridge Campground and clusters of rental cabins along Martins Fork and Rock Bridge Road. You can drive to two spectacular sites, Sky Bridge and Chimney Top, with only short walks down paved paths. Groups new to the Gorge can camp at Natural Bridge, Koomer Ridge, Pumpkin Hollow or Riverside, or rent a cabin for a weekend, and day hike the area while becoming familiar with it. But get there early Friday. Those sites fill up.
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