Red River Gorge
If you've been following my adventures this summer you may recall that my trip to Sleeping Bear back in June was originally being planned as a trip to Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. The trip was derailed when I saw that thunderstorms were predicted all weekend and instead of going South we went North to Sleeping Bear. That was the right move, as we experienced perfect weather on that trip.
While the trip to Kentucky was derailed in June, it was not deterred. For our last camping trip of 2015 Sarah and I headed South on October 18/19/20th to accomplish what we couldn't 3 months ago. I kept a close eye on the weather leading up to the trip and it was looking like blue skies for all 3 days.
While we would liked to have kept this a pure backpacking trip, the things to see in the Red River Gorge area are too numerous for such a short trip. The plan was to essentially play it by ear and be willing to get back in the car if it meant seeing another part of the area in a timely manner. Even using this approach we could have stayed another week and still not taken in all of the awesomeness it has to offer.
We arrived at RRG around 1:00 pm and found the first trails we wanted to check out. The Auxier Ridge and Double Arch Loops. We first ventured down into a gorge alongside Auxier Ridge to retrieve water.
After watering up the plan was to go back up the gorge to complete Double Arch and then head back to complete Auxier Ridge. The hike up to Double Arch provided some views of towering cliffs and interesting fauna.
Double Arch is a small arch on top of another larger arch. There was a family of 4 climbing up into the upper arch and hanging their feet off the edge. The views were spectacular and the drop off the cliff was just a little terrifying.
At this point we had the option to hike back out on Double Arch and continue on Auxier Ridge or we could keep going onto what is called "Double Arch Extension", which is an unofficial trail shown on an unofficial map. Unofficial sounded fun and exciting, so we went for it. There are only a few photos from this part of the trail. For our own safety we had to pay attention to what we were doing. The level of difficulty caught us off guard.
I'll paraphrase the description of this trail from a guidebook lent to us by a friend:
"Double Arch Extension is the most difficult trail in this guidebook"
We didn't read about this trail until after the fact and found ourselves climbing up near vertical chutes using rocks and roots to hold onto with only small ledges followed by sheer cliff behind us. It was a bit nerve wracking for me and I think for Sarah at times too, but over 30-45 minutes we managed to scramble our way up the ridge. The walk along this ridge provided some beautiful views and even had a few nice campsites. The scramble down the other end of it was just about as sketchy as the climb up, but we managed to do it without major incident. We bushwhacked back out to the official Double Arch Trail and found it was almost dinner time. From there we headed back toward the trail head and onto the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail, which brought us onto a beautiful ridge where we could make camp. The location of this ridge was perfect. It would provide us with clear views of both sunset and sunrise.
On the menu for night 1 was Mountain House chili mac for me and ramen noodles + Packit Gourmet Ramen Rescue for Sarah. The chili mac was ok, but not nearly as good as the Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili.
In an effort to decrease my pack weight I decided to switch from my Dpower stove to a Zelph Stoves Fancee Feest alcohol stove on this trip. I will be reviewing that stove as well as my new pot in the future.
After a good sleep we woke up watch the sunrise on the other side of the ridge while discussing our plans for the day. We knew we wanted to explore an area called Indian Staircase, which features a steep rock face with foot/hand holds supposedly worn into sandstone by natives. This area was not in hiking distance from our campsite, so after breakfast we headed back to the car.
We arrived at the Bison Way trail head and headed out to find the Indian Staircase. Little did we know that taking the path less traveled was about to become the theme of this trip. About 1/8th of a mile onto the trail we decided to take a trail to the left instead of to the right. This steep trail brought us to the base of a ridge and had us staring at yet another vertical chute with roots and rocks. I kind of wanted to head back and take the easy way, but Sarah offered to scout out the top before we committed to taking this way. She said it looked good and gave me a very persuasive grin, so off we went. This trail wasn't even on the unofficial map. It was unofficially unofficial. No photos were taken of this trail, but it wasn't nearly as bad as Double Arch Extension. At this point I decided that the path less traveled is usually more fun anyway. We made it to the top and were able to pinpoint the plateau we were on, which was at the end of an officially unofficial trail. That means it was on our unofficial map.
We took this trail for a short while and stopped for lunch along the way. We knew this would bring us to the top of Indian Staircase instead of the bottom. After lunch we kept going and enjoyed some awesome views of the gorge and Indian Staircase on the other side.
After making our way off one ridge and around to another we finally found ourselves at the top of Indian Staircase. We took some time to relax and enjoy the sights with a rock called "Frog Head."
Then it was time to descend Indian Staircase. Based on the guide book this sounded a bit difficult, and another hiker who had just come up it said the climb down was harder. We found it to be a piece of cake compared to the rock scrambling and bushwhacking we had been doing for the last 2 days. You can see the divots ground into the sandstone to create the staircase.
We had decided at the top of Indian Staircase that we didn't really see any campsites we loved. On the map we saw something called "Chimney Top Rock" a short drive from us. We took the easy trail back to the car and headed for it. On the drive Sarah read the guide book and it said there was a overlook campground close to Chimney Top and only 1/4 mile off the road. We found the trail to it and the view was fantastic. We had views of Half Moon Rock to the left, Pinch 'em Tight straight ahead, and Chimney Top Rock to the right.
Our campsite was about 50 feet back from the overlook, but we hung out and ate dinner on the overlook. It was an incredible site. We were joined by an inch worm and a katydid for dinner.
Dinner was a Mountain House Lasagna for me and macaroni and cheese with salami for Sarah. The sun set behind Chimney Top Rock and we were out like a light.
The following morning was spent having breakfast on the overlook. The temps were a chilly 40F, but we spent a good 3 hours on the overlook watching the sun come up behind us to illuminate the gorge in front of us. Possibly the most beautiful campsite either of us has ever had.
After packing up camp we headed back to the car and drove to the parking lot for Chimney Top Rock and Princess Arch. We spent an hour or so exploring these areas. It was pretty cool to be able to see our campsite from Chimney Top and Princess Arch offered some fun photo ops.
Before heading home we had to make one more stop. I don't think anyone talks about Red River Gorge without mentioning Miguel's Pizza. This is an RRG institution. Not only do they serve great food, but Miguel's acts as a hub for the rock climbers that are ever-present in the Gorge. They have bathrooms, showers, and a large field to camp in so that climbers can come to the area and set up a base camp. We enjoyed a pepperoni/mushroom/onion/pineapple pizza and then headed for home.
Red River Gorge is a MUST VISIT for anyone looking for some of the best camping and hiking in the U.S. It is a unique area that is hard to find in the middle of the country. Sarah and I are already putting together plans for a visit next year.