Red River Gorge, Kentucky – August 2015

Indian Arch on Sheltowee Trace trail.

Since our last hiking trip at the beginning of August, we took a cruise to Bermuda then did nothing for a week. Last weekend (August 21-23), we went on another hiking adventure to Red River Gorge, which is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky.

We invited several people, but due to various schedules only our friend and fitness trainer DM was able to go with us. Since I had burned a ton of vacation already this year, it was decided that I’d go ahead and work Friday, leave at 3pm (at work by 7a, no lunch), go to the house to pick Deb and DM up, then drive the ~4 hours to the Bison Way trailhead, at which point we’d pitch our tents nearby and wait for the morning before hiking.

Things went according to plan until we reached Lexington, Kentucky. We stopped for dinner at Outback Steakhouse, and it took longer than we thought. By time we arrived at the trailhead, it was after 9pm and dark. Upon taking a quick survey of the area, it was clear that there were no places to set up the tents nearby. Everything was very hilly and on top of that, you had to be 300 feet from any trail or road way.

Parking lot for the Bison Way trailhead.

Parking lot for the Bison Way trailhead.

We drove a little more up the road, but decided to go back and ensure we had a parking spot for morning. The word is that the Gorge gets busy on nice weekends like this, so it seemed prudent to get a spot while we could. That meant sleeping in the car. Three grown adults in a Nissan Juke. Before going to “bed”, we did some stargazing and DM took some pictures of the sky. It was totally clear and we could see the galactic disk! That’s a rarity for us city folk.

It was about 11:30 pm when we settled down for what sleep we could. I was in the driver’s seat, Deb in the passenger seat, and DM was in the backseat. You might think he had the best place, but I sort of doubt it as there is little leg room, and less still once we reclined a little. As for myself, I managed about 3 separate blocks of 2 hour sleep periods. It was by no means comfortable, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be.

About 1am in the morning, a car pulled into the lot directly in front of our car, headlights shining in our windshield. As soon as they stopped, the reversed out and drove off. I figured it was because the lot was pretty much full, and dozed off again. Around 30 minutes later another car pulled in, and this time it was a Ranger. DM was outside taking pictures again, and I heard them talking. Turns out someone or multiple someones were driving around and breaking into a bunch of cars! Us sleeping in the Juke probably saved multiple cars in the Bison Way lot from getting vandalized!

About 7:15 to 7:30am we got up and started organizing our stuff. We had to wait around until 9am before we could get our overnight Permit from the Gladie Visitor’s Center, which was about 1/8th of a mile up the road. Our plan was to simply walk up there, get the permit, walk back, then start hiking.

First thing we did after waking was to make some breakfast. Oatmeal for Deb and I and who knows what for DM.

Deb and the Juke after we slept in it.

Deb and the Juke after we slept in it.

After the permit was obtained and hung on the rearview mirror, we got our packs on and started hiking.

From left to right:  Me (Jamison), Deb, and DM.

From left to right: Me (Jamison), Deb, and DM.

The Bison Way Trail was reported to be 0.8 miles long, and I guess that seemed about right. The trail starts gently up hill and for the most part looks like any other typical wooded area at sub 1000 ft elevation. In no time at all we were at the intersection with the Sheltowee Trace trail, and we proceeded west on it. Our intention was to get to Grey’s Arch and set up camp around there. Depending on what map or reports you looked at, it was around 12 to 13 miles to that point.

Shortly after starting on the Sheltowee, the character of the place started to emerge. Sheer cliffs of a non-insignificant height, really cool erosion patterns in the rock faces, and excellent views of the valleys.

Interesting erosion.  Looks like an alien hive.

Interesting erosion. Looks like an alien hive.

Perhaps two miles in we came up our first of what purported to be many arches. This one was called Indian Arch, and it was approached by a set of wooden stairs.

Indian Arch on Sheltowee Trace trail.

Indian Arch on Sheltowee Trace trail.

While taking pictures here, we met a group of four and started talking. They told us about Cloud Splitter, which was further up the trail. I made a mental note to go explore it if we could find the right side trail. We started hoofing it again, finding the trail to be pretty well maintained and in spite of the views, there didn’t seem to be a ton of elevation gain or loss. After some indeterminate amount of time, we reached a three way intersection. I chose to go on the path that looked more worn and was a straighter “tangent” relative to the trail we came in on. Deb pointed out that there was a blaze that might indicate we should take the trail that was nearly a 360 degree turn.

Well we took my way, and it was good because of the views. The pictures do not do the area justice.

One of many similar views along Sheltowee Trace in the Red River Gorge system.

One of many similar views along Sheltowee Trace in the Red River Gorge system.

After walking down this trail and seeing several of the above views, the trail all of a sudden became much more difficult to traverse and to find. It was barely worn and mostly grown over. Eventually we found that we were essentially above the Bison Way trailhead, albeit a couple hundred feet higher. I finally said “Hey, I think we took a wrong turn!” while Deb and DM agreed. They didn’t give me too hard a time about the extra distance. As we were making our way back to the proper trail, we passed a young lady out for a run, and eventually she realized she had also done the same thing we had.

Once we were back on the right trail, we took a quick lunch and talked with the aforementioned lost runner, and another hiking couple that came up on us. They were also talking about Cloud Splitter, and they were of the mind that the views on the trail we just took were it. I was not convinced and again made a mental note to look out for it. We commenced hiking again, and saw more nice views, more cool rock formations. The trail is not marked at all, and even the trail maps do not indicate section lengths, so we had no idea how far we had hiked, or not, as the case seemed to be.

Some time later, we came upon yet another couple, and a dog. I asked them about Cloud Splitter, and they said that’s where they were returning from and that it was just up the trail. He told us to look for a spot where two little streams of water were crossing the trail. Right between those two streams was a trail on the right that led straight up to Cloud Splitter. I thanked them and we moved on. We reached the spot in no time, and I decided to get a GPS reading of where the trail was. If we hadn’t been told, we would not have found it. The trail is not particularly obvious. We should have built a cairn there. Maybe next time.

Location of side trail off of Sheltowee Trace to Cloud Splitter.

Location of side trail off of Sheltowee Trace to Cloud Splitter.

The climb up to Cloud Splitter is pretty tough, but not all that long. Expect a couple of rock scrambles, and the final approach you have to use a rope to haul yourself up.

Deb pulling herself up over the last bit to Cloud Splitter.

Deb pulling herself up over the last bit to Cloud Splitter.

The views up top are fantastic, with a nearly 360 degree view of the valley. There is a lone campsite up there, though it was taken. It would be rather scary to be up there at night I would think, as you have no margin of error else you end up a couple hundred feet below on the valley floor. Again, my pictures do not do it justice.

Panoramic from atop Cloud Splitter.

Panoramic from atop Cloud Splitter.

The sky was pretty clear, and the sun was pretty intense, and all three of us started to feel drained by heat up there, so after about 30 minutes we climbed down. We heard there was a fairly hard to reach cave right below the peak, so we went and found it and crawled through to the cave. This again is not something an unfit person could do, or one that is claustrophobic. At first you have to go through a tunnel that is about shoulder wide. Not so bad. At the end is a little tree trunk you have to climb to get to the next section.

Narrow space before the cave.

Narrow space before the cave.

Once you climb up there, you have to get on your hands and knees to crawl through a short “tunnel” before having to use another tree trunk and the sloping wall to get down out of. At the bottom it’s so narrow you have to point your feet towards the far end of the cave because that’s the only way they’ll fit. Once you’re through that, you’re in the cave with a nice view of one side of the valley. The cave was hard to get pictures in because it was either really bright or really dark.

Deb and DM discussing life in the cave below Cloud Splitter.

Deb and DM discussing life in the cave below Cloud Splitter.

After an hour total we decided we had better get to hiking again, so we slowly exited the cave and climbed back down to the trail below. For the next hour or so the trail winds through the woods and rock, with nothing but gentle changes of elevation. It really is a pretty easy hike as far as terrain goes.

An eternity later, we reached the suspension bridge which I understood meant we were entering in the to Red River Gorge “proper.”

The suspension bridge on the Sheltowee Trace trail.

The suspension bridge on the Sheltowee Trace trail.

It was approaching dinner time, and it long ago was obvious we weren’t making it to Grey’s Arch, so the plan was to take the first campsite we found and relax for the evening. It also helped that the river was right there, and word was that there was a swimming hole not too far up the trail from the bridge.

Perhaps just a quarter mile in I saw a small trail leading up a hill, and I went to explore it. Midway up was a flat area with a campfire ring. Bingo, we had our home for the night.

Hillside campsite at Red River Gorge.  The trail and Red River are in the distance.

Hillside campsite at Red River Gorge. The trail and Red River are in the distance.

After setting up, we gathered our valuables and walked down to the swimming hole. There was a nice sized cliff there, about 15 feet high that people were jumping from. I couldn’t help myself and jumped in. Then I did it again, and again, and again. It was good fun. The water was very deep, I never did hit the bottom and I’m sure at my size and from that height I went pretty deep with each jump.

Cliff jumping at Red River Gorge, near the suspension bridge.

Me Cliff jumping at Red River Gorge, near the suspension bridge.

I jumped 4 or 5 times, then noticed Deb and DM were getting water downstream, so I figured I better end the fun and help them. Before I did, I went even further downstream and took a quick bath with some “organic” soap that Deb had bought along. Once I was clean, I helped fill our bottles, then we went back to camp, made a fire, ate, and hung out for couple hours before going to bed.

The tent was at a slight angle, so it wasn’t the best sleep ever, but it still beat the pants out of sleeping in a car. At some point that night a light rain began to fall, but it was never heavy and none of our stuff save the rain fly got wet. Not even our boots.

Upon waking in the 7 O’clock hour, I set about gathering my stuff. Deb joined me, and a short time later DM did as well. I could tell the enthusiasm for continuing was not high, so I made the command decision to just hike back to the car via the forest road, which I figured was no more than two miles up the road. That proved to be a popular choice and for once I wasn’t wrong in my reckoning.

A very easy and relaxed walk later, we were back at the car and driving towards the interstate, but not before going to Miguels for pizza. We heard about Miguels from the young lady that got lost on the same trail we had. She also told us they had gluten free pizza, so it was a must visit at that point!

Finding it was quite easy after stopping at a gas station for further directions. It may not have the look of great pizza, however I must say the pizza was actually really good. I’ll be going there again the next time I go to the Gorge!

Miguels Pizza, a few miles outside of Red River Gorge.

Miguels Pizza, a few miles outside of Red River Gorge.

Pizza!  Two of these pies were gluten free and quite good!

Pizza! Two of these pies were gluten free and quite good!

Summary

It’s really hard to tell how far we hiked the first day due to how windy the trail is and with the exploration of Cloud Splitter and the detour earlier in the day. I’d say it was in the 8 mile range, with another easy two miles the next day.

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