Looking for an autumn weekend getaway? The Red River Gorge and surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest is within an easy day’s drive of most Kentuckians.
Located in eastern Kentucky, the sprawling Boone Forest is the largest area of public land in the state (more than 707,000 acres across 21 counties), and noted for its many natural stone arches. The Red River Gorge is especially beautiful in the fall.
The Daniel Boone National Forest boasts many natural attractions. For example, it contains the largest trail system in Kentucky, including the 278-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. Sheltowee, or Big Turtle, was the name given to Daniel Boone when he was captured by Shawnee Indians in 1778.
Also contained within the Daniel Boone National Forest are Kentucky’s only two wilderness areas (encompassing 18,000 acres), the largest number of caves of any national forest in the South, and the largest concentration of rock shelters in the East. The forest is also habitat for more than 200 endangered, threatened, or sensitive species of plants and wildlife.
Not to be missed is the Red River Gorge Geological Area, a national natural landmark. Within the gorge is Clifty Wilderness, a rugged, undeveloped 12,646 acres of rock arches, rock shelters, and towering cliffs. These formations encircle steep, forested slopes overlooking narrow stream valleys. The rugged terrain offers hikers physical challenges, as well as the reward of finding solitude in a forest setting.
One of the more easily accessible and impressive natural rock bridges is Sky Bridge along KY 715. The top of this 75-foot arch offers a spectacular view of both the Red River Gorge and Clifty Wilderness Area, and can be reached via a short, paved walkway from the parking lot.
For those who would like to take a driving tour to see the fall beauty, take the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway. Begin on either end of the 46-mile byway, or in between. From the north, at Stanton follow KY 15 to KY 77 north (left) along the Red River and through the one-way, 900-foot Nada Tunnel. You then bear right onto KY 715 (Sky Bridge Road), passing by the Gladie Center, to Pine Ridge and KY 15 (turn right), to Slade and back onto KY 11 (left) south ending in Zachariah.
Joy Malone, a recreation staff officer with the Daniel Boone National Forest, explains how the many natural bridges were formed. “Geologically, the area is made up mostly of sandstone and limestone, relatively soft rocks,” she says. “Wind and water erosion over time has carved these massive rock formations. For a more in-depth understanding, I’d encourage visitors to stop by our Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center. There, we have displays thoroughly detailing the entire natural bridge formation process.”
The center, located along KY 715, is open seven days a week from mid-March through mid-November; Monday through Friday the remainder of the year. Also featured at the center is the Gladie Cabin, a reconstructed log house dating back to the late 19th century.
“Because of the terrain, rock climbing is also very popular in the Daniel Boone National Forest,” says Malone, “so visitors may likely see some climbing activity while here. It’s mainly of three types: traditional climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering.”
For those looking to camp near the gorge, a developed campground at Koomer Ridge is open from mid-April through the fall foliage season. All campsites accommodate tents, and some are suitable for camper trailers. A few sites remain open year-round, but no flush toilets or showers are available during the off-season.
Camping is permitted in the Daniel Boone National Forest, but not within 300 feet of roads or Forest Service trails. Also, for safety’s sake, no camping is allowed within 100 feet of the base of cliffs or in rock shelters. In addition, an overnight backcountry camping permit must be purchased at the Gladie Center or one of several businesses in the area.
An interesting way of entering the Daniel Boone National Forest and Red River Gorge area from the west is through the 900-foot Nada Tunnel along KY 77. This one-lane tunnel, built of stone, was constructed by a logging company in the early 20th century and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Red River Gorge of the Daniel Boone National Forest
Contact the Gladie Center at 3451 Skybridge Road, Stanton, KY 40380, (606) 663-8100, or the forest supervisor’s office, 1700 Bypass Road, Winchester, KY 40391, (859) 745-3100. Visit the forest Web site at www.fs.fed.us/r8/boone
How to get there:
From Lexington, take Interstate 64 east to Exit 98 (Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, #402); take the parkway to Exit 33 (Slade Exit); turn left at the junction of KY 11 and KY 15. Travel 1.5 miles west on KY 15 to KY 77, and follow the signs.
MORE PLACES TO VISIT IN BOONE FOREST AREA
Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Adjacent to the Red River Gorge Geological Area of the Daniel Boone National Forest is Natural Bridge State Resort Park, 2135 Natural Bridge Road, in Slade. Spectacular views of Natural Bridge are possible via a hike or chairlift ride. Administered by Kentucky State Parks and available at the park are rooms at Hemlock Lodge, dining facilities, cabins, gift shop, nature center, playground, and two developed campgrounds. Activities include hiking, picnicking, swimming, backpacking, rock climbing, fishing, canoeing, and mini-golf.
(800) 325-1710 or (606) 663-2214
www.parks.ky.gov (go to Parks tab, Resort/Natural Bridge)
Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
4441 KY 1833, Buckhorn. Stay at cottages or Buckhorn Lodge, dine at Bowlingtown Country Kitchen, enjoy fishing, boating, and more.
(800) 325-0058 or (606) 398-7510
www.parks.ky.gov (go to Parks tab, Resort/Buckhorn Lake)
Morris Fork Crafts
930 Morris Fork Road, Booneville. Features more than 80 crafters from more than 20 eastern Kentucky counties. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., or call ahead. Saturdays by appointment.
Cave Run Lake
The 8,270-acre lake, located near Morehead and almost entirely within the boundaries of the Daniel Boone National Forest, offers fishing, boating, skiing, and swimming.
Red River Outdoors
415 Natural Bridge Road, Slade. This business rents cabins and offers many outdoor activities, including rock-climbing guide service, paintball, canoeing, and kayaking.