Beating the heat of Kentucky’s endless summer at Red River Gorge

It’s been a long, hot summer here in Kentucky. In fact, summer refuses to end, with temperatures still in the 90s even though fall officially began last week. So what better way to close out September than escaping to the Rough Trail at Red River Gorge (RRG) for a hike and a pint?

Red River Gorge, the Bluegrass State’s premier hiking area

Heather and I have been hiking in RRG, which lies in the Daniel Boone National Forest at the foothills of eastern Kentucky, for more than 20 years. Boasting a vast array of easy to moderate trails with stunning views of numerous limestone arches, as well as world-class rock climbing, RRG has long been the go-to destination for hikers and climbers alike.

A different view of Red River Gorge

Most hikers gravitate to trails offering access to one or more of the incredible limestone arches and formations, including Natural Bridge, Double Arch, Courthouse Rock, and Chimney Top Rock. While these hikes are wonderful, they include sections skirting the tops of ridgelines. These offer spectacular views of the entire region, but leave you exposed to the sun for extended periods of time. As the temps were expected to be well into the 90s, we opted instead to hike a path that promised a mostly shaded experience. After consulting our handy RRG trail map, we discovered a trail that bisected the entire geological area. Hello Rough Trail!

a cliff base on the Rough Trail at Red River Gorge Kentucky

Rough Trail (221) is a point-to-point trek so double up with friends

Like the Neahkahnie Mountain to Cape Falcon Hike we told you about in August, the Rough Trail at Red River Gorge requires two vehicles, as the path traverses all of RRG. And we wholeheartedly recommend which direction to begin as you’ll soon see. You’ll start this hike at the Rough Trail trailhead off KY 715 and finish at the Martin’s Fork parking area of KY 77. I’d like to say we researched the trail thoroughly beforehand. Actually, we just got lucky and picked the right starting point strictly by dumb luck.

Nada Tunnel is more than zero cool

We left one car at the end point, the Martins Fork parking lot, which lies about a mile past the Nada Tunnel, the coolest tunnel I’ve ever been through.

Blasted with dynamite through solid limestone and finished with steam machines and hand tools, the one-lane, 900-foot Nada Tunnel measures just 12 feet wide and 13 feet tall and has no interior lighting. If you’re claustrophobic, let our hiking buddy drive and close your eyes for the 60 seconds it takes to pass through the Nada Tunnel. Just be sure to take a good peek to the other side before entering, as there’s only room for traffic in one direction. Once you’ve dropped off one car at the Martins Fork lot, go back through the tunnel, take a left onto KY HWY 15, then a left onto KY 715 to the Rough Trail trailhead parking lot. You can get to the trailhead by continuing on KY 77 to KY 715 from Martins Fork, but it’s a very windy road and won’t save you any time.

a cliff on the rough trail at Red River Gorge in Kentucky, hiking Kentucky

Are we there yet?

By the time you get to the trailhead, you’ll probably be asking yourself just how long this trail is, anyway? Whichever road you take to get to Rough Trail trailhead, you’ll circle around half the perimeter of RRG, so it’ll seem to take forever to get there. And just eyeballing the trail map will lead you to think the trail itself is a longer trek than advertised. The US Forest Service trail map says Rough Trail runs 7.1 miles (other map estimates the range from 7 to 7.8 miles). However, two of us independently clocked the hike at an even 10 miles, so be warned!

Rough Trail is, well, kinda rough—but in an awesome way

You’ll start off with a modest descent through dense forest. Normally at this time of year, you’d be welcomed by leaf colors just starting to change, marking the transition of the seasons. Thanks to more than a month without measurable rain, there were plenty of falling leaves but no change in colors—the trees were just plain dried out and shedding. The trail isn’t crowded at all. We came across another group of hikers every mile or so, making it one of the lesser travelled trails in the central part of RRG.

limestone rock path along rough trail at red river gorge in Kentucky

Soon you’ll come across a series of interesting limestone formations, some towering more than a hundred feet overhead, with pitted nooks and crannies at the bases.

Over the course of the next three to four hours, you’ll cover a series of ascents (boo!) and descents (thank God!) as you cut across the RRG. Keep a close eye at trail intersections to ensure you stay on Rough Trail. About 3 miles in, you’ll join the Sheltowee Trace Trail (100), a 300-mile plus trail that runs through Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s distinctive as there are turtle marks under the typical white diamond trail markers. You’ll stay on the Sheltowee Trail/Rough Trail combo section for a little over a mile, then veer right to stay on Rough Trail. Each descent ends at creek level, which requires a crossing or three before the next climb. Thanks to the drought, the creek was only inches deep and there were several options to cross over either a series of stones or a fallen tree.

Gray’s Arch: a worthy side trip along the Rough Trail

After another couple miles, you’ll come to an intersection that isn’t marked. To the right is a series of wooden stairs. This is the continuation of Rough Trail.

To the left is a short spur that takes you directly under Gray’s Arch.  If you’re up for it, we definitely recommend taking the brief side trip (though by now you may well be fairly worn out). It’s only a quarter mile but offers a spectacular view of the limestone arch. I’d like to say we did the spur on purpose, but the trail map I had up on my phone didn’t have the spur marked. Because there was no signage at the intersection, we weren’t sure which way to go. After consulting with a nice couple that each had Garmin GPS devices, we were completely split on the proper direction to take. We chose left, saw Gray’s Arch (which dead ends), then ran into another hiker whose map showed we were on a spur. Mystery solved!

Gray's Arch on the Rough Trail at Red River Gorge in Kentucky

WTF, another ridge ascent?!?

By this point, we were getting a bit tuckered out. Our water was gone and the temps had easily eclipsed 90 degrees. What comes next? Another steep ridge climb, yay! And this time, we got to hike across the ridge in the direct sunlight for a spell. Double yay! By now, our fitness trackers showed more than eight miles traveled, and Mrs. Mike was giving me that special look that only women can give. “Seven mile hike, huh?”

Lollipop forest finish

Thankfully, the next major intersection showed that we were 1.75 miles from our end point. After a brief, steep and scrabbly section, we entered a slow descent through beautiful forest. The last half-mile featured a series of wood bridges that made crossing the meandering creek a breeze. Over the last quarter-mile, we were joined by a young woman and her two border collie mixed dogs. Every 50 yards or so, one of the dogs would flop on her belly into the shallow creek. Heather and I were severely jealous.

creek bed of rough trail at red river gorge in Kentucky

At long last we came to KY 77, within eyesight of the Martins Fork parking lot. Because the hike finished with a mellow last mile that was mostly flat, we were extremely glad to finish in this direction. Had we started at Martins Fork, we’d have finished with a significant ascent, which in our hot and bothered state might have resulted in Mike in the doghouse…

As we aren’t total losers, we did pack a cooler with water and sodas. Thirty seconds later, our water reserves now exhausted, we poured a Diet Coke and headed to pick up the other car.

Post-hike pint: half-and-half ice tea

We decided to have our late lunch (it was now after 3 p.m.) at a place we’d never tried, Red River Smokehouse. We entered the cozy BBQ joint and were greeted with a healthy dose of southern hospitality. Starving, we ordered pulled pork nachos for an appetizer. I ordered a half-rack of ribs; Heather a pulled pork sandwich. Normally, we’d finish off a killer hike with a killer pint—hence the name “Hike and a Pint” and all. However, the restaurant didn’t sell alcohol so we got iced tea instead. As sweet tea in eastern Kentucky can be syrupy sweet I got a half-sweet, half-unsweetened tea, which turned out to be a perfect blend. Two refills later, we finally felt rehydrated and ready to enjoy some quality BBQ.

The nachos were huge, tasted amazing and could’ve easily served as an entrée for both of us. Instead, we gorged ourselves to the point of barely being able to touch our real entrees, which were also fabulous. We ended up with a large to-go bag that turned into another two meals at home. Overall, we were thrilled with the meal—which was very reasonably priced as well as delicious.

Wrap-up of the Rough Trail hike

The Rough Trail at Red River Gorge certainly lived up to its name. It was well maintained but had a slew of ups and downs, making it a fairly challenging hike. My FitBit Versa showed 186 floors climbed and 26k steps after the hike. With the high temperatures and humidity, we were both rather spent afterwards. Heather and I are glad to say we traversed the entire Red River Gorge geographical area in a single hike. Next time, we’ll be sure and bring extra water, as one bottle each didn’t cut it.

Although we didn’t get to finish the hike with a pint, there are dozens of other trails at the Gorge so we’ll catch a pint by finishing our next RRG hike at Miguel’s Pizza, which makes incredible pizzas and now offers a host of local and regional craft brews.