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Red River Gorge: An Amazing Kentucky Backpacking Adventure

I love to review and share our adventures, which include running/racing, backpacking, camping, road trips, traveling, especially cruising.

Red River Gorge backpacking.

Red River Gorge backpacking.

Red River Gorge Featuring The Cloud Splitter

The Red River Gorge is in the Daniel Boone National Forest in east-central Kentucky. Its 29,000 acres make up a designated Geological Area, National Natural Landmark, and National Archaeological District, and it's on the National Register of Historic Places. The Gorge boasts spectacular rock features, particularly arches, and can be enjoyed year-round for hiking, camping, and canoeing.

The closest physical address to the trailhead is the visitor center:

Gladie Visitor Center
3451 Sky Bridge Road
Stanton, KY 40380

We enjoy overnight backpacking treks and loved climbing to the top of the famous "Cloud Splitter." Keep reading to learn more!

Sandstone Arch

Sandstone Arch

Start Your Kentucky Backpacking Adventure at the Bison Way Trailhead

My husband Jamison, our good friend Don and I headed to the Gorge on a Friday afternoon to secure a parking spot near the Bison Way Trailhead for a leisurely Saturday morning start. The idea was to make or find a campsite near the trailhead, relax with a fire and get some sleep. But that's not how the evening went down at all, and we learned the hard way always to research and plan ahead!

Bison Way Trailhead and Parking Area

Bison Way Trailhead and Parking Area

Milky Way shot by Don from the trailhead

Milky Way shot by Don from the trailhead

Our Overnight Backpacking Adventure

We arrived at the trailhead just after 9:30 p.m. and luckily got the last open parking spot. Our luck abruptly changed when we learned there were no public or primitive campsites near the trailhead.

We took my little Nissan Juke, so we knew we were in for a radical night. The rule is "no camping within 300 feet of any trail or road," so we were at the mercy of the car. We grabbed our sleeping bags and, with Jamison paired up with the steering wheel, Don in the cramped backseat and me in the passenger side, attempted to get some sleep.

Don stayed up for a bit and snapped photos of the beautiful starry sky, capturing the Galactic Disk/Milky Way. I fell asleep quickly but woke many times with my legs asleep from being in a semi-upright position.

We heard of several car break-ins in the park that night, so we felt uneasy and slept with one eye open. At some point during my semi-slumber, I lowered my backrest (no recollection of this) and trapped Don's legs under my backrest. Being the gentleman he is, he didn't say a single word and gutted out the entrapment until we woke in the morning.

Life is all about the journey, and this was shaping up to be one for the books! We cooked oatmeal with our camp stoves for fast calories, then walked to the visitor center (about a quarter-mile) to get our permit/parking pass.

How Do You Find "The Cloud Splitter" and What Is It Exactly?

The hike starts uphill, nothing complicated, but it gets your attention. The trail is mostly even, with scattered surface roots. We set off looking for a famous spot called "The Cloud Splitter," which is a highlight of the gorge.

We quickly came across a very high and scenic spot of rock formations and thought we'd found it, albeit not the thrill we'd expected. We quickly learned we weren't even close! We took some photos and continued on our way, only to wind up at a dead-end, overlooking the spot where we'd parked the car on Bison Way!

We turned around to look for the significant turn we clearly missed and finally found the fork. I'd suggested we go that way, to begin with, but was voted down (no time for gloating). We'd already wasted a few good miles and needed to get back on track.

We broke for lunch and caught a breather before trying again. A trail runner girl we'd seen earlier said she'd also gone the wrong way within a few minutes. We chatted with her and another couple, then ventured back out. After a few more miles, we passed a couple walking with their dog. We spoke with them and learned we were just a few feet from the start of the climb to the actual "Cloud Splitter!" It's not marked or obvious, so to learn more about this iconic spot, keep reading and check out this awesome video I found featuring two guys who take you to the top!

How to Find the Cloud Splitter at Red River Gorge

Finding the "Cloud Splitter" Didn't Disappoint!

As we started to make our ascent up an extremely steep grade, tons of people were on their way back down, having never made it to the top. That's when we realized we had our work cut out for us! We climbed and climbed until we came to an enormous rock formation accessible to the top via a knotted rope secured to a dead tree trunk. We left our backpacks at the bottom and repelled up the line. Repelling was rather scary, not knowing how old or secure this rope was.

The views were breathtaking as we continued to climb and wedge ourselves through narrow openings in the rocks. It certainly lived up to its' name! There was also a very narrow cave entrance from this vantage point, and it too was accessible with a dead tree that someone made into a ladder. You have to be reasonably thin to gain access to this cave, and you also have to pretend to be Spider-Man and use your body strength to radically hike yourself up and shimmy through the very narrow opening.

These are the times you learn just how mentally and physically tough you are! It was rugged, but we all made it up, over, through, and back out and got some fantastic photos to show for it. The trek back down was no picnic. It was steep, and we were exhausted. We eagerly looked forward to getting to our campsite and knew at this point the planned 12-13 miles for the day were not in the cards. The next landmark we looked for, and one that would be near our anticipated campsite, was the "Suspension Bridge." Check out the cool drone video I found showcasing the Suspension Bridge and the Jump Rock I'm about to share.

Making Our Way to the Suspension Bridge

It took us a few more miles to get to the Suspension Bridge. After crossing the river, we found an excellent site on top of a hill overlooking the river. We followed the laughs and screams of what was a nearby cliff jumping spot, and Jamie headed up the mountain and found our hidden gem. There was an existing fire ring and plenty of leftover kindling to get things started. We unloaded our packs, pitched our tents, and headed to the cliff, where Jamie proceeded to do some jumps while Don and I snapped photos and videos. Generally, I'd partake in this festivity; however, I didn't want to sleep with river rat hair all night, so vanity won. I was more than happy to watch my husband take the plunges.

The Suspension Bridge Across the River

The Suspension Bridge Across the River

Our Perfect Campsite Overlooking the River

Once Jamison got the jumping out of his system, he got busy putting his fire-building skills to swift use as Don and I gathered more wood. Jamison was eager to try out the new knife he'd just got to cut some dead tree limbs and split wood. It adds a good bit of extra weight to his pack, but it's worth it to have a way to find and cut limbs and build a fast fire. We cooked up our favorite, hearty, and flavorful backpacking dinner of Louisiana Red Beans and Rice from Backpacker's Pantry) using our super-fast, lightweight, and efficient JetBoil stove. We called it a night by 10:00 p.m. and were up and at it by 8:00 a.m. It rained a few hours towards early morning, stopping by when we headed out around 9:00 a.m.

Being dog-tired, we cut the second day's distance short and took the road back to the car. The total hike was only about ten miles for the two days, but we had an excellent time and agreed to return to experience the rest of this extensive trail system.

Be Sure to Visit the Famous "Miguel's Pizza" After Your Hike

We enjoyed some amazing pizza at a place called Miguel's Pizza on our way out that was recommended by the trail runner girl we met the first day. It hit the spot, and everyone loved it with 45 toppings from which to choose. They also have a gluten-free option, a rare find in a mom-and-pop shop in the boonies! They also serve adult beverages and have a store and lodging! Check them out!

Miguel's Pizza makes a delicious ending to a perfect hike.

Miguel's Pizza makes a delicious ending to a perfect hike.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Debra Roberts


Keri Libbe on October 20, 2019:

We rock climb in the gorge regularly and have a cabin there. Love that place! Enjoyed reading your blog and will put the Cloud Splitter on my reading day list.

Tracy C on August 24, 2019:

This looks like a great trip. Kids would love the tree trunk ladder climb. I've been trying to get to the mountains all summer, and it just hasn't happened (not Kentucky, just Allegheny National Forest in PA--it's a lot closer to us).

Thuy on August 19, 2019:

What an amazing adventure and the view is spectacular. My boyfriend and I are hoping to get a few more hikes and camping trips in before the summer ends.

Erica (The Prepping Wife) on August 19, 2019:

This sounds like such an amazing adventure! I had no clue about Red River Gorge, but it looks like a perfect travel destination for some hiking and beautiful scenery.

Snehal on August 19, 2019:

All the pics are gorgeous! Especially the night sky view and the tree trunk one! This place is damn cool for camping!

LIndsay Brown on August 18, 2019:

What an awesome adventure! The scenery is incredible and that rock looks like it would be a blast to go cliff jumping off of! Great post, thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

The Sunny Side Lifestyle Co. on August 18, 2019:

What an adventure! Kentucky is a state I have yet to visit, it was nice to have a glimpse into some backcountry camping. Some of the climbs look harrowing but the suspension bridge looks amazing!

Despite Pain on August 18, 2019:

What an incredible trip! It looks spectacular. But that rope tied to the tree on the ascent to Cloud Splitter - that looks scary, but I'm sure it was worth it.

I don't know how you managed such a tough hike after spending the night in the car.

Miguel's Pizza sounds like an amazing find out there. they even had gluten-free options!'s often hard enough to find in towns.

Enjoyed your post.

Sarah Emery on August 17, 2019:

Whoa! What an amazing adventure. The Cloud Splitter area looks intense. I love how Red River Gorge changes its terrain from rock climbing, a suspension bridge, a lovely river, cliff diving and then at the end... there's PIZZA! What's not to love?

Liz Westwood from UK on August 17, 2019:

You give a thorough and interesting account of your trip with excellent illustrations. That first night in the car sounded uncomfortable.

Scott J DeNicola on August 17, 2019:

The first time my wife and I ever went hiking and camping we bought a crappy little tent and it poured that night. We woke up in a puddle and spent the night in her hatchback so I feel your pain! This looks like a fantastic adventure! The tree trunk ladder looks like a fun thing to try. It looks like a pretty intense hike but definitely fun. Is that a Survivor buff on your head? That is the only TV show my oldest daughter and I still watch. Haven't missed a season.