Red River Gorge: An Amazing Kentucky Backpacking Adventure Featuring "The Cloud Splitter"

Updated on September 11, 2019
Deb Vesco Roberts profile image

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

"Gorge"

A narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.

Source

About Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge is in the Daniel Boone National Forest in east-central Kentucky. Its 29,000 acres is a designated Geological Area, National Natural Landmark, and National Archaeological District, and is 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
606-663-8100

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 | Source

Start Your Kentucky Backpacking Adventure at the Bison Way Trailhead

With a decent forecast ahead of us and an open weekend, my husband Jamison and our good friend Don 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--that's not how the evening went down at all and we learned the hard way to always research and plan ahead!

Bison Way Trailhead and Parking Area
Bison Way Trailhead and Parking Area | Source
Milky Way shot by Don from the trailhead
Milky Way shot by Don from the trailhead | Source

Our Overnight Backpacking Adventure

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

The rule is "no camping within 300 feet of any trail or road", so were at the mercy of the car. We took my little Nissan Juke, so we knew we were in for a radical night. 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, we 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 there'd been 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 one to remember! We cooked oatmeal with our camp stoves for some fast calories then walked to the visitor center (about a quarter-mile), to get our permit/parking pass.

Me After a "not-so-fun" night sleeping in the car sans camping spot!
Me After a "not-so-fun" night sleeping in the car sans camping spot! | Source
Walking from Bison Way to the Visitor Center For a Permit
Walking from Bison Way to the Visitor Center For a Permit | Source
Ready to go!
Ready to go! | Source

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," is a highlight of the gorge.

We came across a very high and scenic spot of rock formations reasonably quickly and thought we'd found it--albeit not the thrill we'd expected, and 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 very spot where we'd parked the darn car on Bison Way! Life's an adventure; I kept chanting to myself.

We turned around to look for the significant turn we clearly missed and finally found the fork. I will add, 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 decided to break for lunch and catch a breather before trying again. Within a few minutes, a trail runner girl we'd seen earlier, ran past, stating that she too, had gone the wrong way. We chatted a bit with her as well as another couple, then ventured back out. After a few more miles, we passed a couple walking with their dog. We chatted with them and learned we were just a few feet from the start of the climb to the real "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" Which Did Not 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 that was 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. This was rather scary not knowing how old or how 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 very fatigued. We eagerly looked forward to getting to our campsite and knew at this point. The planned 12-13 miles for the day was 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 the ascent up to Cloud Splitter
Making the ascent up to Cloud Splitter | Source
The tree trunk ladder climb
The tree trunk ladder climb | Source
Squeezing through the gap to get into the cave
Squeezing through the gap to get into the cave | Source
Panoramic view atop the Cloud Splitter
Panoramic view atop the Cloud Splitter | Source

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 would partake in this festivity; however, I did not 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 | Source

Suspension Bridge and Jump Rock

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 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 some limbs and build a significant fire fast. 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 the time we headed out around 9:00 a.m.

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

Cliff Jumping Into the River Close to Our Campsite
Cliff Jumping Into the River Close to Our Campsite | Source
Our site on the hill overlooking the river
Our site on the hill overlooking the river | Source
Collecting and filtering water from the river
Collecting and filtering water from the river | Source

Cliff-jumping is at your own risk and unsupervised despite the many people partaking.

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 with 45 toppings to choose from, everyone will love it. They also have a gluten-free option, which is 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. | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Debra Roberts

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      • profile image

        Keri Libbe 

        7 weeks ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Tracy C 

        3 months ago

        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).

      • profile image

        Thuy 

        3 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Erica (The Prepping Wife) 

        3 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Snehal 

        3 months ago

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

      • profile image

        LIndsay Brown 

        3 months ago

        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!

      • profile image

        The Sunny Side Lifestyle Co. 

        3 months ago

        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!

      • profile image

        Despite Pain 

        3 months ago

        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! Wow...it's often hard enough to find in towns.

        Enjoyed your post.

      • profile image

        Sarah Emery 

        3 months ago

        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?

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 months ago from UK

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

      • profile image

        Scott J DeNicola 

        3 months ago

        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.

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