Red River


The Red River flows through the Red River Gorge geological area and bisects the Clifty Wilderness. Sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, natural stone arches, and boulders provide excellent views of unique geological features nestled among the mountain laurel, rhododendron, and hemlocks. The river offers scenic views, as well as protection for numerous prehistoric and historic sites featuring unique ethnobotanic remains and other features that led to the designation of this area as a Natural Historic Landmark. The surrounding cliff lines are home to the white-haired goldenrod, a plant only found in the Red River Gorge, as well as numerous other species of wildlife. More than 70 species of fish and 16 mussels thrive in the free-flowing waters of the Red River. The scenic beauty and geological formations throughout the river corridor attract thousands of visitors each year. 

This area is managed as wilderness to provide a semi-primitive, non-motorized experience near trails, access points, and other areas of concentrated use. In other more remote areas, primitive recreation experiences are available. Access to the river corridor is limited to a few primitive hiking trails in order to protect natural resources rather than provide for for human comfort or convenience. People are challenged to rely on their own physical abilities and follow primitive “leave no trace” recreational pursuits. Facilities, such as trailheads and bulletin boards, are usually located outside the wilderness. Hiking, primitive camping, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, and rafting are allowed where they do not adversely impact the wilderness resource.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains one access point at Copperas Creek Canoe Launch on Highway 715. The river is too low for canoeing or kayaking most of the year. However, Class I-III rapids may be experienced after late fall and spring floods or heavy rains.

A camping permit is required for dispersed camping in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. Permits can be purchased at local vendors or Gladie Learning Center.

The Red River corridor is black bear habitat. Proper food storage is required. The forest website and area bulletin boards provide additional information regarding food storage requirements and other rules.

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Designated Reach

December 2, 1993. From the Highway 746 Bridge to the confluence with the School House Branch.

Outstandingly Remarkable Values


The conjunction of several climatological, geologic, and topographic features has created a diversity of plant life in a variety of ecological niches. Of particular interest is the drip line area at the base of cliff lines where rock shelters exist. These areas provide suitable environment for the white-haired goldenrod, a plant found nowhere else on earth.


The river environment contains 3 at-risk aquatic species in addition to 16 mussel species. It also provides a high quality warm-water fishery of 70 fish species, including such sport fish as rock bass, catfish, and smallmouth bass, as well as numerous types of sunfish and muskellunge. The river is one of the few free-flowing muskellunge streams in Kentucky. The eastern sand darter, which was once common in several of Kentucky’s rivers, has almost vanished in much of Kentucky because of stream channelization, dam construction, and siltation. This species requires clean sand in moderate to large rivers. While the species can no longer be found in many of its former habitats, it is still present in the Red River.


The area is famous for its rugged and unique topography and geology, including numerous natural arches, pinnacles, and prominent cliffs. Perhaps the most striking feature of the area is the sandstone arches carved out by years of wind and water erosion. The most popular arch is Sky Bridge, a graceful arch over 70 feet long and 23 feet tall. Another arch is Princess Arch, over 30 feet long and 8 feet tall. With over 100 known arches, the area is thought to contain the largest concentration of arches east of the Rocky Mountains.


Old saltpeter mine activity from as far back as the Civil War era can be found in some rockshelters. In the 1880s, there was a boom in logging activity in the area. The Nada Tunnel, the western portal for the area, is a narrow tunnel dug out of the rock originally created for a narrow-gage rail line to haul logs out of the area. The significance of the hundreds of archeological and historical sites, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, is such that the entire area is being nominated as a National Historic Landmark.


The uniqueness of the Red River Gorge Geological Area and its river corridor is not only a draw for present day adventurers, but as far back as 10,000 years, it drew Native Americans to its natural beauty and abundant resources. Most ridges harbor cliff lines with rock shelters at their base. The dry microclimate of the rock shelters that were a primary abode of early Americans have preserved, to this day, woven fiber slippers, fiber bags filled with nuts, and wooden tools, as well as the remains of cultivated and uncultivated plants. Preservation of these artifacts has produced an important and unique insight into the culture of ancient Native Americans. “The prehistoric archeological sites of the Red River Gorge area are well known for excellent preservation of normally perishable ethnobotanic remains, the bulk of which have been recovered from sites of the Woodland Tradition. The remains of about 50 species are present in these collections.” The numerous petroglyphs in the area are an important addition to the artifacts mentioned above; the area reportedly has the highest concentrations of petroglyphs east of the Rocky Mountains.


The Red River draws river enthusiasts from all over Kentucky, as well as surrounding states. Rugged shorelines edged with steep rock cliffs and a river with abundant large boulders provide canoeists and kayakers a variety of whitewater, from Class II and III during the winter and spring run-offs to Class I during the low water flows of summer. In addition, numerous national recreation trails in the area provide access into the river corridor for more sedate activities, such as viewing scenery and wildlife and hiking into the forest to camp and relax. The area is internationally known as having some of the world’s premier rock-climbing areas, some of which are within the river corridor. There has been a steady increase in recreational visitation because of the quality of its rock climbing routes, numerous trails, whitewater, and unique scenic qualities. However, limited access to the river has kept use here fairly low with no major changes in the past five years.


The Red River is a central feature of the Red River Gorge Geological Area. The eastern part of the area contains the Clifty Wilderness, which is bisected by the wild segment of the Red River. Because of its outstanding natural features, the Red River Gorge Geological Area is also designated as a National Natural Landmark. Towering sandstone cliffs, rock shelters, natural stone arches, and mountain streams graced by huge boulders, as well as mountain laurel and rhododendron, characterize this area. The area has been the subject of such accolades as, “The Red River Gorge is one of the unique natural resources of the eastern United States. Its scenic beauty, geological formations, and concentrations of natural arches rival those of the canyon lands of Colorado,” and the Red River Gorge possesses “a marvelous collection of palisades, rock promontories, solitary pinnacles and spires, numerous natural arches, and a multitude of cascading mountain streams.” The Red River has been described as “some of the most spectacular canoeing waters anywhere in the eastern United States. . . . The scenery is spectacular without exception.” While the above are subjective observations, under the more objective Forest Service scenic classification system, the river and its corridor would have the highest scenic rating, “distinctive,” due to the steep and rugged topography, visual variety displayed by the contrasting forests of large trees towering over mountain laurel and rhododendron, and large sandstone cliffs and arches.

Managing Partners And Contacts


Recreational Wild
Recreational — 10.3 miles; Wild — 9.1 miles; Total — 19.4 miles.
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