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Exploring Kentucky: Autumn at the Gorge

Autumn at the Gorge Whether it’s hiking, rock-climbing or simply soaking up the beauty of nature, the Red River Gorge makes for an ideal fall getaway

By Katherine Tandy Brown

One of the Bluegrass State’s most beloved outdoor treasures is the Red River Gorge. While it is a lovely place to visit any time of year, autumn is especially gorgeous as Mother Nature paints the landscape with magnificent reds, oranges and yellows.

The Red River Gorge Geological Area, which includes the Red River Gorge, Clifty Wilderness and the Indian Creek area, is recognized as a National Archaeological District, a National Natural Landmark, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. To preserve the Gorge in its natural state when several dams on the river were once proposed for flood control, the river was eventually designated a National Wild and Scenic River.

The Gorge has become widely known as a premier rock-climbing destination and climbers travel from near and far to tackle its challenging topography. With 150 sandstone arches—the greatest concentration of sandstone arches east of the Rocky Mountains— its 13,379 acres are rife with pristine beauty that draws folks to ogle and play among its sandstone cliffs, narrow and winding ridges, steep slopes and deep valleys.

In addition to rock climbing, other options to revel in the wonders of nature include forest ranger-led programs, hiking 60-plus miles of trails, fishing, horseback riding, bird watching, canoeing, and chilling in a porch rocking chair to marvel at a mountain sunset. Here, there’s literally something for everyone, and you can stay as busy as you want to be.

Looking for heart-racing thrills? You can actually “Soar the Gorge” with Red River Gorge Ziplines (redrivergorgezipline.com). Feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face 300 feet above the Daniel Boone National Forest. Ya-HOO! Five different ziplines, including two side-by-side racing lines, range from an easy cruise to high-flying zoomers. These one-to-two-hour adrenalin-pumpers are open to individuals and groups. It’s corporate/group team building on steroids!

Another option for thrill-seekers and team builders is off-roading in a modified Jeep Mojave or UTV with Out the Top Adventures (redrivergorgeoffroading.com). On these two-hour tours, you’ll travel up to 20 miles and stop to see caves, forests and terrific mountain views. Tours are either with a guide or BYO UTV or Jeep and follow a guide. Make that mud fly!

Did you know that you can even explore under the Gorge? Red River Gorge Underground (gorgeunderground.com) has several offerings. A one-hour cave boat tour wends through tunnels for groups of up to 20. Passengers 3 years old and up can relax and watch the scenery via underwater lights, spotlights and a viewing panel while a guide relates the history and geology of this 100-year-old spring-fed limestone mine, spiced with cheesy jokes that visitors love.

For the more adventurous, 12 can paddle though the mine on a one-hour kayak tour. Guides lead the way though dark tunnels, illuminating the cavern’s underground features. Upgrade to a glass-bottom kayak or crystal-clear stand-up paddleboard (SUP) tour (SUPKentucky.com) and experience underwater LED lights to view the rainbow trout and underwater features. A digital photo album can be purchased on this 1.5-hour tour for eight paddlers (more can participate by request).

Above ground, Thrillsville Adventure Golf (redrivergorgevacations.com/activities/thrillsville-adventure-golf/) offers an 18-hole mini golf course complete with water features.

Sate your fresh-air appetite at one of a number of local favorites. Since 1984, Miguel’s Pizza (miguelspizza.com), the rock climbers’ choice, has been serving Italian-style fare and specializing in made-to-order pizza. Miguel’s even has a 60-capacity private dining room, located across the road from Natural Bridge State Resort Park. A popular watering hole, Sky Bridge Station (facebook.com/SkyBridgeStation/) has local craft beers, darts, tasty gourmet hotdogs, and weekend breakfasts featuring massive burritos and French toast.

Where to stay in the Gorge totally depends on what your pleasure is, with options ranging from primitive camping to lodges and cabins for nearly any size group. The State Resort Park’s Hemlock Lodge (parks.ky.gov) has cozy rooms with forest and mountain views and a dining room with food that tastes like your grandma is cooking in the kitchen.

Long known for its hospitality, Cliffview Resort (cliffviewresort.com) can accommodate nearly any individual, corporate retreat, wedding party, family or weekend getaway needs, with overnight choices galore. With 7,000 square feet of upscale rustic charm, the Cliffview Lodge offers 16 bedrooms that can sleep up to 62 guests. In-room Wi-Fi and breakfast are both free.

Cliffview also has three luxury cabins. All have 11 or 12 bedrooms that can accommodate 35 to 44 guests; a full kitchen; an entertainment room with a pool table, foosball and home theater; handcrafted log and leather furniture; washer and dryer; two expansive decks with views of surrounding nature; two large hot tubs; and a gas grill and fire pit. Guests can rent the entire resort, a cabin, or a room.

Wherever you decide to bunk down, the splendor of Mother Nature won’t be far away.

Thanks to varying habitats, the Red River Gorge is filled with diverse species of plants and animals. Micro-climates exist under cliffs and rock shelters, which benefit plants and animals such as bats. The Gorge is also home to the white-haired goldenrod, a threatened species that is found nowhere else in the world.

You can read more about the importance of preserving the area’s wild natural resources in The Unforeseen Wilderness, by Wendell Berry, a revered former Kentucky poet laureate, novelist, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer. Read this book before you go or take it with you to enhance your experience.

Reserve tickets ahead of time for attractions that require them and be sure to make reservations for overnights. Then lace up your hiking boots, pick up maps and trail info at the Gladie Visitor Center in Slade, and hit the Gorge. Don’t be surprised if you rock the best weekend vacay ever!