With its central location in Kentucky and its huge volume of routes, the Red River Gorge
is one of the most popular climbing meccas east of the Mississippi. Spread out through a wide expanse of national forest land and privately-owned acreage, the Red's sandstone cliffs offer a lifetime of climbing opportunities at all levels.
As with many remote areas, climbing has been going on in the Red River Gorge since before people bothered to record any of their exploits. Proto-climbers were probably scrambling up Chimney Top Rock
and the Caver's Route
at Tower Rock
in the 50s and 60s. The 70s saw some of the earliest documented route development by climbers like Tom and Ellen Seibert, Larry Day and Frank Becker, who also produced the area's first published guidebook. Other early pioneers included Tom Souders, Jeff Koenig, John Bronaugh and Martin Hackworth.
While the 70s and 80s saw increasing climber traffic, it was in the early 90s that a revolution of sorts hit the Red. Sport climbing took off in a big way with the arrival of Porter Jarrard, who began bolting overhanging walls that had previously been regarded as unclimbable. Other route developers followed suit, including Jeff Moll, Chris Snyder and Charles Tabor, among others.
As climbing grew, so did the potential for access issues, with strained relationships between climbers and the forest service or the oil companies that have drilling rights in the southern sections of the gorge. In large part as a response to new forest service land management plans, the Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition
was formed. The efforts of this grassroots organization have been highly fruitful, most notably with the purchase in 2004 of the huge Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP)
and the Miller Fork Recreational Preserve (MFRP)
purchased in 2012.
When people think of climbing in the Red, sport is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Crags like the Motherlode
and the Dark Side
are known for their ferocious bolted lines. World-class sport leaders gravitate to the Red to try their hand at testpieces like Thanatopsis (5.14b) or The Legend
(5.13b). But hard overhanging sport lines are not all there is; Graining Fork Nature Preserve (a.k.a. Roadside Crag)
and many of Muir Valley's
crags have a plentiful assortment of routes for the 5.11-and-under leader.
Though it's best known as a sport destination, the Red actually has almost as many trad lines to be led. Fortress Wall
, Pebble Beach
and Tower Rock
are primarily trad destinations, while others like Roadside have a mix of trad and sport. Some classic gear lines include Roadside Attraction
(5.7), Bedtime for Bonzo
(5.6) and Rock Wars
(5.10a). As with sport, theres something for trad leaders at all levels, though be warned -- the grades on many trad lines are "old school."
No discussion of Red River Gorge would be complete without mentioning Miguel's Pizza
. Founded in the mid-80s by Miguel Ventura, Miguel's isnt just a restaurant, it's the epicenter of climbing culture for the Red. When locals give you directions to a crag, chances are they'll be telling you how to get there from Miguel's. Many climbers take advantage of the cheap camping on Miguel's grounds, and after a day of climbing, the restaurant is usually packed with climbers enjoying great pizza and other nourishments. Miguel's also serves as a climbers' store, carrying a wide selection of ropes, shoes, harnesses and other gear.
As noted above, climbing in the Red River Gorge is spread out over a large geographical area. For purposes of organization on Mountain Project, most crags are listed here on the main page. The three exceptions to this are the large privately-owned areas, Muir Valley
, Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP)
and Miller Fork Recreational Preserve (MFRP)
; crags in these areas are listed in their respective subdivisions.
The prime seasons for climbing at the Red are spring and fall. High humidity and temperatures make for miserable rock conditions in the summertime, but that doesn't stop some climbers. Winter, aside from being frigid, has the added disadvantage of Miguel's being closed for the off-season.
From Lexington, Kentucky take I-64 east about 15 miles to the exit for the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, just past the second Winchester exit. Follow the parkway for 33 miles to the KY 11 exit (exit 33). Miguel's Pizza, the unofficial headquarters for climbing at the Red, is about two miles south on KY 11. Continue south for crags in the southern region, or north on KY 11 for northern region crags.