Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge: world renowned sport climbing and the best dirtbagging in the East. You should stop thinking about it and just go, but if you need some more convincing, I’ve got you covered below.

The expression says it all on Breakfast Burrito (5.10d) in the Red River Gorge. Climber: Dan Snelson.

QUICK DETAILS

Style: sport, trad, boulder
Approach: 5-60 minutes (more moderate than far)
Gear: standard sport rig, trad climbing varies (more below)
Season: possible year round but best spring and fall (more below on conditions)

SPORT

This is what it’s all about, this is what they all come for: the steep, featured, pump-enducing, jug hauls that feel like gym climbing has moved outside. This is the place where grades seem to matter the most, and everyone has a project where they’re trying to push to a new limite. Most routes have no distinct crux, the crux is the clock, as your shoulders and forearms burn out from the repetitive, physical movement up relatively good holds. Every move can be gymnastic, but to send, you’ve got to keep it together for the long haul.

Climbing Dave The Dude (5.11d) at Red River Gorge, USA. Climber: Dan Snelson.

Taking a look at any of the guidebooks, it’s pretty hard to decide where to start. There are so many stars in every sector of the Red that you just can’t decide. I’ve spent 3 weeks there in the past year, a different crag every day, and I don’t think I’ve climbed more than a handful of routes under 4 stars! Here are my best suggestions based on ability:

5.9 climbers should start in Muir Valley. There’s a daily entrance fee of $10 but you’re not going to find an area with as many beginner friendly routes as the Valley. Check out the Bruise Brothers Wall for some easy but thoughtful climbs.

5.10 climbers will also find lots to do in Muir Valley. Also check out the Chocolate Factory to tick the mega classics Oompa and Loompa, and the long enduro 10 route, EGBG.

5.11 is where you start to get more of the true RRG classics. Eastern Sky Bridge has Super D’Ario 5.11a, King Me 5.11b, and Dave the Dude 5.11d (technical not pumpy!): all classics routes. Better yet, it’s in the North and dispersed with trad climbing, so less frequently visited. Banshee 5.11c in Solarium at Muir Valley is a must do with arguably the best sit down rest in the Red. You’ll also get a great selection of 4 star enduro 11’s at the Zoo.

5.12 opens up a world of options and the largest range of sport routes at the Red. Check out the 5.12 wall at Military Wall for some short and stout routes. Hippocrite 5.12a at the Zoo defies general convention around 5 star grading at only 45 feet tall; it’s a wild ride. The side-by-side crags of Drive-by and Bob Marley offer a lot of stars in the 12’s. The Infirmary in Miller Fork has some fresher routes and some great 12’s. If you’re pushing the upper range of 5.12 and thinking about 13’s you definitely have to get to the Motherlode.

Climbing Vector Trouble (5.10a) at Red River Gorge, USA. Climber: Dan Snelson.

TRAD

The lesser known part of the Red is the abundant and quality trad climbing that the area has to offer. Primarily in the North, the trad climbing is much less frequent but often just as good as some of the sport classics. If you’ve got a rack, it’s definitely worth making space for it in your gear bag. I took a few active rest days on moderate classics while I was down, but there’s a lot of potential to try hard on gear in the Red, too. Most of the classics are beautiful splitter cracks, some look like they’ve been transported from the desserts of the West. 

For a really easy day, go to Fortress Wall; it’s all trad and lots of stars at 5.9 and under. You can spend all day climbing here without getting pumped or seeing another party. 

The other mega classics are Rock Wars 5.10a and Crack Attack 5.9+.

For a real novelty climb, check out the Underling 5.9 at Eastern Sky Bridge: a vertical corner crack, to roof corner crack, to a tight exit through a hole in the roof will bring you to the anchors at unique ledge.

The rack you bring to the wall will depend on the climbs you’re after.  Like any good splitter crack, a lot the harder trad routes will require doubles or more of specific cam sizes.

Climbing Rock Wars (5.10a) Climber: Dan Snelson

STAY

Miguel’s Pizza is both the classic and obvious choice at the Red. It’s dirt cheap at only $3 a night and really well situated for most climbing areas. For the price, you get flush toilets, dishwashing area, covered cooking pavilion, plenty of open space to set up your tent, wifi (currently useless but word is they’re getting fibre optic in 2019), a fire pit for late night gatherings, easy access to some of the best food in the area, and a really well stocked gear shop. There’s plenty of people living there for the season and always new faces dropping by. If you’re without a partner or just looking to make some new friends, this is the place to go. 

Weekends get busy, and tend to fill up with the young university crowd. There are easily 300-400 people set up Friday and Saturday nights. Despite some rumours I heard about it being a bit of a party scene, these kids were in bed by 10pm and up at first light to go cragging. Then, come Sunday morning, tent city disappears and the place gets much quieter.

I spent 3 weeks at Miguel’s. I had originally planned on trying out some of the their options, but felt no need to with the cheap prices and good vibes. However, upon threat of thunderstorms, 50mm of rain, and on a rest day coming from the New River Gorge, three of us and one dog decided to try out a cabin at Lago Linda. For $50 a night we got a 3 bed cabin with a small kitchen and private bathroom. The place was nice, and a good option to grab a cheap bed if you get tired of sleeping on the ground or want a real roof over your head. 

Lago Linda has a similar set up to Miguel’s but with a pit more privacy for some camping areas. At $6 a night per person, they offer free showers, slightly better wifi, and a quieter setting than Miguel’s.

Tent City on a busy weekend in Autumn at Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge.

GETTING THERE

The Red is a drive-to and drive around climbing area. No way around it. There will surely be license plates from dozens of different states and provinces across North America. From Alaska to Mexico, I’ve seen it there. 

For those flying in, Lexington is the closest airport, and only an hour away. Louisville, slightly bigger, is about 2 hours. I met a few climbers from overseas that flew in to each NYC and DC and drove the rest of the way to the Red.

Regardless, once you get there, you’ll need a car to get from crag to crag. From Miguel’s, the closest climbing areas are a 5 minute drive, most are 15-30 minutes drive and in quite remote areas.

Climbing Fire and Brimstone (5.10d) in the Red River Gorge.

FOOD, BEER, WIFI

Stanton KY and Beattyville KY are the closest towns to stock up. Both cities have access to grocery stores and some fast food. Note that Beattyville is in a dry county, so no alcohol can be found here. Stanton, however, has beer and a new liquor store. Both towns also have a library which offers good wifi. Stanton has a McDonald’s: the classic road trip wifi spot.

For beer, from Miguel’s the best option is the Beer Trailer. They have lots of craft and domestic selections and good prices. The guy who works there also has some great stories if you’ve got a couple extra minutes, or an hour! You can also drive to the intersection with the Mountain Parkway, where there are two gas stations that sell beer. Unfortunately, from Lago Linda, you’ve got a long way to drive to get beer.

For local food, I sampled Miguel’s, which is classic, and the Rock House, which had some really good food and craft beer. I’d recommend them both.

SEASON

Winter: although it’s cold, possibly snowing and below freezing, it’s still possible to climb. If anywhere though, this is the climbing area that’s least friction dependent on sending. Most people pack it in during winter.

Spring: good temperatures for climbing and a little less busy than when it’s dry in the fall. Even if there’s torrential downpour, there are so many overhanging crags that’ll stay dry. My one warning though are of the ticks. I had one in my leg, Dan had one in his armpit, and we pulled at least one or two from the dog everyday.

Summer: it’s going to get sweaty. Humidity is always high in KY and it’s going to get damn hot. Again, this place is one of the least friction dependent major climbing areas, but be warned.

Fall: this is it. It’ll be at its busiest, but weather will be at its best. Generally drier and lower humidity. Cool nights approaching freezing as November arrives, but overall the best time to climb in the Gorge.