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Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Scenic Byway
By Maxye and Lou Henry
From the historic Nada Tunnel to Zachariah at the end of the byway, arches, waterfalls, history and natural beauty will greet you. The Red River carved the Gorge and is now the site for many recreational adventures, such as canoeing, rock climbing and kayaking.
The Red River Gorge is a unique and scenic natural area within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Known for its abundant natural stone arches, unusual rock formations and spectacular sandstone cliffs, the Red River Gorge has been designated a geological area by the USDA Forest Service.
The Red River Gorge Geological Area has more than 100 natural arches, the greatest concentration of arches east of the Rocky Mountains.
The defining geologic strata of the Red River Gorge were formed about 300 million years ago. Sediment, sand and pebbles eroding from the ancient Appalachian Mountains were carried by a great river and deposited as a delta at the edge of a shallow inland sea that covered much of the middle part of North America at that time.
Over millions of years, the mountains were worn down, the sediments turned to rock and the inland sea receded. Gradually, streams began cutting down through the relatively flat layers of sedimentary rock. Because sandstone is a harder rock, it resisted erosion better than the shale and siltstone layers above and below.
Erosion and weathering over millions of years sculpted the striking sandstone cliffs and intriguing geologic features that we see today in the Red River Gorge. The deeply dissected landscape is an intricate maze of narrow, winding ridges and valleys separated by steep slopes and continuous bands of high sandstone cliffs, making travel between the uplands and valleys very difficult.
This rugged landscape creates a variety of environmental conditions that provide diverse habitats for many species of plants and animals.
Along the ridge tops are lichen-covered sandstone outcroppings and thin, dry soils with sparse oak-pine forests. In the cool, moist coves of the narrow valleys grow rich, mixed forests containing a great variety of tree species, including tulip poplar, sweet birch, yellow buckeye and bigleaf magnolia.
Extensive cliff lines of exposed sandstone occur at the edge of ridges above steep, forested slopes. Hollowed spaces, known as rock shelters, often form at the base of overhanging sandstone cliffs. These cliffs and rock shelters provide unique microclimates that certain species of plants and animals depend upon.
Virginia big-eared bats utilize rock shelters and deep, dark crevices in the cliffs for feeding, resting and rearing their young. White-haired goldenrod, federally listed as a threatened species, is found in rock shelters and along cliffs only in the Red River Gorge, occurring nowhere else in the world.
In 1973, a 9-mile stretch of the Red River upstream from the confluence of Copperas Creek was designated as a Kentucky Wild River. Congress designated this same section as a National Wild River in 1985, making it the first National Wild and Scenic River in Kentucky. The Red River National Wild and Scenic River includes a 10-mile section of Recreation River downstream from the Wild River to the confluence of Schoolhouse Branch. The upper stretches of the Red River tumble over huge boulders in a narrow, twisting gorge lined by towering cliffs with overhanging rock ledges, mature hemlock trees and thickets of rhododendron.
Visitors to the Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center will find interesting and informative exhibits designed to interpret the cultural heritage and unique resources of the Red River Gorge. The center provides a place to rest, ask questions and learn about the Red River Gorge, as well as to purchase maps, passes, books, and souvenirs. The Gladie Center is open from spring through fall.
Gladie Cabin, a restored log cabin, is located at the Gladie Historic Site. This structure dates back to the late 1800s when it was used as a post office during the logging era of the Red River Gorge.
With passage of the Kentucky Wilderness Act of 1985, the U.S. Congress designated about half of the geological area as Clifty Wilderness. These lands were designated by congress and are managed by the Forest Service as wilderness, an area “retaining its primeval character…without permanent improvements or human habitation…protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”
The rugged terrain and lack of facilities within Clifty Wilderness offers hikers physical challenges, as well as opportunities for quiet and solitude.
As a wilderness area, Clifty is managed to preserve its natural conditions and to provide opportunities for primitive recreation. There are no modern facilities and few signs. A good map and backcountry skills are essential.
To access the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway: Exit the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway at Exit 22 (Stanton), and follow the State of Kentucky’s designated Scenic Byway to the Red River Gorge. At exit 22 (Stanton), extend along KY 213. Travel northerly along KY 77 to Intersection KY 715 through the Red River Gorge. Extend along KY 715 Southerly to intersection KY 15 (Pine Ridge). Voyage along KY 15 Southerly back toward Natural Bridge to KY 11. Further enjoy the area by traveling along KY 11 Southerly to the Lee/Wolfe County line at Zachariah.
For More Information:
Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association