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Backpacking in Red River Gorge: Clifty Wilderness

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We set out for a bit of backpacking in Red River Gorge within Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky not long ago and had trouble finding solid information on how to go about it. So we’ve rounded up all the information we would have liked to find in one place, including some maps, to make it easier for you. And yeah, we’re gonna share what the experience was like, too, so lace up and buckle up!

Backpacking in Red River Gorge: Basic Information

First of all, you want to know the basics: Do you need a permit, how much is it, where can you camp at Red River Gorge, etc. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know to start planning.

  • Backcountry Permits: If you’ll be leaving your car at a trailhead, you do need a permit to hang on your rearview mirror. It’s good for the car, which means you don’t need a permit for each individual backpacking. It’s $3 for one day or $5 for three. They are available at the Gladie Visitor Center or (if it is closed), several nearby locations, listed here.
  • Where to camp: When it comes to primitive backcountry camping (there are also a handful of places to pay for a campground around the gorge), there aren’t really any designated sites, per se. You just have to hike in and keep an eye out for little side trails that others have taken to reach suitable spots. But basically, you can pitch your tent anywhere as long as it’s 300 feet (that’s the length of a football field) from a developed trail or running water. Just be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles. Hint: hammock camping in Red River Gorge would be very easy).
  • Building fires: You can have a campfire in the Gorge as long as it’s 100 feet away from a cliff or rock shelter. Just do it carefully.
  • Picking a trail: There are three main areas to go backpacking in Red River Gorge: the central Red River trail system and the Clifty Wilderness. The wilderness area is a bit more primitive and less trafficked but are basically out-and-back hikes unless you want to hitch back to where you started or have two cars: one to leave at the start, the other to leave at the finish. Need a basic trail map to get you started? We found a good one here.
An overview map of hiking trails in Red River Gorge

Backpacking in the Clifty Wilderness: The Experience

Let me just say that the miles we hiked in the Clifty Wilderness in Red River Gorge were some of the slowest miles we’ve hiked in a long time. It was only 6.9 miles from one end of the Swift Camp Creek Trail to the other, plus a little 1.5 mile loop on the end, and we anticipated doing all of it, then setting up camp for the night.

Wrong. It rained off and on the whole afternoon (not a heavy rain, but water was definitely falling from the sky), plus there were significantly more ups and downs than we anticipate after looking at a topo map, the trail was narrow, and it was constantly covered in roots, rocks and obstacles, all of which were slippery when wet. We couldn’t go 20 feet without having to step up or down a precarious passage and because my parents were with us, our pace was a bit slower than usual as we ensured they wouldn’t slip or fall or tumble over any of the cliffs or downed trees or rocks.

Basically, we hiked for five hours and made it maybe 5 miles. The average speed at which we move on these sorts of trips is usually twice that. Add in the rain and humidity and we were four discouraged backpackers who knew by mile two that the trip that was supposed to be two nights would definitely only end up being one.

A creek crossing on the Swift Camp Creek Trail.

By the time we set up camp, we were completely unmotivated to complete the trail and the additional loop at the end, even unburdened of our loads, and we just cooked dinner, started a tiny fire, and called it a night just about as soon as the sun set.

And yes, it rained all night.

However, it stopped raining in the morning just long enough to cook breakfast, tear down camp and hover over the topo map together to plot the easiest way out. To get back to our car, we’d have to hike about 1.5 miles back on the Swift Creek Camp Trail, but then we could take the Wildcat Trail the next 1.25 miles, which looked much flatter, and then trek up the road for 1 mile or so, which would take no time at all, plus would be less treacherous in the rain.

Our primitive campsite in the Clifty Wilderness of Red River Gorge.

It continued raining off and on, but it didn’t start pouring until we hit the nice wide, flat path that was Wildcat Trail. Our pace quickened and we made much better time, even as our hiking shoes filled with water. By the time we reached the road, it was really coming down and we were not taking our time walking up the nice flat pavement!

Naturally, the rain all but stopped (for a few minutes anyway) just as we reached the parking lot. We weren’t complaining, because that meant we could change out of our stinky wet clothes instead of diving into our cars sopping wet.

Were we disappointed that we didn’t get to spend the two nights outdoors we had planned to? Absolutely. But were we enjoying ourselves out there in the rain? Not so much. Sometimes you just have to make the call. Oh well. There will be other backpacking excursions in Red River Gorge.

That said, we also did a short hike and camped for one night in the more central and popular Red River Gorge Geological area. Unlike in the Clifty Wilderness, there were other groups camping out there that we could see and hear and were told those trails were more highly trafficked by hikers, backpackers and climbers alike. The trails, however, appeared less intense than those in the wilderness area, so may have been more appealing in wet weather. And because there are several, many of which connect to multiple other trails, you can easily hike a loop route instead of an out-and-back.

I will say this for the Clifty Wilderness, though: Man was it green! Which is certainly pleasing to the eye when you’ve only been hiking in Texas for the last four months. And we enjoyed views of the creek and monstrously large rock faces and shelters, found wildlife like salamanders and insects, and only crossed paths with a handful of other hikers who had braved the weather.

Would we return in less wet conditions? Absolutely. Especially because we didn’t even make it to the section of the trail a local said was probably the most beautiful in the whole area. We’ll be back.

backpacking in red river gorge clifty wilderness
So much green in Red River Gorge.