For rock climbers, especially high-level sport climbers, the Red River Gorge in central Kentucky is a Shangri-la that offers some of the most difficult bolted climbs in the country. The type of test-piece routes that climbing’s elite whisper about among themselves, 5.14s with names like Thanatopsis, 50 Words for Pump and Pure Imagination.
Sending any of these routes places a climber in rarefied air among the highest echelon of skill and ability. In fact, a few routes have only been completed by a handful of climbers and some of the most difficult routes at Red River Gorge remain uncompleted. The Red River Gorge isn’t just a paradise for the superhuman climbers; the area boasts thousands of established routes spanning from beginner-friendly 5.6s to classic 5.10s like Manic Impression and Funkadelic.
"Climbers from all over the world come here," says Bill Strachan, one of Red River Gorge’s original climbers who helped found the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition (RRGCC) and organizes the areas biggest annual climbing event, Rocktoberfest (Oct. 7-9), now in its 17th year. "They all absolutely fall in love with the area and especially the rock." It’s that rock — beautifully sculpted sandstone arches that form the types of natural caves, overhangs, spires, cracks and crags rock climbers fantasize about — which makes Red River Gorge a must-visit for traveling climbers east of the Mississippi and beyond.
"I’ve been going to Red River Gorge every year since I was nine years old," says Red Bull athlete Sasha DiGiulian, who’s been the first female up a number of the zone’s toughest routes. DiGiulian has plans for a first ascent during this year’s Rocktoberfest. "It’s where I grew up as a climber. I’ve traveled all over the world to climb but no place has the same concentration of steep, hard climbs that Red River Gorge does."
While details of the Sasha’s first ascent attempt are being kept under wraps for now, Bill says, "It’s the most beautiful rock I’ve ever seen with two types of climbing terrain that combine to make it extremely difficult and while the route has been attempted before it remains unclimbed."
Rocktoberfest, a three-day climber’s utopia hosted every year by the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition, is a great time to visit the area. October is prime time at Red River Gorge since the cooler temperatures of fall are perfect for climbing and the summer rains have subsided. Events include a climbing competition, clinics for beginners and intermediates to improve their skills, a fundraiser for the RRGCC and, of course, camping, socializing and free climbing. It’s an important event for the area’s local climbers and the RRGCC because many of the area’s best crags are on private land, which the RRGCC works to buy and maintain along with securing permits from the Forest Service.
While it’s definitely the main focus, rock climbing isn’t the only thing to do in the area. After a couple of days of climbing the Gorge’s crags, give the arms a rest and go mountain biking in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Well-maintained, gently flowing trails wind their way through colorful foliage, across burbling creeks and down some fun, technical rock sections.
Whatever you do, no visit to the Red River Gorge is complete without a stop at Miguel’s Pizza. The longtime hub for Red River Gorge climbing community, Miguel’s has been satiating dirt-bag climbers for decades with delicious pizza, hot breakfasts, warm showers and cheap camping. While vibrant on the outside, the bright yellow is no match for the colorful characters found hanging out inside. Also, keep your eye out for the rare white-haired goldenrod flower — a wildflower with fragrant yellow blooms and tiny white hairs on the leaves. The Red River Gorge is the only place in the world where the white-haired goldenrod grows.