Camping in the Red River Gorge
by Jim Stickley, post date March 8, 2009
From time to time, people ask me if I can recommend a good campsite in the Red River Gorge. My answer is yes, and no.
There are 925 backcountry campsites in the RRG area, according to a Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) inventory report. This number does not include an additional 471 inventoried rock shelters with evidence of illegal camping. So how do we find the best campsites? I suggest that we find them by exploring, with these considerations to keep in mind:
Make sure that your campsite is legal
Getting fined for setting up camp in the wrong place would suck. To prevent this from happening to you, here are the basic "Do Not Camp Here" rules:* In any picnic area or parking area.
* Within 300 feet of any road or USFS official trail.
* Within 100 feet of the base of any cliff, or the back of any rock shelter.
* Within 600 feet of Grays Arch.
* Within any area posted "No Camping" (duh).
Overnight camping permits
All vehicles ON KY 15 or IN the Red River Gorge and Indian Creek area north of KY 15 must display a recreation permit for backcountry camping between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 1 day for $3; 3 day for $5; Annual for $30. Permits can be purchased at many area stores. Annual permits expire on Dec. 31 of the year purchased. One and three day passes expire at noon on the day after the last day of the pass.
For more information on rules and regulations, see our Regulations webpage.
Ridge top or river bank
There is no in between in the RRG as far as setting up camp goes. My advice: set up your camp down by the river, or a creek, where you can easily put out your campfire and can fall safely, to sleep. Explore the cliffs and ridges above in the daylight hours.
Campground, Geological Area, or Wilderness
The Red River Gorge offers a wide variety of opportunities to suit almost any camping style, from primitive wilderness to luxury cabin rental. For info about the latter, check out our cabin rental link page.
The Red River Gorge is home to the 12,646 acre Clifty Wilderness - one of only two wildernesses in Kentucky. US Congress has set up wilderness to be managed differently from the rest of federal lands. They are to be very primitive with no roads, building, or mechanized equipment/travel. You go in on foot. Visitors should not expect easy travel or easy rescue.
Perhaps the easiest way to find a campsite in the wilderness is to follow an official trail downhill until you find a creek, then follow the creek. You'll get your feet wet, so pack dry shoes and socks, but this should be the simplest way to get over 300 feet away from the official trail without having to climb or bush-whack your way in.
Red River Gorge Geological Area
The easiest way to find a legal campsite here is to follow any unofficial trail, but there's a catch. The Forest Service does not maintain or encourage the use of unofficial trails, saying "The Red River Gorge is riddled with user developed trails. We have over twice as many unofficial trails as official trails. Some visitors get confused and accidentally walk down these user trails and get lost."
As an avid supporter of our Forest Service, I feel somewhat out of line by suggesting the use of unofficial trails. I do recommend that you go in prepared with a topo map and compass to avoid confusion. A handheld GPS device is also a plus, marking your waypoints at trail intersections as you go. If you do get lost, please don't tell them that Jim Stickley sent you.
Campgrounds may offer some amenities that you won't find in the backcountry. Here are three links to consider:Koomer Ridge Campground
John Swift Campground
Red River Gorge Campground
With the exception of a ban due to drought, the rule is you can have a campfire, but keep it small, make sure it is out before you leave, and use only DEAD and DOWN wood. As to where not to build a fire, note this law: Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire, campfire, or stove fire within 100 feet of the base of any cliff or the back of any rockshelter is PROHIBITED in the Red River Gorge.
Also, in an effort to prevent the importation of pests, the Forest Service asks us to use only local wood. Given the recent ice storm, trust me, there is no need to pack in wood from another state. We've got you covered!
Leave No Trace
As more people use parks and recreation facilities, LEAVE NO TRACE guidelines become even more important for outdoor visitors. Please take time to learn the LNT guidelines and principles by going here:
UFOs and Bigfoot
If you spot either one in the Red River Gorge area, let us know. Until then, happy exploring!