The Red River Gorge Today, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Who Built the Indian Staircase?

The unofficially named "Indian Staircase" in the Red River Gorge has become a popular place of both intrigue and misconception. The staircase consists of pecked-out footholds in a nominal sixty degree inclined cliff made of sandstone, making it possible for those with no fear or vertigo to walk right up this steep climb.

At the top of the staircase are four notable rock features; Gnome Hole, Frog Head, Counsel Chamber, and the Ohm Dome. This area is believed to have been inhabited by a tribe of the prehistoric Adena Indians two thousand years ago.

Thus, the common belief that the stairway footholds were chiseled out by the Adena Indians.

While Gnome Hole and Frog Head are interesting carvings of rock that resulted from erosion, the Counsel Chamber is a massive rock shelter that has provided evidence of Adena inhabitation. The Ohm Dome is an overhead rounded opening at the far end of the Council Chamber that, if you get someone to boost you up into it, will produce an eerie resonation when you chant a long and deep mantra, OOOHHMMMMMMM.

Speculation has it that the Ohm Dome may have been used by the Adena for religious ceremonies, the one man quire loft, if you will, but this story remains unsubstantiated.

The quickest route from the Adena's residence up top down to the water, the Red River, where the bigger game would be found, is straight down the incline where the Indian Staircase is today. So did the Adena fabricate these footholds?

Very unlikely. These footholds are scooped out of sandstone, which erodes relatively fast. Historian and author Don Fig noted in his book "Tales of the Red River Gorge" that in only forty years these footholds have weathered down to toeholds. It is fun to think, however, that two thousand years ago, the Adena Indians carved out an elaborate stairway to their heaven, which has since disappeared.

So who is responsible for the weathered footholds we now call Indian Staircase?

Johnny Faulkner, a former Red River Gorge Archaeologist, gave us this answer:

"The Adena Culture is part of the Early Woodland Period in Kentucky. There is no correlation between the Indian Stairway and the Adena Culture. The Indian Stairway is a series of pecked out steps on a slanted cliff face, which were most likely made historically by Salt Peter Miners in the early 1800s."

How ironic. The staircase was built to help miners get up to the salt peter, and historically, salt peter has been used to prevent men from getting up at all...