It's no secret that the Red River Gorge is a kick-ass spot for rock climbing, but where to head? Here's a handy guide on where to find routes for all levels in the Red.
Thirty years ago no one would have guessed that the Red River Gorge would become one of the world's most famous rock climbing areas. The climbing at "the Red," as climbers know it, was way off the beaten path — thousands of miles from California and Colorado, and hundreds of miles from East Coast hot spots in North Carolina and West Virginia. But hidden beneath the dense canopy in the rolling hills of Eastern Kentucky was, quite literally, a "motherlode" of steep Corbin Sandstone waiting to be climbed on.
It's not Yosemite — the cliffs are generally about 100 feet tall — but what the Red lacks in height and grandeur is more than made up for with pure fun-factor. The rock seems tailor-made for climbing with walls of all angles that resemble a deep brown and orange Swiss cheese. There are cracks that require the climber to use hands and feet jammed in the hold-less void for upward progress, and vertical walls with tiny "crimps" that are barely the width of a fingertip. But what's made the Red famous are the steep, overhanging walls that tower above neck-craned suitors like a crashing wave.
Climbing these walls requires the upper body strength to hang from your arms for long periods — inching toward the top one pull-up at a time. The longer you hang on, the more "pumped" you get — climber lingo for that deep-tissue burn that comes with slowly failing muscles. It's the unequivocal Red River pump that's put the place on the map and spurred the route name for one of the area's most challenging undertakings: "Fifty Words for Pump!" Climbing at the Red requires athleticism, fitness and a splash of bravery, but battling through the pump and swooping between holes like a gibbon is about as fun as climbing can get.
Word of the great climbing had started to trickle out, but it was an international climbing festival hosted by Petzl in 2007 that really threw the cat out of the bag. Rock stars from around the world descended on rural Kentucky and the film crews that came with them thrust the region into the limelight. A few years later, America's leading climbing magazine, Rock and Ice, declared the Red "America's Best Crag."
The last decade has seen exponential growth in the popularity of Red River climbing. These days, a glance around the parking lot at Miguel's Pizza, the climber's campground and cultural hub just a few miles south of the Slade exit off the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, might reveal license plates from dozens of states. Listen closely out back—where climbers nurse their weary arms back to health with pizza and 12-ounce curls—and you might hear foreign tongues from half way around the world trying to figure out what in the hell "y'all" means.
The sheer diversity, quantity, and quality of climbing available at the Red is what's made it so popular. If you're just getting started, there are few better places to learn to climb. Big handlebar grips make some of the easy climbs barely more challenging than climbing a ladder. Conversely, some of the most challenging routes in the country are also found here. Here are a few good bets to get started.
Where to begin
If you're just getting started, the largest concentrations of easy climbs are located in Muir Valley. Owners Rick and Liz Weber have generously opened this privately owned climbing preserve to the public. It's proper etiquette to drop a donation in the box before heading off to sample any of the 30 different sectors with names like "Practice Wall," and "Guide Wall." Especially popular is the "Bruise Brothers Wall," with 19 routes in the relatively easy grades of 5.7 to 5.10. Even easier routes can be found at "Practice Wall," the most beginner-friendly being "Acrophobiacs Anonymous." At the very easy grade of 5.4, and just 25-feet tall, this is one of the best sport routes to cut your teeth on. Be forewarned, you won't be the only one seeking out the fun and easy climbs of Muir Valley. The area can get very crowded on weekends and holidays.
Though the Red is known for outstanding sport climbing, traditional climbers can find some of the best cracks east of the Mississippi. Tucked away in the far reaches of the lower gorge is the Long Wall, home to two of the Red's most sought after crack climbs. Warm up on the popular "Autumn" (5.9) before battling the splitter finger crack of "Rock Wars" (5.10a). The latter looks, and climbs, like a transplant from the desert southwest. Still hungry? Head to Eastern Sky Bridge Ridge for "Inhibitor" (5.11a), a route that longtime RRG trad climber Kris Hampton has called "the greatest single pitch on earth."
The Red is often unfairly characterized as offering nothing but "jug hauls," a somewhat derogatory term for mindlessly monkey-barring between big holds on steep rock. All the climbs aren't like that, but the ones that are sure are fun! Some of the best are found at Military Wall, where you can start on the über-popular 5.9's "Sunshine" and "Moonbeam." But "Fuzzy Undercling" (5.11a) is the quintessential Red River jug haul and a must-do for any aspiring jug basher. Harder 5.12's are just to the left. "Tissue Tiger" and "Gung Ho" will both test your ability to hang on.
The Red is often unfairly characterized as offering nothing but "jug hauls," a somewhat derogatory term for mindlessly monkey-barring between big holds on steep rock.
The Red River Gorge has one of the most dedicated and successful climbing advocacy groups in the country. The Red River Gorge Climber's Coalition has set the bar for climber-owned and operated recreation areas. Most recently, they've purchased a 309-acre tract of rock-rich land in Lee County called the Miller Fork Recreational Preserve. Climbing routes were established at a feverish pace and the area now offers over 400 rock climbs on 23 separate walls. Because it's so fresh, keep an eye out for loose rock and breaking holds, but rumor has it that it's cleaning up into one of the Red's most fun climbing areas. It's so new, it's even got its own guidebook by author Ray Ellington. Pick it up at Miguel's.
The one and only Motherlode is perhaps the Red's most famous wall. This giant horseshoe-shaped alcove overhangs at 45 degrees and has a perennial waterfall cascading from the lip that drops over 100 feet. Some of the most difficult, and famous, routes in the nation ascend this unlikely wall of experts-only terrain. You'll want to climb at least 5.12 to enjoy this area properly, but you'll need 5.14 endurance to get up the hardest pitches. Few have the ability, but as guidebook author Ray Ellington put it — it's a great place to just hang out and witness "freakish displays of strength."
Photography by Dan Brayack