Hiking The Red River Gorge

The Pinch Em Tight, Rush Ridge, Rough Trail to Gray's Arch loop trail gave 'Camp, Hike the Southeast' all we wanted.

Mike Rhodes | June 5, 2023

It’s June 2 when I wake up in my tent at Koomer Ridge Campground in Pine Ridge, Kentucky. This is something new for me. Yes, I camp often, I hit several campgrounds every year, but I can’t remember the last time I set up a tent after Memorial Day. Yet, here I am.

As I’m eating breakfast and fueling my body for the day, I’m thumbing through my All Trails app trying to decide which trail awaits me. The Red River Gorge area of east-central Kentucky in the Daniel Boone National Forest includes a large network of hiking trails. Do I want waterfalls or natural arches or scenic views? I want them all, but the reality is I haven’t been making many training hikes like I did in 2022 when I was planning my trip out west. Today needed to be something under 5 miles and it had to include something different. Trail three in the list, Pinch Em Tight to Rush Ridge to Rough Trail to Gray’s Arch met the criteria—3.4 miles, overlooks and a natural arch.

The trailhead is only about 10 minutes from Koomer Ridge so I jumped in the truck and headed out. The parking lot was full at 11:15 a.m. but there were plenty of spaces available at the overflow lot. It’s the main parking lot for the Gray’s Arch trail, and just about everyone I saw was headed down that out-and-back trail. I, however, was going to walk up the gravel road about 200 yards and take a left onto the Pinch Em Tight trail to begin my loop trek.

The start of the trail is fairly wide with lots of green new growth mixed with some late-blooming spring flowers. The trees were full of dense green leaves keeping the June sun from beating down. There aren’t many views at the onset of the trail, but about a quarter-mile in you start catching glimpses of a gorge on the left side. There are even a few small overlooks about 10 feet off the trail that allow you to edge up and look off a little bit. This time of year the trees are leafed out, preventing what I would imagine is a wonderful vista down into the gorge during a November hike. So far it’s easy, flat walking.

I’m about 20 minutes into the hike when I arrive at a junction of trails. The trail system is well-marked with signs that point hikers in the correct direction. The signs have the trail name and trail number along with the distance of each trail section. At my first junction, I turn left onto Rush Ridge.

Rush Ridge is similar to Pinch Em-Tight in that there aren’t many vistas to gaze over, the trail is well established and it’s mostly shaded at 11:45 a.m. There are a few primitive overlooks 10 to 15 feet off the right side of this section of the trail. I call them primitive because it hasn’t been established as an overlook by the national forest service and there are no fences to keep hikers away from the edge. I carefully stepped toward the edge to get a better glimpse into the gorge. I stepped back quickly when I noticed the sheer drop only inches away.

The trail includes some areas where you have to scramble over some rocks.

At about 1.4 miles into the hike the trail begins a descent into the gorge. The trail descends by 400 feet down to a lush landscape covered with ferns and other green ground cover. The temperature is noticeably cooler and much welcomed at this point in the day. The trail includes two sets of narrow steps that have been built into the ground to make it easier to reach the bottomland. Once in the bottom, it meanders along a trickling stream with large boulders and plenty of fallen trees. The trail crosses the stream a couple of times, but the volume of water was pretty low and with some well-positioned rocks I was able to cross while keeping my feet dry. I am not sure that would be the case if you hiked this trail after a decent rain.

This narrow stair system is one of two along the trail that were installed to assist hiker-access to the area.

The portion of the trail along the stream is only about .25 miles and it is easy to lose your way. I did just that. I didn’t see the white diamond blaze and walked beyond the junction where the trail crosses the stream for the last time to begin the climb up toward Gray’s Arch and back to the parking lot. Luckily I had downloaded the trail map and was able to notice my error quickly. I doubled back a short way, crossed the stream, and I was back on course.

The hike out of the bottom up to Gray’s Arch hits you at just over 2 miles in. I hiked down more than 400 feet of elevation, and as expected, I had to hike back up 400 feet to get back. It’s June 2, it’s 86 degrees, it’s humid and I’m in for a challenging climb out.

It’s a steep grade when leaving the bottom. I’m feeling it but I just continue with my slow and steady stepping. The suggestions on the app said to take this trail counterclockwise making it an easier trek. I can’t attest to that being true but I can attest that going counterclockwise is dang tough. I stopped on the trail several times over the next .75 miles during what felt like a constant incline.

Sandstone rock formations like this one were common along the trail up to Gray’s Arch. I had never seen anything like it.

I encountered several large rock formations and rock overhangs as I got closer to Gray’s Arch. I wish I had a geologist on speed dial to help me better understand how the waves and holes developed in the rock formations, the patterns were magical and it was nothing I’d seen before. The last .25 mile to Gray’s Arch was by far my favorite part of the trail. The arch itself wasn’t as stunning as I had anticipated. I might feel differently if I was there in December when the leaves had fallen but on this day the leaves gave it good cover. I was more in awe of the natural amphitheater just below the arch.

Gray’s Arch is one of several geological formations found in the Red River Gorge Area.

Leaving Gray’s Arch and taking the trail starts with a few sets of stairs. The first two are about 15 steps and the third set was over 50. I’m wearing out. The 3.41-mile loop trail has already registered 3.2 miles and I’ve got about 300 feet of elevation gain in front of me and well more than .25 miles.

This portion of the trail is similar to what I had at the beginning of the loop in that there aren’t many intriguing visuals. A well-defined path, with lots of trees and shrubs. With every turn, I am just hoping to see flatter ground.

Over the next 30 minutes, I stopped a few times to rest and sip some water as I methodically continued up the trail to the parking area. The volume of hikers I’m encountering has picked up dramatically. I only crossed paths with three people during the first 3.25 miles and I passed at least 15 to 20 in the last mile back from Gray’s Arch.

I finally hear the sound of a vehicle on a gravel road which brings me much joy. I turn the next corner of the trail and can see vehicles. I made it! I felt accomplished yet tired.

I enjoyed the loop but I think I would enjoy it more in the winter months. Not only for what I think would be better views but also for more tolerable temperatures. The 3.41-mile loop registered at 4.54 miles by the time I got back to the truck. I did miss the crossing at the stream but that might have added .25 miles, but I’m guessing that mistake accounted for less. If you go, be prepared for 500+ feet of elevation gain no matter which way you travel. Be sure to bring a trail map or to have one downloaded on your phone. I didn’t have any cell service for more than half of the hike, so if you are solo hiking be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you are expected out.

The portion of the Daniel Boone National Forest I saw was worth the time and effort. I will definitely be visiting the Red River Gorge of Kentucky again. It’ll just be after Labor Day and before Easter.

This is the recorded elevation changes of my hike.

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