Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, east of Lexington and four hours from Indianapolis, is one of the most beautiful playgrounds in the area. The focus is on the gorge, not the river – the waterway is anemic, but the valley of the same name, known for high cliffs and rock formations, registers a drama on the order of a national park to the west. The Red, as the area is called, isn’t overly developed or touristy either – only pristine forests and sandstone cliffs offer adventure and tranquility. But not much cellular. Instead of staring at a screen, do the following:
Stay in a tree house.
Canopy Crew, a Cincinnati arboriculture company, offers the best of red glamping in luxurious tree houses and a range of geodesic dome tents. All have real beds and most have modern showers, toilets, electricity and air conditioning. But you’ll feel off the net in these secluded settings, even if technically you aren’t. We like Dome Town, a hillside arrangement of three private sleeping domes and a bathroom dome on wooden decks connected by hanging bridges. It’s the only rental with a canopy net that you can lie on high in the trees. Prices start at around $ 250 per night for two people.
Do your first via ferrata.
The via ferrata (in Italian “Eisenweg” or “Viaisen”) is a type of climbing in which steel ladder rungs embedded in the cliffs are used as hand and foot grips. You’re also trapped in a cable system – you can even let go and the rope will carry your full weight so you can rest. It’s a great way to get a taste of the exciting activity (and natural acoustics) the red is best known for. Southeast Mountain Guides takes you vertically.
Kayak to a swimming hole.
The Red River may not be impressive, but it is still good for a lively arm workout. At Red River Adventure you start upriver. When the water is high enough to clear rocky spots, you’ll have to paddle hard. If not, you will have to get out and pull your kayak in a few places. The rewards are after 2 miles a poolside party location where people jump off the jump rock and the hopping return trip down river.
Stay cool underground.
Don’t you wanna work so hard in your kayak? You can paddle through an abandoned, flooded mine at Thrillsville Adventure Park. You will have a coat, headlight and a guided group for the excursion through the canyon grotto where the water is crystal clear and the air temperature is around 55 degrees. Stand-up paddleboarding is also available – but the water freezes. So only do this if you can stay on your feet.
Go over a rock arch.
There are approximately 160 natural arches in the Red River Gorge and the adjacent Natural Bridge State Park. Hike to one of them is a must. Natural Bridge is a classic, albeit crowded. You can go over the flat top after climbing the short steep path and the Lemon Squeezer passage. Download any hiking maps in the All Trails app before leaving home as you may not get cellular service in the canyon.
Conquer a one-way tunnel.
The Nada tunnel was mostly forged by hand for a lumberjack train more than 100 years ago. It’s now a one-way one-way passage (and on the National Register of Historic Places), but traffic control isn’t much more sophisticated than it was then – it’s just the honor system. You can see through the entire 900 foot long, 12 foot wide tunnel when it is empty. When it is your turn to turn on your headlights and drive through slowly enough to appreciate the roughly hewn interior. But sometimes you get stuck behind a few cars playing chicken until someone pulls away. Once you’ve done it, you can also visit Sky Bridge.