Backpacking on Auxier Ridge – Red River Gorge

Usually this time of year, we’re heading out for our first camping trip in our popup at some local state park.  This year, we started differently, with a backpacking weekend in Kentucky!  It had been raining through most of the week, with periodic flash flood warnings.  But the weekend was predicted to be dry, warm, and sunny.  Knowing creeks would likely be swollen and forest trails would be muddy, we chose a hike up on a ridge.  Auxier Ridge, to be exact, one of the most scenic trails in the Red, in the northern portion of Daniel Boone National Forest.  We’ll be camping in June at Natural Bridge State Park, but nothing beats choosing your camp spot out in the forest itself.

http://www.backpacker.com/trips/kentucky/lexington-auxier-ridge-trail/

We left home (Lafayette, IN) before dawn Saturday morning, with Mapquest telling us it was a 4 1/2 hour drive to RRG.  I’ve been through the area many times, on the way down to visit family in southeast KY, but never had a chance to stop and spend time in the geologic area.  Three stops and five hours later, we were driving through the Gateway to Red River Gorge, better known as Nada Tunnel, an old one lane tunnel through a mountain that was originally a railroad tunnel.  At 900 feet in length, 12 feet wide and 13 feet high, it’s not for the claustrophobic!  Entering the tunnel from the west side, we literally drove through a small waterfall.  Once exiting the other side, it’s like entering a prehistoric forest, with rock outcrops everywhere.

We cruised around the Gorge area on Sky Bridge Road, admiring the landscape, and stopped in at Gladie Center to get our overnight backcountry pass and read about the history of the Red.  FYI, there is no fee for camping in the backcountry, but there is a fee for parking your car overnight ($3/one night, $5/three nights, etc.)  We continued our sightseeing driving tour around the Gorge until we reached Tunnel Ridge Road, and took it all the way out to the end, where Auxier Ridge and numerous other trails begin.  If you happen out this way, take your time, there are some amazing overlooks on the drive.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dbnf/recreation/recarea/?recid=39458

Once we got our packs on, it didn’t take long to figure out we weren’t quite in trail ready shape!  Akira, our husky, didn’t much care for her backpack and managed to slip out of it, leash included, and took off down the trail.  Fortunately, Robin was able to catch up to her and get her back on leash.  Disaster averted!  It was a busy day on the trail, filled with mostly day hikers, out for their first hike of the year on one of the top rated trails in the south.  We stopped for numerous breaks, and started to become disheartened as the backcountry sites we were expecting to find (at least according to our outrageGIS topographic map and Hinterlands book) were all closed off by park service.  So we kept hiking out, found some amazing views, passed the Haystack Rock area and Double Arch view, when we finally found a small finger of land that lead away from the ridge (right before Wizard’s Backbone) that had two small established camp spots on it.  We took the one furthest from trail and quickly sat up camp.  What a view!  Our campsite was maybe 30 feet at it’s widest, with dramatic dropoffs on either side.  We viewed hawks and vultures flying *below* us over the trees on the forest floor.  We relaxed in our Grand Trunk Double Hammock.  At sunset, we hiked back to the ridge with the amazing overlook (nearly 1300′ above the valley) toward Double Arch, sat on the bare rock face and watched the sun go down.  That alone made it all worthwhile.  Back at camp, we set up our little camp stove and made corn, spam, and spaghettios, camp dinner of champions! Then we sat around the campfire and listened to the distant howl of coyotes before finally crawling into the tent for much needed sleep.  Of course, even that was an adventure, as our tent wasn’t on a perfectly level spot, which caused us to slide down our sleeping pads.  By morning, Kaden was completely at the foot of the tent, but he didn’t even notice, he slept so hard.

Camp panorama
Camp panorama

We missed the sunrise, but birds were chirping and sunshine plentiful as we readied ourselves for another day on the ridge.  We left camp and headed on down the ridge, across Wizard’s Backbone and to Courthouse Rock.  So many awesome views and amazing rock formations through this area!  We headed down trail, into the forest and to the base of the valley, through early blooming trees and spring flowers, finally reaching Auxier Branch where Akira played in the creek while we used our Sawyer Squeeze to replenish our water supplies.  Drinking water through the purifier straight from the creek is extremely refreshing, I’ll be taking that along even on short day hikes.  The hike back up the trail to the top of the ridge was definitely more taxing, climbing 1300′ in such a short distance, including several rock scrambles while being pulled by a dog and loaded up with water supplies required a longer break once back up to the Courthouse Rock area.  Courthouse Rock, by the way, rises an additional 90 feet up from the ridge, and reminds me of a small Half Dome peak (from Yosemite).  We made it back across Wizard’s Backbone and back to camp, ate lunch and then packed up camp for the hike back out.  I hated leaving, but all the views on the path back just made me eager for a return trip.

Red River Gorge Geologic Area encompasses nearly 45 miles, so much more to explore!  Cliffs, waterfalls, canyons, and the Clifty Wilderness beckon our return.

*Click on Images to Enlarge*

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