Going Wild in the Clifty Wilderness of Kentucky

The July 4th weekend is one of the busiest for camping, busiest for getting outside in general.  So what is a family to do if they want to enjoy nature and find solitude on such a busy weekend?  Head to the wilderness, as the crowds rarely make it to the back country.  So that’s just what the Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions did for this Independence Day, we drove down to the Clifty Wilderness of Kentucky, located within the Red River Gorge Geologic Area, within the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest.

Camp in Clifty Wilderness
Camp in Clifty Wilderness

We arrived before the break of dawn at the rest area in Slade, KY, on the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway on July 3rd.  It had rained hard on the way down, with flash flood alerts popping up on my phone.  Once dawn started creeping up on the eastern horizon, we picked up our backcountry permit from the local Shell station and headed south to Rock Bridge Road into the Clifty Wilderness.  We found the pull off we wanted, with access to an unmarked trail that leads all the way to Swift Camp Creek a few miles away.  Camp was quickly established about a thousand feet off of Rock Bridge Road, this way we were away from everybody, but could still access the car if needed. For the record, never once did another soul come down that unmarked trail, it was true solitude.

Rain was in the forecast for the entire weekend, so we decided if we were going to get wet anyway, might as well do a hike that included a creek.  We made our way to the end of Rock Bridge Road to the picnic area, and took off down Rock Bridge Trail.  Parts of this trail are paved, but it is very old, broken up, with roots coming through, so don’t think you can take a stroller or wheelchair down this trail (not to mention stone steps and creek crossings).  The trail immediately begins descending into ravines cut out by Rockbridge Fork and Swift Camp Creek, with the trail often tunneling through rosebay rhododendron (mountain laurel).  The trail felt very much just like some trails we have hiked in the Smoky Mountains, perhaps with more scenery in a shorter distance.  We came up a large rock shelter with a small waterfall coming down, where we took some time to climb around.  As we made our way on down the trail, the roar of an upcoming waterfall was unmistakable.  The view above Creation Falls and the grotto it creates is a very special spot indeed, even though we’ve seen similar waterfalls and canyons in Indiana, the surroundings of the Clifty Wilderness are unique and give this area a much more secluded and ancient feel.  We found our way down to the creek, where we slipped off our shoes and waded to the waterfall for some photo opportunities.  We had it completely to ourselves for a good 40 minutes before another group of hikers came along, so we let them have it to themselves while we headed on down the trail.  Not far from the falls is the namesake of the trail, Rock Bridge.  The Red River Gorge is famous for having the largest concentration of stone arches east of the Mississippi, but this one is a little different, as it is the only arch here that forms an actual bridge over a running stream.  Pictures don’t do it justice, it is definitely larger in person.  We wanted to climb on top of it, but the rocks were still very wet from the the previous night’s rain, so we hiked on.  Our intention was to hike beyond the Rock Bridge Trail and up Swift Camp Creek Trail to that unmarked trail that lead back to our campsite, which included another arch, the Turtle Back Arch.  So we passed the trail back to the picnic area and headed up Swift Camp Creek Trail, which borders the creek but up above on a bluff looking down on the creek.  In many spots, the trail was only a couple feet wide with a sheer drop off to the right.  When views opened up through the rhododendron, the Swift Camp Creek was beautiful flowing through it’s canyon, with house-size boulders in some places, and waterfalls running off cliff sides.   We found the unmarked trail and headed up it, but ran into a roadblock when we discovered the trail required some rock climbing to get up to Turtle Back Arch and beyond.  There was a rope there to help get yourself up, but again the rock was wet, and trying to get a 10 year old and a Siberian Husky up that small cliff didn’t seem the safe thing to do.  On our own, Robin and I would have totally gone for it.  After some exploring and finding other less-than-safe options, we decided this far in the backcountry wasn’t the best place to be taking chances with our child.  So we finally decided to backtrack to the trail we had bypassed earlier and made our way back to the picnic area.

This is when the backcountry gets the best of us.  About 6pm, a drizzle starts, so we get a campfire going for dinner.  The drizzle slowly turns to a rain.  A constant rain.  We scarf down some hotdogs and crawl in the tent.  With the rain unrelenting, we call it an early night.  And all night, it rained.  Nonstop.  When we got up around 7am, it was still raining, and everything was wet.  Our expensive backpacking tent, complete with the rainfly and it’s vestibules, could not hold up to more than 12 hours of soaking rain.  Water had pooled under our tent, allowing seepage from the bottom, and our backpacks inside the vestibules soaked up the rain as well.  We were completely miserable.  The rain lightened to a drizzle so we could finally make coffee, and by 9am it had mostly tapered off, but the trees above kept raining on us with every shift of the wind.  We made an executive decision to pack up camp, count our losses and be better prepared next time.  About noon we headed out of the Clifty Wilderness, but the sun had come out at this point (it’s such a tease), so we figured we might as well get some more exploring in.  We drove up Skybridge Road to the picnic area there, and walked across the second largest natural arch in the RRG.  Again, there is no such thing as a bad trail in the Red!  Even though this one was fairly short (0.7 miles), it had amazing views of the gorge and surrounding cliffs, the arch itself makes you feel tiny, and the rock shelters and sheer cliffs you walk under take you into another world.  Our bad mood from the drenching rain of the night before was replaced by our natural sense of awe and wonder.

Our final destination was Chimney Rock picnic area where we ate lunch, and planned on when our next excursion into the Red would be.  Expect a return trip very soon.

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