Red River Gorge Kayaking: An Ultimate Guide


Jason is an adventure travel writer with a passion for exploring the world's most beautiful and remote destinations.

In the heart of Kentucky, nestled in the Daniel Boone National Forest, you’ll find the Red River Gorge. 

With world-renowned hiking trails, breathtaking natural beauty, and the best kayaking spots in Kentucky, it’s clear to see why thousands of people visit this spot every year. 

If you’re planning to go Red River Gorge kayaking but you’re not sure what to expect, this guide will give you everything you need to know to make the most of your trip.

Looking for some other great kayaking spots in the US to add to your bucket list? Check out our complete guide on the best places to Kayak in Michigan

Why visit Red River Gorge?

If you’re looking for the best kayaking in Kentucky, Red River Gorge is the place to visit. The challenging run of rapids stretching over ten miles down the Upper Red River is what most adventure seekers come to take on. But there are also many Class I paddling opportunities for those looking for something more relaxed. 

The best part about kayaking here is it’s usually fairly quiet for a popular tourist spot. The river remains fairly narrow throughout and because of the twists and turns, you’ll usually only find experienced kayakers so some weekends you might even have the water to yourself. 

As well as kayaking, there are so many other reasons to visit Red River Gorge. You won’t beat the views at the Gorge, with exposed sandstone sheer cliffs, interesting geological formations, and sweeping areas of flowers, it doesn’t get much more Instagram worthy. 

For small children who can’t take part in kayaking, there are rockhouses and small streams to explore, as well as incredible waterfalls to see.

Where to Go in the Red River Gorge

If you’re planning a kayaking trip to the Kentucky gorge, here are a few spots you won’t want to miss. 

The Narrows of the Red

The Narrows is where the Class III rapids begin and where the fun truly happens. You’ll have to dodge boulders and navigate over rapids to get to the endpoint – a beautiful pool that will easily be the highlight of your trip.

Dogs Drowning Hole

Once you’ve run the Narrows of the Red in the morning, head to the Dogs Drowning Hole in the afternoon. The name isn’t great, we know, but it’s a great spot for experienced kayakers. 

There are unpredictable currents and it can be extremely technical in low water, but it remains a key attraction of the gorge.

Bald Rock Recreational Preserve

If you want to take on a climbing adventure on your trip, the Bald Rock Recreational Preserve has over 100 acres of the most world-renowned climbing spots. From the Motherlode to the Chocolate Factory, there are some unbeatable climbing spots to take on while visiting the gorge. 

If you’re an experienced climber, the Motherlode is one of the toughest lines to take on. Whereas the Chocolate Factory is the most popular choice with some easier lines for beginners. 

Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve

Want somewhere to chill and take in the scenery? The Pendergrass-Murray recreational reserve has almost 750 acres of parkland to enjoy. There are hiking trails and bike trails throughout as well as more climbing areas. But it’s also just a great spot to relax after a long day of kayaking. 

Indian Staircase and Indian Arch

If you’re looking to add a hardcore hike to your kayak trip, the Indian Staircase is considered a difficult trail that shouldn’t be taken on alone. 

It’s only a three and half mile stretch, but it’s a steep trek with some of the best views when you reach the top. 

Double Arch, Star Gap Arch, Arch of Triumph

This is a much more moderate hike that covers gentle slopes and a gravel road over almost six miles. If you have beginners or children with you on your trip, this is a much better option than the more elite hiking trail. 

Directions, Parking & Regulations

Directions to Red River Gorge

It’s free to enter the Red River Gorge, but you’ll need a permit on your vehicle if you plan on staying overnight. Most of the gas stations and mini marts in the area sell the permit passes for just $3 for one night or $5 for three nights, if you’re planning a camping trip. 

You can’t just park anywhere though, make sure you’re in one of the legally set out areas along KY-77 and KY-715. You’ll see the large parking signs if you’re in the right place. 

The gorge is open year-round, but October is considered the peak time to make the most of the beautiful scenery. 

To get to Red River Gorge, take the I-64 East to Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway that’s on exit 98. Continue to Slade which is exit 33 and you’ll be able to enter the gorge through Nada Tunnel in the small town of Nada. 

What To Do in the Red River Gorge

People climbing in Red River Gorge cave

If you love the outdoors, there is no end of amazing activities to do when you visit Red River Gorge. Here are some of our favorites. 

The Gorge Underground

As well as kayaking above ground at the gorge, there is a great underground kayaking trip. This guided kayaking tour goes through an underground cave known as the Gorge Grotto, where you’ll be able to paddle through the dark in an hour-long fun adventure. 

Much more suited to families, this is a gentle trip which is great for exploring the gorge from a unique perspective and trying something new if you’re a beginner to kayaking. 

Rock Climbing

Standing at around 200 feet tall, the sandstone cliffs at The Red make for some unbelievable rock climbing. There are some popular destinations throughout the preserve for novices and experienced climbers, all overseen by the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition

The main three areas to visit for climbing are:

  • Bald Rock Recreational Preserve
  • Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve 
  • Miller Fork Recreational Preserve


With over 70 miles of fabulous trails, there’s a lot of ground to cover at Red River Gorge. There are even sections of the 333-mile Seltowee Trace Trail that runs to Tennessee.

From steep climbs for experienced hikers to gentle trails suitable for families, there is something for everyone at The Red. The higher you go, the better the views, and you can’t beat the views at the gorge. 

For flat trails, head to The Chimney Tops and Princess Arch. But for more serious trails, you’ll prefer Rough Trail, Rock Bridge, and Swift Camp Peak. 

Whichever trail you choose, the paths are marked with white diamonds so you know where you’re going. 


If you want to make a longer trip out of your time at Red River Gorge, there are plenty of campground sites to choose from. However, you do at least 300 feet of a trail and 100 feet of rock shelters for your own safety and the safety of the wildlife. 

Never set up a fire or sleep in the rock shelters themselves – there are at least two species of endangered bat living in the gorge which are protected.

There are dedicated campsites in the Gorge if you’re looking for something less rugged. Koomer Ridge is one of the most popular spots but it’s usually pretty full in peak season. 

To meet up with other campers, there’s another popular area behind Miguel’s Pizza in town that charges just $2 a night and you’ll get to experience the true community feel of the gorge. 

Tips on Kayaking Red River Gorge

view of Red River Gorge

Kayaking at The Red is not to be missed, but there are some dangerous areas that shouldn’t be taken on lightly. Here are some of our top tips for Red River Gorge kayaking safely to have the best trip possible. 

Take note of the difficulty grading

There are sections of the gorge rated intermediate to advanced with a rating of Class III. With a deep water level higher than 350 CFS, steep walls, and remote locations, these should only be taken on by experienced kayakers. 

If you’re not totally confident or a beginner to kayaking, steer clear of these spots and stick with the gentler areas with a friendly guide. The mid and lower sections of the gorge are great for beginners and families. 

Visit in the winter or spring

Although the scenery is most breathtaking in the Autumn, the best kayaking experience at the gorge is between late December and late May. 

The water levels at the gorge fluctuate rapidly, sometimes giving nothing more than a creek. During these months, rainfall is average, so you’re most likely to get a safe water level to kayak on. 

Go on a tour as a beginner

If you’re new to kayaking or want something kid-friendly, there are different tours available for gorge underground kayaking led by an experienced guide who provide everything you need from helmets and life jackets to the kayak and gear. 

What to Wear when Kayaking Red River Gorge

Depending on the time of year, you’ll want to layer up when kayaking to stay warm. This is especially important if you’re going kayaking in the underground caves which can get very cold, even in the warmer months. 

When you’re planning what to wear kayaking, think about packing the following:

  • A tight fitting base layer that is moisture-wicking, lightweight, and breathable. A sports vest is usually a good option. 
  • A drysuit or water-resistant mid-layer. If you’re taking on a hair-raising whitewater experience, a drysuit will keep you dry best. 
  • A waterproof outer layer. If it’s especially cold, an additional layer will keep your body temperature constant. 
  • A life vest. Whether you’re taking on a gentle line through Red River Gorge or night kayaking in Key West, you should always wear a life vest, no matter how experienced or confident you are. 

Thinking about Kayaking The Red?

If you love kayaking, the Red River Gorge is one trip you don’t want to miss. From the stunning views to the hardcore rapids, it really is a trip to add to your bucket list adventures. Not to mention the hiking, climbing trips, and camping you can add in on your trip. 

If you love the idea of booking an underground kayaking trip while you’re at the Red River Gorge, check out our in-depth guide for everything you need to know. 

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