Backcountry Camping at Red River Gorge – Kentucky, USA
Megan and I had a late start out of Bloomington, IN. So we arrived at Slade, KY 10:30 pm on a Friday night. We’d both cleared our weekend schedules so that we’d be able to remain at Daniel Boone National Forest’s Red River Gorge until sometime on Monday. Given the tidbits about the park on the internet, it’s hard to tell exactly where to camp. We decided to stop at the Shell Station, corner of 15 and 402. That is where we were first introduced to Ale 8-1, a heavenly ginger beer distributed only in Kentucky, Southern Indiana and Ohio.
We’re big fans of trying new things; we each picked up a bottle, a free map, and got some friendly advice on a backcountry camping area, Indian Creek, from a park ranger who just happened to be fueling up outside. We were to travel over a bridge and through a tunnel, he said. Excited at the prospect and both feeling initial caffeine rushes, we headed north on 402 and turned onto an old metal bridge on Nada Tunnel Road.
We weren’t disappointed. Nada Tunnel is a 900-foot single-lane hole that loggers bored through solid rock in the early 20th century. I was driving and felt like I had to be extremely cautious due to the haggard rock walls being only slightly wider than the road itself; stray close to one side or the other and, well, the results wouldn’t be pretty. By the time we popped out of the park side of the tunnel, I was white-knuckling the steering wheel and had developed a fresh appreciation for lateral freedom.
Rather than drive all the way (it really wasn’t that far) to the Indian Creek camping area, we made a quick turn-off on a promising-looking dirt road, following traffic and hoping for the best. This was a finger of Nada Tunnel Road, which more or less parallels Indian Creek itself. We found a spot not too far up, beyond some other campers. We parked. We could see the campsite (somewhat in the dark) not fifty feet from the road, but we had a twenty-foot descent to make over an overgrown trail of loose dirt, onto which we dropped a good bit of our stuff and often stumbled down upon. We set up though, and in good time. The weather was perfect; the rain fly never went up. The last either of us saw that night of the waking world was starlight dappling through a dark, leafy canopy.
The next morning we discovered Indian Creek, which we hadn’t been able to see in the dark. It was literally a stone’s throw from us, down another steep little embankment. Down in that creek was where we took our cool morning baths and where later that day, I’d build a "cooler" out of flat stones for our six pack of Ale 8-1. We showered, ate and left by car to find a trail. The way back through the tunnel was much easier this time. After a brief stop-off for drinks at the Chevron Station (Shell’s pastoral competitor in Slade), we drove around the park until we found the Pinch-Em Tight Trail. We couldn’t resist.
The trail wound through the woods and along the ridge of a mammoth ravine. We weren’t so much hiking or backpacking as we were kind of moseying along in sandals with no extra water. We didn’t stay out long. The mile or so of trail we took in was picturesque though, leaving us wishing we’d come prepared for a real hike. We came upon a group campsite deep in the forest at the foot of a great rockshelter and, after poking around a little there, we looped back onto the trail and headed towards the campsite.
We picked up steaks and had ourselves a great dinner accompanied by a cheap bottle of wine. We resolved then, before going to bed, that we would spend some quality time in the river on Sunday. It was only a few feet deep where we were; we couldn’t pass it up. As our fire was dying down though, we heard our neighbors call out "Hey! You guys want some steaks?" When in Rome…
Our neighbors ended up being three-fourths "eastern Kentucky’s only Death Metal band". In spite of their steaks (we thanked them profusely), we had a wonderful time meeting them, hearing them jam out on their acoustic guitars. We walked back to camp that night feeling less alone in the woods.
Sunday is an anomaly. Usually when you’re in a big park like Daniel Boone State Forest, folks tend to fan out and take in all they can before they have to hit the work trail again. We didn’t. We went down to the river next to our campsite and stayed there.
I just want to say we had a wonderful time that Sunday and the whole time we were in Red River Gorge. For firewood, I recommend Red, a fellow who lives between Nada Tunnel and Slade. He’s married, the wife lives in another town because they don’t get along. Different strokes for different people. Do him a kind turn in conversation, and he’ll give you twice what you pay for. Who knows; maybe he’s lonely. He’s a terrific storyteller, too.
For more information, check out this link.