If the Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, then the Red River Gorge deserves similar accolades for pure scenic beauty. Encompassing approximately 40,000 acres of eastern Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest, "the gorge" as locals call it, is itself a jewel not to be ignored.
Red River Gorge is located near Slade, Ky., about an hour's drive southeast of Lexington. To get there, take I-64 east from Lexington to exit 98, then follow the Mountain Parkway to exit 33. A left turn at the end of the exit ramp takes you to U.S. Highway 15. Turning either right or left leads you to the gorge,but I recommend traveling left for about 1.5 miles and then taking a right onto Kentucky Highway 77. As you drive three miles north, you'll emerge from the narrow, 125-year-old, 900-foot-long Nada Tunnel into another world.
Make your first stop at the Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center, located at the Gladie Historic Site off Highway 715, about 7.5 miles after you exit the Nada Tunnel.
Kentucky's climate is moderate throughout the year, with rare single-digit lows and triple-digit highs. April through May and September through October offer the most comfortable weather, with highs ranging from the low 60s to low 80s. Annual rainfall averages between 45 and 50 inches, with October being the driest month. July and August generally are hot and humid, so get out early and late during those months. A typical winter will bring 15 inches of snowfall. If you're there when snow covers the countryside, shoot it quickly, as it won't last long.
The gorge contains about 100 major arches, 950 species of flowering plants and 160 species of native shrubs and trees. Wildlife is plentiful, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, grouse, quail, red-tailed hawks and an occasional peregrine falcon, which were reintroduced about four years ago. A small herd of bison grazes in fenced fields along the river near the Gladie Historic Site.
Visit in spring to enjoy a landscape dotted with dogwood and redbud trees. Indian Creek, a tributary of the Red River, provides some of the best access to Virginia bluebells, white trillium, trout lilies and phlox. Late May and early June find the magnolias resplendent in blossoms too large to contain in the palms of two cupped hands. July has its rhododendron display, which gives way to an assortment of black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and cardinal flowers. The best is saved for September and October, as the leaves begin turning red, yellow and orange, emerging from the treetop canopies in a splendor that can rival that of New England.
Some 60 miles of trails varying in levels of difficulty run throughout the gorge. For ease of photographic access, there's a gradually sloping, quarter-mile stroll between a paved parking lot and the top of Sky Bridge, one of the region's massive and easily accessible arches.
The best sunrise and sunset vantage points are reached via the Auxier Ridge Trail. Located at the end of Tunnel Ridge Road, it's an undulating two-mile trek that terminates with views of photogenic rock formations such as Double Arch, Courthouse Rock, Haystack Rock and Ravens Rock.
The wildflowers are at their best in April, and the hardwood forests reach peak color in late October. Warm days followed by cool nights often produce fog in the valleys, so anticipate working mist-shrouded scenes when those conditions are likely.
Contact: U.S. Forest Service, Stanton Ranger District, 705 W. College Ave., Stanton, KY 40380, (606) 663-2852, www.fs.fed.us/r8/boone.
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