By Winston Endall
Nestled in the hills of Eastern Kentucky is an oasis of sandstone walls that beckon climbers from all over the world. The Red River Gorge is the epicenter for sport-climbing in eastern North America with thousands of routes, easy approaches, and a community that welcomes climbers.
Most of the climbing is along the Hwy. 11 corridor which means most of the areas are within a half-hour drive of any of the places you might camp or rent a cottage. The central hub of the climbing community in the Red River Gorge is the world-famous Miguels Pizza. The little family-run pizza shop at the side of the road has grown to be a rock climber’s resort capable of hosting hundreds of people. They also have one of the best gear shops onsite so you don’t have to worry if you forgot any gear. In fact, they stock many items that you don’t find at the local REI or outdoor store.
The Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition (RRGCC) is the primary organization to advocate for access, manage most of the climbing areas, and spread sustainable climbing ethics in the area. This climber-owned and managed group are responsible for the fundraising and acquisition of numerous properties that have been turned into rock climbing parks. By buying the land and administering it they remove the usual land access issues that climbers face.
Climbing in the Red River Gorge
Over millennia erosion left deep channels in the surrounding plateau. The underlying sandstone became exposed and in the mid-1900s, adventurous people started trying to climb up the steep faces and crack systems. Fast forward to the 90s and people realized that the Red River Gorge would be a perfect place for what was new at the time, bolted sport climbing.
The featured sandstone walls can be found in varying steepnesses from easy slabs to overhanging roofs. The crags pop up all over the gorge seemingly from nowhere in the forest. Rather than long exposed walls, as you will see in some gorge or canyon settings, the crags in the Red River Gorge are little climbing oases dotted throughout the steep valleys.
What is awesome about the Red is that it offers climbing for every level. A new climber transitioning out of the gym for the first time will be at home with routes that are easily stick clipped and have close bolt spacing. But it is also a destination for Adam Ondra and Alex Megos to put up futuristic test pieces on wildly overhanging walls.
For the new climbers looking for fun moderate climbs then heading to Pendergrass-Murray will give you tons of options. There are many other grades represented as well with a lot of quality 5.10 routes. Just be aware that the drive-in is slow and rough. An all-wheel-drive vehicle with a bit of clearance is recommended.
If you are a crusher wanting to pull on tiny holds on steep walls then Bald Rock is your destination. Particularly of note is the Motherlode crag. with a wealth of routes 5.12 and higher.
Formed in 1996, the RRGCC was at the forefront of climbing access advocacy in the East. The National Forest Service had a bolting moratorium in the Red River Gorge which would have limited new route development. The Coalition negotiated to allow climbing access and allow bolting which is why today there are over 3500 routes in the Gorge.
In 2004 they purchased the 750-acre Murray property which became one of the largest climber-owned areas in the country. It was renamed the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve and is now open to climbers in perpetuity.
With assistance from the Access Fund, other properties followed with the RRGCC now owning and managing the Pendergrass-Murray, Miller Fork, and Bald Rock Recreational Preserves. These rock climbing parks have well-groomed trails, modern hardware, easy-to-follow signage, and built-up belay areas when needed. Hardware is regularly checked and maintained in these parks by volunteers from the Coalition.
It takes a lot of work to maintain these areas with a small army of volunteers repairing erosion on the trails, replacing hardware, and working to maintain the safety of the areas while still keeping an eye on minimal disturbance of the natural beauty.
Location: Miguel’s Pizza
This season kick-off is held at the world-famous, Miguel’s Pizza. What started as a roadside pizza shack has grown into a rock climbing resort. There is space for hundreds of people to camp plus rooms and cabins for rent. You can even sleep in the parking lot if you have a camper van. After almost 40 years it is still less than $5 per night to camp.
They have washrooms, showers, laundry, beach volleyball, basketball, slack lines, fire pit, and a yoga room. Even if you don’t come to this event, make sure you stay at Miguel’s at least once to experience a year-round climbing festival and some of the best pizza you’ve ever had.
Book ahead as the place will be packed. Great climbing during the day with food, music, and prizes at night to celebrate the new climbing season.
With the best gear shop in the area, Miguel’s has great relationships with many of the gear brands so you will have lots of cool prizes such as climbing shoes, ropes, and quickdraws. Combine this with the awesome food from both Miguel’s and Redpoint BBQ you will be missing out if you don’t make the trip in March to the Red River Gorge.
And don’t forget to grab a Miguel’s T-shirt. It is a secret code for other rock climbers to know you are a climber.
Location: Lago Linda’s Campground
This is your chance to give back to the Red River Gorge climbing community. Volunteers are needed to help with projects all around the RRGCC properties. From trail maintenance to building new bridges, there is never an end to the work that needs to be done to keep these climbing areas in good shape.
For this event, the RRGCC teams up with the Access Fund conservation team to bring the trails and infrastructure of the climbing parks to the highest level.
And to celebrate all the hard work you did during the day, the night at Lago Linda’s Campground will be a party with food, music, and local libations.
Location: Land Of The Arches Campground
Wrap up the season with perfect climbing conditions. The cooler weather of fall will keep your skin tight and dry to pull on the smallest crimps. Then in the evening enjoy a celebration of all that is the Red with food, prizes, and a night of music and dancing. Join your tribe and feel like you are the place you belong.
Land of Arches is a great base for this event as it is centrally located to get to all of the climbing areas in the Red.
How You Can Help
It costs a lot of money to buy and maintain these rock climbing areas. The RRGCC doesn’t charge for access so the only way they raise money is with donations.
You can donate to help support climbing in the Red River Gorge by clicking this link.
It takes lots of people to put in a lot of work to maintain and expand a climbing area. From trail maintenance to replacing gear, none of this happens without people willing to volunteer their time and effort.
Aside from Trail Days in June, keep an eye out or get on their mailing list to know when they need a hand.
Beyond trail work, consider yourself a steward of the crags whenever you go out. Pick up garbage and carry it out even if it isn’t yours. Make note of any erosion, damaged hardware, or downed trees blocking trails, and let the RRGCC know when you are done climbing.
Share on social media and at your local climbing gym. If everyone who climbs in the Gorge donates a few dollars it will add up to a lot over the course of the year as a few hundred thousand people visit the area to climb each season.
Donate your retired climbing gear to CragDog (Us!). We contribute 30% of sales proceeds to local and national climbing advocacy organizations like the RRGCC.
When buying CragDog products from our website, at checkout, you can select the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition as your desired partner organization.
In the Red River Gorge area the only real climbing shop is located at Miguel’s Pizza. It is just past the restaurant and boasts one of the largest selections we’ve seen in any shop. This is really apparent with eight brands of shoes and hard goods from just about every brand imaginable.
They also sell guide books for each of the areas so you won’t have a problem finding your next dream project.
The staff is all climbers so don’t hesitate to ask for advice on gear or where to climb. They are always happy to help out.
Plus you can get a selection of training tools to take home to make your next trip even better. From hangboards to grippers you will find most of the gear you need to pull hard.
Located just down the road from Miguel’s, Southeast Mountain Guides headquarters is nestled in a side canyon of their very own. They offer guided climbs, instruction, and trips all across the southeast.
Whether you climb at their location or hit any of the other walls in the area, AMGA-certified guides will work to impart knowledge and safe practices while keeping the climbing fun.
For those who want the rock climbing experience without taking the time to learn the ins and outs of technical climbing, they offer a Via Ferrata route on site.
The Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition has done a lot of work to guarantee that climbers will have access to quality routes for generations to come. Rather than just negotiate with land owners for access they raised the funds to buy the properties outright. With some of the best climbing in the Gorge on their managed properties, you know that you won’t have an issue finding great projects on your next trip to the Gorge.
Support the people who help make climbing accessible for everyone. The RRGCC is an example of what is possible when the community comes together for a common cause.