Sheltowee Trace


Pinch-Em-Tight Trailhead in Red River Gorge to Suspension Bridge over Red River


Tuesday, May 18, 2010




I was just dying to check out the Red River Suspension Bridge, so today was it!  Nestled in between a string of rainy ones, the weather was supposed to be cloudy today but with no precipitation, so I took the chance that the trails wouldn’t be too wet.  Even though this particular path does eventually lead down to the Red River, most of it looked to run along the top of ridge lines, so this increased the chance that it would be well pretty well drained.  What was nice about today, too, was that it turned out to be the last cool day of spring (mid 60’s), so it was a perfect hiking temperature.


When I arrived at the trailhead parking lot I met an older couple who were just heading out along with a hiker who was just coming back in.  She had brought a sweet dog with her that looked like a yellow Labrador Retriever.  I love these dogs, but I did something that really bummed me out!  As we talked I was fumbling with my dog repeller device, trying to put the battery back in (this is a device I use to deter unfriendly dogs!).  Well, I must have accidentally pressed it, because it clearly irritated the dog.  At least I know it works now, but I sure felt pretty bad!  The woman told me something I didn’t know.  She was from Wisconsin and she mentioned that the ticks were just as bad up there if not worse in the spring.  I thought that they’d be better since the weather tended to be so much cooler up there.


Anyway, as I began on the path I was walking through the woods alongside the gravel road (Tunnel Ridge) that I drove in on.  You’ll cross this very soon (as you emerge from the woods, the path will continue on the other side of it at about the 10 to 11 o’clock mark) and from here you’ll begin that long stretch of path I mentioned that runs along the tops of different ridge lines.  Extending for about half of the trail today (maybe 2 ½ miles), this section was defined by both a sandy path and by trees and bushes with peppermint colored blooms on them.   Some of these were pink on white, others were white on pink, but I thought they were all quite picturesque and I took a lot of pictures.  Yet I’ve looked up, down, sideways, and cross-eyed and I can’t find what kind of plants these are!




Rush Ridge Trail will shortly split off to the left while you’ll continue right.  Because of the foliage your views will be limited (with the exception of one especially nice vista coming up), but you will catch occasional glimpses of the sea of green which surrounds you in the midst of all the other ridges of the forest.  This is really a great experience, and you can certainly see why the gorge is such a popular place.  You’ll almost never be alone out here.


Soon you’ll spot what looks like a nice camping location down below you to your right, and then the Buck Trail will also branch off and lead down to your right while you head straight.  It was in here that I noticed a bunch of trees with absolutely monstrous sized flowers.  They must have been the size of basketballs.  I wasn’t able to get a good picture of them because they were at a fair distance and behind some other trees, but I did find out later that they were magnolia trees.  My parents helped to identify them for me when we came across some on one of our walks through Lexington.


Another set of signs comes up quickly.  You’ll go straight again, but what essentially happens here is that you’ll merge with the Rough Trail.  Taking a left would lead you to Gray’s Arch, but next up for me was the aforementioned vista.  Near the ½ way point of the “out” portion of this out-and-back hike, this vista stretches across the gorge, and this may be one of the nicest views in the area as you look over a carpet of little green cotton balls.  If you look to your left I believe that the furthest rock face was the one which towered over me when I eventually reached the Red River.



Almost none of the trail up on this ridge top seems to be made of dirt, by the way.  It’s all either sand, protruding tree trunks, or solid rock.  The path is really pretty straight too, in general, so you’ll know you’ve begun your descent when the trail starts getting a lot more curvy.  There was one patch in here that reminded me of Christmas with the red moss mixed in with all the green!



Your descent will start gradually, but it’ll soon get quite a bit steeper and the scenery will completely shift to a dense green.  In here the vegetation reached up to my midsection or higher, and I began to notice the gnats quite a bit more now, regretting that I had lost my mosquito net cap earlier this spring.  Seems I’m always losing something…  Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent swiping gnats away from my face!



When you reach the valley floor you’ll begin an intense flirtation with the creek that helped to carve it - Chimney Top and some of its tributaries.  I think I made 5 stream crossings from this point - not including the Red River – and there was one spot where the path came so close to the bank a few feet above the creek that I could have sworn that the trail designer wanted me to fall right off the side and into it!



Anyway, after the first of the stream crossings (over the right fork of Chimney Top Creek) I met with what looked like a very nice little camping spot, but the camping is a little dicey out here.  I’ll use the number again, but I saw at least 5 absolutely perfect, beautiful camping spots that had very clear “No Camping” signs visible over the course of the day today (most of these were just ahead along the banks of the Red River).  One sign I saw indicated:


The following are not permitted:

Camping with 300 feet of any developed road.

Camping with 300 feet of any developed trail.

Camping in any picnic area or parking area.

Camping within 100 feet of the base of any cliff, or the back of any rock shelter.



After the second, very sandy, crossing over Chimney Top I came to another trail intersection.  I don’t know why, but it seemed like I should surely be taking a soft right here.  Wrong.  This is where the Rough Trail splits off from the Trace to eventually intersect Chimney Top Road.  You’ll want to take the sharp left here to follow the sign toward Highway 715.


As stated, I think I crossed the water 3 more times before beginning an ascent along a moderate slope.  This section of trail took me in the form of a “C” (starting from the bottom of the letter) all the way around the mid-level of another ridge line, and after completing this pattern I began to descend again on a series of switchbacks toward the Red.  It’s a bit confusing in here though...  The “C” will end and then the path will zig down left and then zag right, but there will be other paths which extend outward from the “elbows” of these.  I stuck to the zig-zag pattern here and was fine, but when I finally did reach the Red River I stopped seeing trail signs.


Wanting to be positive that I was headed the right way I looked at the Sheltowee Trace book I had with me ( ) to make sure...  It indicated that I was to follow the Red upstream, but looking at the water it appeared totally calm - I couldn’t tell which direction it might be flowing in.  I was heading east, however, and this proved to be OK because after about another ¼ - ½ mile I started catching glimpses of the bridge (this section was, by the way, where I saw all the awesome “camp sites”).



Can I ever tell you that the Red River Suspension Bridge is a must-see!  While out at Carter Caves for the last trip I came across 2 others, one of which might have been about the same length over the Smoky Creek (and I crossed yet another one here in Kentucky at the Lower Howard Creek Nature Preserve), but this one is very impressive!  Check out the chains which keep it anchored - and as you walk across check out how high the trees tower over you on the other side of the valley!  It almost tropical!  What a spot!  Maybe I could put in a few more exclamation points?  !!!!!



You won’t want to leave this area anytime soon after having traveled 5 miles to get here (if you came this way), so stay and enjoy this a while.  I certainly did – and I took about 20 pictures too boot!  After you cross over it looks like there’s a parking area if you take a left and follow along the bank a little way, but the trace looks to continue straight up the hill.  There’s a road up there too, but I decided to save all that for the next time and head back.



…and as I was leaving it appeared that “someone” wanted to say goodbye!



Oh…  and that rock face I saw from the vista earlier?  It appears that there’s a rock house/overhang in it too.  To be honest, I actually didn’t notice this rock face at all until it caught my eye through the trees on the way back.



What did I notice when I got back to the car?  I had a flat tire!!!  However, in what may have been the single luckiest moment of my entire life, I had purchased a can of Fix-A-Flat immediately prior to making the drive out here.  OK – maybe it wasn’t quite as lucky as it sounds – I had gotten a flat the week prior which I’d fixed with the same stuff.  It had help up, but since I was still a bit concerned about it, I purchased another can.  I think it’s always a good idea to have one of these in your trunk.  I’ve found that they really do work.  If they don’t completely solve the problem, they’ll at least enable you to reach a spot where you can have it properly checked out.




Take exit 33 off the Bert T. Combs Parkway and head north.  You’ll immediately intersect with KY15.  Turn right here and travel about 3.5 miles to the entrance to the Red River Gorge Geological Area ( Tunnel Ridge Road).  There will be a sign on your right which will direct you to this entrance on your left.  Watch for it and make the left turn.  Then make the first left into the first parking lot you see.  The trailhead is on the north side of this little lot.