Exiting Lexington Airport from the UK we were greeted by clinging humidity and the white noise of cicadas. The ‘Bluegrass State’ of Kentucky felt more exotic than expected. As it was late we opted to spend our first night in a nearby Best Value Inn. The room was akin to a ‘50s movie set with a distinctly musty odour to match.

Making the short drive to Red River Gorge the next morning we began to get a sense of the start of the American South; culturally very distinct from the rest of the States. Like so many climbers before us, we made a bee-line for the epicentre of the Red’s climbing scene – Miguel’s Pizzeria.

The history of climbing in the Red is entwined with Miguel’s. In the guidebooks it’s the starting point for directions to all the climbing areas. What started as an ice-cream parlour, set-up by Miguel Ventura and his wife Susan in the early eighties, became a pizza place using his special home-made dough.

Nowadays, it’s a large campground that includes showers, a covered cooking area, climbing shop, basement hang-out and a first-class pizzeria that also does breakfasts etc. On a busy weekend, it has a festival atmosphere. At only $3/night for camping, you don’t mind treating yourself to a pizza or two – especially if like us you manage not to bring any cooking gear with you.

“One of the best lines of its grade in the Red” says the guidebook. Ben Bransby about to hit lactic acid overload on Golden Boy (5.13b), Gold Coast. © Ray Wood
Angus Kille gone over to The Dark Side on The Force (5.13a). © Ray Wood

The Red’s sandstone cliffs keep their promise of world-class sport climbing well-hidden in the dense forest that covers these Appalachian foothills. Forty-eight percent of Kentucky is forestland. Although at times jungle would be a better description.

After pitching our tents, buying the latest guidebooks and signing the necessary waiver to climb in the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP), we headed to Drive-by Crag to hide from the late afternoon sun. Either out of enthusiasm to get climbing or laziness, we drove down a particularly steep hill on a rough dirt road without considering the issue of getting the hire car back out. Luckily, after some flying gravel and a push we got to keep the vehicle for the rest of our trip. Lesson learned.

Parking for many of the crags is reached on such forest tracks that provided or continue to provide access for oil extraction. Oil derricks randomly appear throughout the area and the tangle of pipework in the undergrowth below cliffs, such as at Gold Coast, are signs of a once thriving industry.

Our priorities for the two weeks we had in the Red – aside from climbing – were food, coffee, connectivity and beer, in roughly that order. The daily routine soon became a two-minute drive for decent coffee and a breakfast smoothie at the Daniel Boone Trading Post, climb all day, followed by dinner generally at either Miguel’s or the Red River Rockhouse café up the road. Life made simple. The only drawback to staying at Miguel’s was the poor internet. Any new climber’s arrival would soon be followed by mutterings of frustration under their breath as they struggled to ‘connect’.

The Rockhouse was a salubrious surprise and it was easy to understand its popularity with sweaty dusty climbers; eager to hoover up the fast wireless and slake their thirst with a craft beer. Think hipster climbing hang-out. It may not sound very rock’n’roll but their kale salad – with chicken or tempura – was a staple with us. After all, there’s only so much pizza you can eat. If you’re returning from climbing in the northern half of the Red then Sky Bridge Station is a great place to stop for food.

Miguel’s Pizza is the centre of the climbing scene in the Red. © Ray Wood

Trying out some ‘authentic’ Kentucky dining we headed to a recommended place in Clay City. It had a wooden plaque on the wall, saying ‘In the south if ain’t fried it ain’t food’, which about summed it up. For the non-meat eaters in the party, it was an awkward moment when the vegetable soup arrived with fried strips of beef in it. At another eatery, the sugar-saturated apple pie came battered and deep fried. The true emphasis of the ‘F’ in KFC hit home.

After a few days of overdosing on lactic acid at several different crags, it was easy to understand the Red’s reputation as America’s premier sport climbing destination. Steep and pumpy climbing on well-bolted cliffs with the biggest holds you’ll ever let go of guarantees a good time. There are thousands of routes to go at. We didn’t even get a chance to use the Miller Fork Climbing guidebook we’d also bought along with the Red River Gorge North and South guides.

What is perhaps less well-known is that it’s well worth taking a trad rack along for the abundance of good quality splitter cracks and off-widths; particularly in the northern half of the Red River Gorge.

When a crag is called Indian Creek that tells you all you need to know, although you’ll need to pay attention to the approach description for this one to ensure you find it. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the five-star Jim’s Dihedral (5.10a/E1) and Crack Attack (5.9+/E1). Over at Eastern Sky Bridge the description for Inhibitor (5.11a/E3) – another five-star crack line – begins with “Are we in Yosemite?”. The convenience of the bolted lower-off is more than welcome after the fight to reach it.

Angus Kille about to commit to underclinging his way from under the roof of Doppler Effect (5.10b), Eastern Sky Bridge. © Ray Wood
“Are we in Yosemite?” Ben Bransby facing up to Inhibitor (5.11a), Eastern Sky Bridge. © Ray Wood

Much of the climbing in the Red occurs on private land. Some crags such as Roadside require a permit (grainingfork.org) and there is a daily limit to reduce the impact of climbers at the crag. If you can’t get one then you have to climb somewhere else.

The community-based organisation, the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC), does a remarkable amount of hard work in addressing access issues at the Red. They directly purchased 750 acres of land to establish the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve in 2004, created the Miller Fork Recreational Reserve, and in 2016 purchased the 102 acre Bald Rock Recreational Preserve securing access to the awesome Motherlode and Chocolate Factory.

To climb at the RRGCC owned areas it’s necessary to sign a liability waiver that is easily found at the foot of the rrgcc.org home page.

Autumn is the most popular time to visit the Red (October – November) although the spring (March-May) can also be good. The RRGCC fund-raiser, Rocktoberfest, traditionally kicks-off the autumn season at the Red.

There are snakes worth avoiding in the Red such as the venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes but the only scary wildlife we saw were the large crayfish living in the small burrows peppering the campsite. Disturbingly they’d often emerge under your groundsheet at night.

We’ll definitely be going back to the Red and may head even further south this time, to check-out the beautiful sandstone of the Obed in Tennessee. And then there is the New River Gorge in West Virginia, only a couple of hours away, just in case you tire of juggy pockets.

The iconic door of Miguel’s, hand-carved from poplar by the man himself. © Ray Wood