Overview: Red River Gorge, Kentucky
Whether it be the density of moderate climbs for beginners, incredible FFA feats ala Sasha Digiulian, or the “flash and onsight” rampage of Adam Ondra—most folks have heard, at least in passing, of the incredible climbing found across the Red River Gorge of Slade, Kentucky.
The seemingly endless sandstone cliffs of the RRG cover a massive expanse of private and National Forest land, still with many areas completely unexplored. The two major privately-owned areas, Muir Valley and Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve, hold some of the most popular crags and routes at the Red.
Whether you plan on spending the lion-share of your time cruising up (truly moderate) routes at Bruise Brothers of Muir, or projecting with the big boys at Darkside and Motherlode, there is something for literally every climber at the Red.
Specific description of climbing style
It’s slightly overhung, so it’s slab here
is something commonly heard down in Slade. But despite the Red’s reputation for being a home to overhung, unthinking jug hauls, taking just a small step off the beaten path opens the door to a plethora of techy-er, more thought provoking climbs.
Although the crags around Slade are best known for their dope, overhung sport routes, there is an incredible amount of quality traditional climbing at the Red, too. Both Long Wall, and the “Gorge Proper” (Home to the Skybridges, and the phenomenal Funk Rock City) host a variety of high quality, moderate to hard crack climbs. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “trad climber,” you owe it to yourself to climb Rock Wars (5.10a), Autumn (5.9-), and Headstone Surfer (5.10a). All of these cracks can be jammed or even laid back, if you’re a dirty trad-faker like many of us.
The best time to climb in the Red is in the spring or in the fall. The prime month is October; just after the sweltering heat and rain of August, and before the heat-sapping cold of the rock demands that you equip your chalk bag with hand-warmers. Most of the bugs are dead, and the copperheads tend to be less active at this time of year, too.
Climbing grade range
The RRG truly offers well over a lifetime of climbing at all levels. There’s a route for everyone at the Red, and often single crags run the gamut from 5.8 to 5.14 (looking at you, Gallery); one of the more unique aspects of this climbing area.
Best local spot
There are ever expanding options for food and drink in Slade, KY. Miguel’s Pizza serves incredible pizza, with an awesome array of toppings. (Usually more than 30). If you’re looking to sit down, have a beer and a burger, The Rock House is a fantastic option—their savory sweet potato fires are to die for. If you’re more inclined to cook your own food then head to Stanton for the grocery store, Kroger, which is a brief 20-minute drive away.
Top climbs in area
There are more must-do routes in the RRG than could be listed in all the space already taken up above, covering ever grade imaginable. Everybody already knows about Kaleidoscope (5.13c), Mercy, The Huff (5.12b), and Amarillo Sunset (5.11b), so here are some slightly less known gems:
For some reason 11c in the Red is a truly magical grade. There are no less than four different truly Five/Three star routes at that grade in the RRG: Crown of Thorns, Prime Directive, Banshee, and Lip Service.
- Crown of Thorns (5.11c), Brightside – A tall adventurous climb, which will get you thinking.
- Prime Directive (5.11c), Funk Rock City – Actually a notoriously hard to onsight 11b with a (gasp!) tricky slab crux transition.
- Banshee (5.11c), The Solarium – This one asks very little of a prospecting 11+ climber. A comfy no hands rest gives way to a short crux transition, and just when you think you may fall off you’re rewarded with another 50 feet of jug haul hero climbing.
- Lip Service (5.11c), The Great Arch – One of the most unique climbs in all of the Red. A truly ballsy mantle start (stick clips!) leads to one of the most suggestive holds ever seen while climbing. A pair of resting stances lead into Horse Pens-like sloper boulder problems stacked on top of one another. Don’t think twice about backing off to rethink the sequences of these monsters!
In the PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve), the Bear’s Den area is underrated by a great deal. It is a fantastic escape from the crowds of Da Lode (The Motherlode) on a busy weekend.
- Sam’s Boy Toy (another 11c, what the heck?!), PMRP – A fantastic and beautiful line. The route consists of three distinct faces overlapping one another, giving a pretty incredible “infinity rock” illusion when standing on the ground and seeing a slightly overhanging face jut out from behind a gentle slab.
- 72-Hour Energy (5.12a) – To the right of SBT, past a lovely amphitheater, complete with a semi-permanent waterfall, is a staggeringly beautiful headwall. It is home to this 12a with a fun, shutdown boulder problem guarding it’s chains. The lower part of this entire stretch of wall is covered is neon yellow-green moss, ala Jade. Watch out for the ticks, and you’ll have a great time.
Best kept secret
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the RRG has any hidden gems left, given the traffic that it receives. But in reality, many groups do themselves a bit of a disservice by sticking to the tried and true Muir Valley destinations (especially if you don’t donate!!). If you go to Muir Valley consider making the “trek” all the way back to Slab City and Coyote Cliff. Return to Balance (5.11a) and Thrillbillies (5.10b) at the former are fantastic moderate ticks, which will get you thinking, and Thunderclinger (5.10c) at the latter is the most fun I’ve ever had on a 5.10 sport route.
How stiff is the grading?
People will say the Red is soft if you’re in shape, and stiff if you’re not. There’s something to be said for climbing the crux for a grade that is a V grade or two easier, only to be shut down by another 60 feet of not-so-easy climbing. Bring your power endurance game if you want to send hard, and don’t be thrown off by the huge bands of chalk that are endemic to the area. If you grab a decent hold, use it. Son’t waste it pumping desperately, looking for something better.
Where to stay
The climbing community in Slade, KY gathers itself around Miguel’s Pizza. A cornerstone, and local institution, Miguel’s has been the gathering place for climbers since its door opened in 1984, originally as an ice cream shop called “The Rainbow Door.” Here you can grab the best slice of your life, swap stories, and spray down hard in the occasionally hampster-scented comfort of the basement under the restaurant. As a final caveat, it’s worth mentioning that if you stay at Miguel’s please, please, pay for the camping. Take it from someone who has spent a season working there; there’s no need to shirk the three dollars (THREE DOLLARS!) a night camping fee from your climbing compatriots!
Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition
Over the years as climber traffic increased in this destination, the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition was formed to protect climbing access. This grassroots organization made the 2004 purchase of the PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve) climbing area, which hosts over 300 climbs across 20 crags.
Muir Valley Nature Preserve
The other massive area of privately-owned climbing land is the Muir Valley Nature Preserve. Muir was owned and opened by Rick and Liz Weber. The Weber’s donated the land to the “Friends of Muir Valley” non-profit. With more than 20 separate climbing areas, the Webers have created an incredible haven for climbers to visit, free of charge. Please consider leaving a donation when you visit. Explore here to learn more.
Red River Gorge Rock Climbs (2nd edition) by Ray Ellington serves as the primary guidebook for the Red.
Now to you
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Photos in this posts have been sourced from Flickr, with usage under Creative Commons.