This year—2020–has proved to be a challenging time for travel. At 2019 year’s end, we flew internationally to Perú during winter break, with only the usual, minor concerns; would we catch all of our flights, would we get turista, would the kids like it. Almost overnight, life changed–especially travel. We no longer wanted to get on a plane nor be in crowded areas. Since we didn’t want to fly but still wanted the time away as a family, we had to adjust our summer vacation. Cue music: A road trip.
Our goal was to be able to drive 8-9 hours from where we live in the US, in the state of Maryland. We also decided to bring our two, highly-spirited, chocolate labs for the ride. We wanted a place that wasn’t too crowded, and where our adventures would take us outdoors. We also wanted to use Airbnb’s that were pet friendly to call our home away from home for the time we were away. The search proved to be a bit trickier than originally expected as there were so many possibilities. Do we head up north to Maine? Maybe west to West Virginia or Kentucky? Perhaps drive south to North Carolina or southwest to Tennessee?
We were able to narrow down our decision based on outdoor activities and Airbnb options. Our search led us to a perfect, cabin in rural Kentucky helping us make our decision for the first week of our trip. After some well thought out planning and research, we packed up the car dogs and all and drove the 8 hours to Kentucky.
As we entered eastern Kentucky, I was struck by the endless rolling fields and barns. The barns were all painted black which I had never seen. I later found out that the barns were originally painted black to raise the inside temperatures to cure tobacco. After all, Kentucky is known for growing and producing that crop since colonial days.
We checked into our Airbnb, located on a 100-acre nature preserve and let the dogs loose to explore. We discovered a creek on the property which quickly became a swimming outlet for our youngest and the dogs. The cabin, located in Stanton, Kentucky, is about a 20-minute drive to the Red River Gorge. We would be doing most of our outdoor activities in there.
Be aware that if you are looking for an area that offers a quaint town, with plenty of places to eat and shop, this is not the place. Stanton and the Red River Gorge do not have a lot to offer in terms of eating out or shopping nor are the local towns of Slade and Stanton picturesque. There are a couple decent places to eat in/take out and we did find a great place to thrift shop, but that was about it besides the grocery store.
But the area is gorgeous and rich in natural beauty. Lush, rolling hills teem with wildflowers and are covered in a thick canopy of trees. The Red River Gorge, located in the Daniel Boone National Park, is home to over 1500 rock arches, rock cliffs which are great for rock-climbing. This is a destination for rock climbers east of the Mississippi and even has its own place for rock-climbers to camp and eat pizza, Miguels. It’s also an ideal place to kayak or camp along the banks. Motorcyclists are drawn to its perfect, scenic, winding roads. We spent a few hours just driving the roads through the Gorge, exploring. The Red River Gorge proved to be an ideal location for outdoor adventures.
Natural Bridge is a massive sandstone arch in the Red River Gorge. Several trails lead to it. We, like most visitors, take the most direct trail, a 1.2 mile hike up. It’s gravel surfaced, and mildly steep, and gave us a chance to show the kids some old WPA structures on the way and talk about the program. There’s the option of a chairlift; we passed. Once at the top, you can cross the arch as it is wide and rather long; 78 feet in length to be exact. This should be doable with kids of most ages. However, if you are doing the hike in the summer, make sure to go early as it can get crowded. Also, the heat of the summer does not relent, even with the shade of the trees. Eastern Kentucky summers are hot and humid. The hike doesn’t stop at the arch. You can continue on to “Lovers Leap” lookout point. We got a glorious view of the Natural Bridge arch and surrounding Red River Gorge area.
After a hike up to the Natural Bridge, hop in the car and head to the nearby Nada Tunnel. It Is a one lane tunnel built out of rock. The nada Tunnel was originally constructed in 1910-1911 to get to the natural resources of the area. Now it is a gateway to the abundant trail heads in the area, canoeing, and rock climbing. It is also a scenic drive with never-ending twists and turns.
Red River Gorge Zipline
We love ziplines and the Red River Gorge Zipline did not disappoint. There were 5 lines including some that were side by side for racing each other. The best line on the course was the one that went right across the Red River Gorge. At 1900 feet in length, the line was high and the views across the Gorge were stunning.
The guides were helpful and friendly and helped make the course enjoyable. They worked well to keep everyone masked and socially distanced. Although, there is no age limit, you have to be at least 70lbs and no more than 250lbs. I always get super nervous of the heights and safety of ziplines, but after the 1st run on this, I felt completely at ease. They also put water coolers out because you do get thirsty on the course.
The Gorge Underground
This was possibly one of the most unique experiences we had in the Red River Gorge. After all, when you think of kayaking, you think river, lake, ocean, but not underground. The Gorge Underground is a kayaking experience through a flooded old mine. The entrance to the mine was a short walk down through a shipping carrier where you can get your oar, hard hat equipped with a head lamp and life vest. We were given the choice of a single or double kayak. The kids all got a single, my husband and I got a double. We suited up with a life jacket along with a helmet outfitted with a head lamp.
The water is crystal clear and there are even rainbow trout that swim around the kayaks. The entire trip is about an hour. Two guides accompany the trip and one guide narrates the trip. We got to learn about the mine, what was mined, and some of the history of the area. The mine was used until the 1980s, and equipment left in the shafts are still there. The only light is from the headlamps and one of the guides kayaks has lights underneath illuminating the water. A really cool effect. The temperature stays at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is advisable to wear pants and bring an outer layer. The water averages around 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I wouldn’t advise a water fight.
Southeast Mountain Guides Via Ferrata
If you have never heard of a via ferrata–and I hadn’t up until the fall of 2019—it’s a climbing route on a rock face with safety guidelines and holds embedded in the rock. This kind of climbing was popularized in Europe. The advantage is that little formal training is needed, everyone climbs continuously, and the routes and views can be spectacular. It is a great introduction to rock climbing as well as a great way to improve your rock climbing skills.
The via ferrata here was on a giant, U-shaped cliffside. Six routes were arranged along the rock faces, in ascending order of difficulty. We worked with the guide on a training course to make sure we were familiar and comfortable with clipping in and out of the safety wires safely with our carabiners. The guides don’t accompany groups on the course but watch the climbers to make sure everything is okay. The kids immediately took to the course like naturals. Before we knew it, they were 80 feet off the ground on Course 1. By Course 3, they were shimmying along a 200-foot high rock face. I was pooped by the end of that one; the kids went on to do part of Course 4 as well.
This was, by far, our family favorite activity. There is a minimum age of 10 to participate. We arrived, suited up with a helmet and safety gear and were given a brief, but thorough introduction. Afterwards, we climbed together as a family. It’s harder than it looks. You should feel reasonably comfortable with heights or you won’t much like this at all. Be aware that after each climbing route, stairs lead back to the lodge if you feel you cannot continue or need a break. We arrived for our 9am start and didn’t leave until 1:30 am, so budget ample time.
The Via Ferrata is at least a half-day adventure. The outfitter sells water and snacks, but I recommend bringing your own or even packing sandwiches along with fruit and other things. There are plenty of picnic tables in which to eat, and it’s a pleasant place for a family picnic. Besides, after all of the climbing, you will have built up a much-deserved appetite.
Hiking the Red River Gorge: The Auxier Ridge Trail
We wanted to spend some time on at least a few of the hundreds of miles that run through the Red River Gorge. We chose the Auxier Ridge Trails for the views but also because we wanted to stay higher in the Gorge given the amount of rainfall we’d had that week, and the rainfall that was expected that day. The good news is that we stayed dry the entire morning of our hike. This trail has some jaw-dropping views that start about 1.5 miles into the hike. At one point, the ridge is about 20 feet wide, with cliffs descending away from each side. Several cliff-sides make great places to sit and contemplate the grandeur of the Gorge. None of it is technical. You can do this as an out-and-back or make it a loop using the Double-Arch trail. Either way, your round trip will be around 4.2 to 5 miles. It’s a high-yield hike and we recommend it.
Hire a Naturalist
Our Airbnb was located on a 100-acre nature preserve. The man who originally bought it, Dan Dourson, re-wilded it from a tobacco farm to a preserve with high-grasses and native trees, creating a destination to explore. The current owner of the land is his daughter. She listed on her website the opportunity to hire a naturalist to learn about the area. We realized this would be a great chance for our kids and ourselves to learn about the surrounding habitat. We were lucky that the week we were visiting, that naturalist was the preserve’s founder!
Dan Dourson has published multiple books and also ran a preserve in Belize. The Kentucky preserve reflects both his passion and his expertise. We met with him, his wife, and daughter in the morning and began our walk. They provided us with bags and a pen to collect some of the plants and document what we would be observing. They also gave us a recipe book based on the plants in the area.
We were shown what plants we could forage throughout the tall grasses. We were also told how to prepare them and the nutrients in the plants. We collected and ate the carrot-like roots of Queen Anne Lace, and also took Mountain Mint, which we brewed into tea for the next few mornings. There were wild blackberries growing all over, so while learning we ate our way through the walk. Finding an ant nest, we were shown how to eat both the ants (which had a citrus-y zing) and their eggs (not really much taste at all).
As we continued, we came across a snake habitat. Casually, the naturalist picked up a venomous, Copperhead snake. He told us all about the snake, their habitat, what effects the venom has on people if bitten. He even let us “pet” the snake before returning it to its home. He then picked up an unhappy garter snake, which both musked and bit (we passed on touching or holding) and then a tiny ring snake, which our youngest held with glee.
Places to Eat
I mentioned earlier, dining in this area is limited (although fast food abounds). So, if you are planning a stay, make sure you have a place to cook or else you will find yourself eating either the same thing most nights or a lot of fast food.
This restaurant is a combination campground and pizza joint. It is a haven for rock climbers. Due to COVID, there was no indoor seating, but lots of picnic tables outside. There are plenty of different types of pizza, they are good, but not earth shattering. However, if the weather is nice, this is a great place to eat outside. The place was packed every day we drove by.
Red River Smokehouse
Located in the Red River Gorge, this bbq joint has great options for smoked meats and sandwiches. We took out from here while staying nearby at our Airbnb. It is a Texas style bbq, meaning they use a rub instead of a wet sauce to smoke the meats. The meats had a great smokiness to them, but the sides, like the mac and cheese and beans, were a bit disappointing as they appeared to not be homemade. We did introduce our kids to banana pudding, a southern dessert consisting of vanilla pudding, condensed milk, Nilla wafers (a type of sugar cookie), heavy cream, oh and yes mashed up bananas. Kids were instantly in love with it.
Go Time Gas Station- Chesters Chicken
Located inside this gas station convenience store is Chesters Chicken located in the Red River Gorge area. Chesters chicken is a fried chicken quick-service stand. It was a good option for a quick meal we could bring back to our Airbnb. Although, not the best fried chicken, it hit the spot after a day outside adventuring. They do have a drive through window for convenience and you can order on-line prior to pick-up.
Daniel Boone Coffee Shop
This a friendly place to grab some solid coffee, as well as a huge assortment of baked goods make in-house. At lunch, they have excellent quality wraps and sandwiches. Recommend highly but give them time; things can run a bit slow when they’re backed up.
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