Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky is over 700,000 acres and we only had two days to explore it. Obviously, you can’t hike 700,000 acres in two days so we decided to concentrate our exploration on the Red River Gorge Area of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
A Weekend Of Hiking In The Red River Gorge Area Of Daniel Boone National Forest
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We had our minivan camper packed and ready to go around dinner time Friday the weekend before American Thanksgiving, which takes place in November, and planned to drive at least three of the almost five hours it takes to get from our home in Marion, Indiana to Slade, Kentucky–which is situated just minutes from several of hiking trails of the Red River Gorge Area.
The Walmart Story
Along the way I was using the All Stays app while Jack drove to try and find us a free place to spend the night. I found a Walmart that had okay reviews, and we decided to head there.
At first, the Walmart parking lot looked like an excellent choice. It had two other people camping in motorhomes there and was close to a coffee shop so that I could grab a coffee in the morning.
We went into Walmart to buy some windshield wiper fluid for the van and then after pouring it in started to get ready for bed. We were just finished putting up our blackout window screens when suddenly what will be our Walmart camping story for years to come began.
We heard the revving of an engine followed by another, and then another. We then heard what sounded like active car racing. Well, it wasn’t “like”–turns out people really were drag racing on a strip of road just in front of where we parked. We thought surely someone would put an end to it within a few minutes, but 15 minutes later the sounds were louder as more old trucks had joined in.
Finally, we gave up. My husband grabbed his shirt and hopped out of the car in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt planning on making a swift trip to the front seat of the van so he could drive us to a nearby rest area.
Unfortunately, my husband forgot about one thing–two, actually. He forgot to look out the window before opening the sliding door of the van and he forgot that the alarm system on the van was still set. So he greeted a bunch of young men with roaring engines in his boxer shorts (thankfully he had a long t-shirt on and his boxers were long too) with the van alarm blaring behind him.
We had a good laugh at our forty-plus-year-old minivan camper selves before we settled down for the second time of the night in a rest area. We spent the rest of the night there, sleeping undisturbed.
The Nada Tunnel
Our first stop in the Slade, Kentucky area was the rest area where we picked up a map of the area as well as checked it out to see if it was suitable for us to sleep at that night. It was and map in hand, we took off to explore the area.
The Nada Tunnel was our first stop. We pulled over to the side of the road to snap a picture of the National Forest sign and then walked the few feet to the entrance of the tunnel. The Nada Tunnel was created for the logging industry back in the early 1900s as a way to transport logs out of the area. It is now described by many as the “Gateway to the Red River Gorge.”
The tunnel is very narrow, allowing for single lane traffic only. It reminded me of the tunnels we drove along the Needles Highway on our way out of Custer State Park during the last week of our five and a half month RV trip with our children. Of course, the Nada Tunnel is limestone and the tunnels on the Needles highway are granite–but the narrow feel was the same.
Our first hike of the day was a short one to the Sheltowee Trace Suspension bridge and back. I am fascinated by suspension bridges so if the area we are hiking in has one, we cross it.
On one of the supports for the bridge, I saw trail markers which I learned later are for the Sheltowee Trace National Trail which is a 319-mile trail that stretches through all of the Daniel Boone National Forest and beyond. While on the bridge we passed hikers who looked like they were hiking that trail as they had large packs on their backs and looked a little in need of a shower and a good shave.
Throughout our hikes the first day, I kept on pointing out how big some of the fallen leaves were. I grew up on Vancouver Island and have lived in Indiana for over 16 years now, in neither place have I seen leaves as big as the ones I saw in the Red River Gorge area.
After our short hike to the suspension bridge and back, we drove along the Scenic Byway until we reached the Gladie Visitor Center. We strolled around inside reading about the history of the area before heading out to view the grounds around the center.
We took a few minutes to explore Gladie cabin, which is a reconstructed log home dating back to the 1800s when the area was used mostly for logging purposes.
If you want a quick and easy hike that will allow you to see some unique rock formations of the Red Gorge Area, I suggest hiking the Angel Windows trail. It is just over half a mile in length and is an out and back trail, meaning it is approximately a mile and a quarter in total from the parking lot and back.
You won’t see any of the arches the area is known for on the Angel Windows trail, but you will see many holes carved into the rock and view a small waterfall at the end of the trail (well at least in fall, my guess is the waterfall isn’t there in summer.)
By mid-afternoon we had taken the dirt road out to Princess Arch and Chimney Top Rock. Along the dirt road, many viewpoints are worth stopping at and getting out of your vehicle to enjoy the view. While we were there, a small wedding was being held at one of these viewpoints. What a view they had for their wedding!
We hiked out past the Princess Arch pictured above and took a rest on a rock ledge–well, my husband rested. I used the time to soak up the view.
Our last hike before sundown was to Silvermine Arch. This trail had some pretty steep stairs! We made it out of the path and into the parking lot just as the last of the sunlight was disappearing.
We had dinner at Miguels Pizza. Our pizza didn’t last long–we were so hungry! The place was packed with hikers and rock climbers. For just $3 per person, you can set up a tent in their large field behind the restaurant. They also have a few rooms with beds, heating, and cooling. We also saw a large parking lot filled with camper vans.
We did consider staying here, but once we saw just how many campers there were and that most of the campers were half our age, we figured we would stay with our original plan and camp at the rest area. When we got to our sleeping spot, there were already two other vehicles that clearly had people sleeping in them. That is what we like to see. We feel uncomfortable if we are the only ones.
In the morning, we got up at first light and headed to Daniel Boone Coffee Shoppe for a morning coffee for me and a breakfast bagel for Jack.
Before I had even drunk my coffee, we were off to the lower parking lot of Natural Bridge State Resort Park. We took the trail over the suspension bridge (I told you if I know there is a suspension bridge in the area, I want to walk across it) and into the main area of the park.
Jack wanted to take the steps up the Natural Bridge that we had come to see, but I convinced him to take the Balanced Rock trail up. When we reached the top of the path, he said he was thankful that I had pushed him to take the long way up. Balanced Rock trail turned out to have so much natural beauty we were both glad not to have missed it.
I sipped on my delicious coffee to the top of the Natural Bridge (don’t worry, I held on to the cup until I found a trash can). I had a bit of photography fun with the cup as we hiked, placing it in natural stone shelves.
I am not sure when this picture was taken, but I had to include it as it is one of my favorites from the trip. There were little peekaboo holes in the stone all over the place, and they made great places for unique photos.
On top of the arch were beautiful views of the valley. We sat and just soaked up the views a while before heading down the trail to the bottom of the arch.
It was a tight squeeze between two giant slabs of rock to get to the base of the arch.
After exploring the bottom of Natural Bridge, we hiked out to Lover’s Leap and again spent a while sitting and soaking up the view. From Lover’s Leap, we could see the camping area behind Miguels Pizza. This picture was taken mid-morning and there are only a fraction of campers left compared to how many we saw camping there the night before.
It was a good thing we took all that time to rest and soak up the views at a few locations that morning because the rest of our hikes that day include lots of stairs and hills. These stairs pictured are the ones on the Devil’s Gulch trail.
After two hikes full of stairs, we made our way around to the top of Skylift…that wasn’t open during the time of our visit.
We left the Natural Bridge State Resort Park around noon and enjoyed a simple lunch made from the minivan camper kitchen before heading back to some more trails in the Red River Gorge area. That afternoon we hiked the Double Arch trail and the Courthouse Rock trail.
We left the Slade, Kentucky area as night was falling after a quick dinner at Daniel Boone Coffee Shoppe. We both agreed that although we enjoyed our breakfast and coffee there in the morning, the dinner we ordered wasn’t very good; it was overpriced for the size and quality.
On the ride home, we added up all the trails we hiked and realized we had hiked over 20 miles in two days! And those 20 miles barely scratched the surface of all the miles and miles of hiking trails in Daniel Boone National Forest. We hope to return next fall to hike more.
Are you looking for an alternative to busy and expensive campgrounds and one-night Walmart stops on the way to your destination? Check out our post about our first time using Boondockers Welcome.