There is no debate: Mother Earth loves Kentucky and she shows us every year in a brilliant autumn performance. We can witness her awe-inspiring shows through our windows, with a drive through a local park, but the best way to soak in this display and really appreciate the phenomenon is at Red River Gorge. Nestled in the vast expanse of The Daniel Boone National Forrest, Red River Gorge is pure magic.
The Red River Gorge I knew from my younger days was simply a beautiful backdrop to get into some trouble, but now as a mother, this is the perfect nearby destination to escape the pressures of the city. A mere two-hour drive east-64 from downtown (if you are taking it slow), Red River Gorge offers stunning hiking trails, a park for picnicking with a playground, beautiful campsites, and if your idea of camping involves a hot tub, convenient, affordable cabin rentals.
My family recently returned from the Gorge and we elected to stay at one of the cabins offered through 5 Star Cabin rental. Just off Mountain Parkway, the cabin was charming and comfortable. Nestled in the woods, secluded from nearby cabins with a gorgeous mountaintop view, the cabin offered three bedrooms, a pool table, hot tub, stocked kitchen, and giant jacuzzi tub in the master suite. My idea of roughing it. Our children, seven and four, loved the jacuzzi tub (their own personal hot tub), brimming over with bubbles after a long day's hike while the adults enjoyed the chilly nights with some red wine in the hot tub. A perfect end to a lovely day in the forest.
And speaking of the forest… Red River Gorge is full of family-friendly trails. We started our hiking with the popular Natural Bridge trail--a mile-long (but pretty darn steep) trail that takes you to what seems like the top of world. The kids faired the trail with ease (but grandma was a little winded) and just before the actual stone arch deemed "Natural Bridge", hikers must squeeze through a long rock corridor that looks like something out of Indiana Jones. The kids, of course, loved that. Once on top of Natural Bridge, you can overlook Red River Gorge way above the tree line--stunning this time of year. There are no rails here, so keep the brood close, but this is definitely a must.
Next, we ventured to the very easy, but equally as beautiful, Sky Bridge. This trail offers a paved footpath (you could even push a stroller) to another natural arch sans railing. The beauty of this trail, however, really starts underneath the arch where intricate swirling patterns appear on the rock surface and the lush and damp vegetation makes you feel like you are in a rain forest. About a 1.5-2 mile round trip hike, this is also great for little feet as there is a clear, easy pathway and plenty of rock formations to climb on and pretend you're Yoda on Luke's home planet of Tatooine. There are several steps to the top at the end of the loop, but simply taking your time (and having some snacks on hand--but heed the bears!!), the family can endure.
The last trail we embarked on was Hidden Arch (208) which neighbors the perfect family campground--Koomer Ridge. I can't believe it, but I vowed to come back this summer and camp there. The campsite offers plenty of camp pads that include a high hook for hanging food or wet clothes, a picnic table, and a pit fire. Public bathrooms are nearby, but the camping style is a little more rustic and private in nature, not the crowded communal camping I've eschewed across the state. A campsite can be reserved for $3 a night. But back to the trail--Hidden Arch was a mile from the trail head, but the loop was more like three. Much of the trail was along a secluded footpath where the silence was deafening. We didn't see any other hikers on the trail the entire time, which made the children feel like real explorers and engaged their imagination. There was a beautiful arch, plenty of rock caves and formations to climb on, gorgeous views and vegetation.
If your family plans on a trip to the Gorge, keep a couple things in mind: there are very few maps of the trails in Slade, KY, so stop at the Shell Station and pick up their complimentary trail map, and bring your own beer or wine, the forest floor may be wet, but the neighboring counties are bone dry. I highly recommend 5 Star Cabin rental, but there are other cabin rental companies nearby, as well as a lodge at Natural Bridge and plenty of camp sites. There are a few family activities such as a Souvenir Shop, Miguels Pizza, and a Reptile Zoo, but the main attraction is the forest--this isn't Gatlinburg; it's pristine, quiet, simple, and with it being a couple hours away--it is the perfect fall getaway for the family (or from the family, you choose).
Photos: Southern Living and Megan Seckman