Red River

Red River Map

The Red River in its headwaters doesn’t look capable of carving through time one of the most scenic and geologically unique areas in the United States. It is a small, intimate stream not much wider than many Kentucky creeks.

However, the river’s westward journey from the Cumberland Plateau through the Pottsville (or Cumberland) Escarpment leaves in its wake a boulder strewn valley with natural stone arches, rock shelters, soaring cliffs and scenery that leaves visitors spellbound. The sheer grandeur of the Red River inspired Congress to designate National Wild and Scenic River status to the 19.4 mile section from the KY 746 bridge downstream to the mouth of Schoolhouse Branch. The Red is the only National Wild and Scenic River in Kentucky.

The Red River possesses two distinct floats for canoeists, kayakers and anglers: the swift upper Red River for kayakers and the much gentler middle section for canoeists and anglers.

Fishing the Red River requires patience. The middle section offers the best fishing. Clear water and lots of human activity make the smallmouth bass, spotted bass and sunfish jumpy on Red River. Downsize line size, wear drab clothing and use small, subtle lures such as 4-inch finesse worms and 3-inch boot tail grubs for smallmouth and Kentucky bass. Red in-line spinners work great on longear sunfish, rock bass and bluegill.

Rainbow and brown trout inhabit some tributaries of the Red River, such as Swift Camp Creek, East Fork of Indian Creek and the Middle Fork of Red River.

Paddlers on the Red shouldn’t be fooled by the creek-sized flow they encounter at the upper river access in Wolfe County. The upper Red River possesses one of the most awe-inspiring, remote and challenging stretches of whitewater in the southeastern United States.

Floats on the 10.8-mile upper Red begin at the U.S. Forest Service Big Branch put-in located just off KY 746 (do not use the KY 746 bridge as your put-in). You should scout all rapids on the upper Red to determine the best route and detect in-stream obstructions which paddlers call “strainers.” Cliffs rising from the bank along with huge boulders can make portaging around many rapids difficult.

Ice storms over the last several winters snapped off many trees in the Red River Gorge. These trees flush into the Red River with each flood, creating strainers. You don’t want to encounter a strainer blocking your route as you fly through one the upper Red’s fast rapids.

Whitewater kayaks are the best boats for floating the upper Red as canoes must be equipped with extra floatation and only experts should pilot them. Helmets and personal floatation devices must be worn. Helmets protect the paddler from the many overhanging rocks and ledges along this stretch.

The first few miles offer fairly gentle Class I rapids, until you reach the mouth of Stillwater Creek. The Red then drops into a Class II rapid called Stillwater Falls by some paddlers. The river picks up speed as the stream begins its fall off the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau and into the downward cut that made Red River Gorge. This rapid holds some huge boulders and requires quick maneuvering, especially at lower water levels.

The next major rapid in the float is a river-wide ledge referred to as the Falls of the Red, sometimes called Calaboose Falls. Run this ledge either far left or far right at low-to-moderate water. The middle may be best at higher flows.

The river again flows fairly gently for a time until the Red cuts around a right-hand bend at the eastern boundary of the Clifty Wilderness area near the mouth of Peck Branch. The first rapid you encounter, known as Entrance Rapid, marks the beginning of the Narrows of the Red, a long stretch of challenging Class II to III+ (depending on water levels) whitewater.

Entrance Rapid is a series of drops requiring quick maneuvering around mid-stream boulders. Move toward a large boulder on the left (looking downstream) to negotiate the drop at the end of this rapid. Gather your nerves and take a breather as the next rapid, the Dog Drowning Hole, lies just a short distance downstream. You must scout this rapid on your right (looking downstream). Dog Drowning Hole is a large churning, turbulent chute that can fool the paddler at low flows and buffet your boat with cross currents at high water.

The third, and last, rapid of the Narrows begins after the river seems to disappear around a bend to the right. Run this rapid center right and avoid the undercut bank downstream. The rest of the upper Red contains some Class II rapids until the take-out at the KY 715 bridge.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge at Hazel Green should read at least 200 cubic feet per second for the best floating on the upper Red. For current readings, log onto and click on the “real time data” tab and then Kentucky. You can float this section at much lower water levels, but you may have to walk your boat through extended reaches of water.

The 10.5-mile stretch of the middle Red River begins at the put-in at the KY 715 bridge and concludes at the old ford across the river at the mouth of Schoolhouse Branch. Boaters may take out at the KY 77 bridge to make this an 8-mile float or continue on for two more miles to a take-out at the old ford below the mouth of Schoolhouse Branch on the right (looking downstream, access via Forest Service Road 23). Paddlers may also make the two-mile float from the KY 77 bridge to the same take-out below Schoolhouse Branch. This float is ideal for a summer evening or families with younger children.

The middle Red is easy floating with some sharp turns, boulder gardens and mild riffles as the stream flows through the heart of the Red River Gorge National Geological Area. The scenery is stunning.

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