Pushing Your Boundaries at the Red River Gorge: Indian Staircase

Part 1: Indian Staircase to Adena Arch Loop

We all are drawn to hiking for different reasons. It may be that it is an escape from the city and a way to clear your head while you enjoy the fresh air. Maybe you are looking to explore areas that are new to you. It may be your love for the wilderness and sometimes it is to push your boundaries.  This past weekend I headed out with my girlfriend to hike two new trails in the Red River Gorge that combined all of this for me.

I hit up two unofficial trails that are on the more difficult end of the spectrum for this region.  While Indian Staircase and Eagle’s Nest are unofficial trails, they are rather well known I am by no means giving away any of the secret trails of the gorge.  These two trails are very close to each other and easily done in one day.  I would recommend starting with Indian Staircase, especially if heights make you nervous. This way you get to ascend the staircase without many onlookers and you can take your time without feeling rushed.

Trail#1 : Indian Staircase to Adena Arch Loop

Trailhead: Bison Way Trail head as an unmarked offshoot of the Sheltowee Trace:  – 37.83686, -83.60944

Fees: No fee for day hiking; backcountry camping – $3/day; $5/3 day; $30/annual.

Miles: ~2.5 miles

Profile of Indian Staircase in Red River Gorge
View of Indian Staircase
  • A couple of safety notes – Please do not attempt this trail when it has been raining/snowing as the stone gets very slick.
  • Lastly, this trail should be completed in a counter-clockwise fashion as most people will find it much easier and safer to climb up rather than down Indian Staircase.

The trail starts off winding beautifully through the woods meeting up to the Sheltowee Trace. After about 0.6 miles you divert off onto an unmarked trail.  After the split off, you steadily start to climb up to Indian Staircase.  A gorgeous rock formation comes up in front of you that you make your way through.  This is the start into the staircase.

A short bouldering section leading into Indian Staircase

From here you make your way back and forth up a few quick rock scrambles before reaching the staircase proper.

Indian staircase - Red River Gorge
Indian staircase

There are two distinct sections of Indian Staircase.  The first section is just a few foot and hand holds before coming up on a rock ledge. From here you will walk over to the longer and steeper section. This section is much more daunting. If anyone in your group has second thoughts about doing this section then please don’t push them. Let everyone make the decision for themselves on what they are comfortable with. The last 1/3 of the staircase has a rope tied off at the top that you can use to help pull yourself up.  I would not attempt this with a large pack on. If you insist on climbing with your large backpack then I would advise to first climb it without the pack, tie off a long rope to the top and then return to climb the entire last section using the rope when you ascend with your pack.

Indian staircase - Final Rope section  - Red River Gorge
Indian staircase – Final Rope section – Red River Gorge

Once at the top you have a wonderful view of the Red River Gorge below.  There are a few trail intersections at the top and it can be easy to get off the correct trail. We got turned around a few times but eventually we were headed down the right path. As you make your way to Adena Arch you will come across The Council Chamber. The Council Chamber is a fairly large rock shelter that is home to the endangered White-Haired Goldenrod. This spry little plant is only found in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

For some reason I forgot to take picture of the Chamber. I will add some in the next time I am out.

After leaving The Council Chamber you walk along the ridge which gives wonderful views of the Indian Staircase that you just climb. This view puts into perspective what you were able to ascend. For me, this is the best view of the route.  You will quickly be upon Adena Arch. Adena Arch is not one of the more spectacular Arches of the RRG. Why I like this route though is the climb down the just past the arch.

Profile of Indian Staircase in Red River Gorge with people on the climb
Indian Staircase: At the bottom right of the rocky section you can see people at the base of the staircase. At the midpoint of the picture there is someone at the section of the staircase where there is rope support.

The climb down is probable steeper than Indian Staircase but feels much safer. Here, you are not exposed like on the staircase and you have sold hand and fold holds the ability firmly hold onto large tree roots as you climb down to finish out the trail.

Climbing down the backside of Adenal Arch
The climb down

The rest of the trail is a relatively easy and quick walk down to the trailhead.  I hope you head out and enjoy this trail as much as we did. We will certainly be back.  If you have done the trail please let me know your thoughts.

As always, please be courteous to others out on the trails, take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.

Part 2: Hiking Eagle’s Nest Trail

Published by Natural Wanderer


3 thoughts on “Pushing Your Boundaries at the Red River Gorge: Indian Staircase

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