Indian arch red river gorge

Indian arch red river gorge DEFAULT

Todd the Hiker


Featured Image: View of Indian Staircase from across the valley.

Located about 45 minutes southeast of Lexington, Kentucky, and an easy two to two-and-a-half hour drive from Cincinnati, Ohio, Red River Gorge is a popular hiking and rock climbing destination in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Officially known as the Red River Gorge Geological Area, it is part of the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest.

Red River Gorge boasts some of the most unique and rugged scenery in the region and is also home to over 100 natural rock arches from the small but interesting, to large and magnificent. Spectacular views like the header photo of Indian Staircase taken from across the valley are common throughout the gorge.

Hiking in Red River Gorge

There are numerous official trails in the gorge and sticking to these marked trails is a good idea if you are new to the area, an inexperienced hiker, or are hiking with young children. Even the official trails can be rugged and difficult. There are numerous high cliffs with no guard rails throughout the area, so no matter how experienced you are or what trail you are on, exercise great caution. Steep drop-offs are often unseen until you are right on top of them; and if you are hiking with children keep them close by your side at all times! My blog’s “Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” page provides more information on the gorge and also highlights several of our favorite hikes ranging from easy to difficult.

For more experienced, knowledgeable, and confident hikers the gorge offers great opportunities to explore challenging, spectacular, unofficial trails like those around Indian Staircase. Many of these trails are not suitable for children, and climbing Indian Staircase is at the top of that list in my book. Some adults may also be intimidated trying to climb the staircase. Fortunately, those who do not feel adventurous can still explore the area above Indian Staircase, you just have to hike a little farther and double back on the return trip unless you somehow gain the confidence along the way to attempt the downward climb.

Hiking Indian Staircase

Red River Gorge - Indian Staircase (Trail Map)

Figure 1. Map of Indian Arch and vicinity.

Good topographic maps are a must if you are venturing off the official, marked trails in the gorge. I am a big fan of the map set offered by OutrageGIS, though the 2009 edition I use does not cover the trails around Indian Staircase. I do not know if the 2013 edition has been updated to include this area. For this hike I relied on the US Forest Service’s 2012 topographic map of the gorge (note: this is a 20 MB .pdf file and is a slow download). This is a good map, but it does not show any of the unofficial trails, though I have sketched in the relevant trails on the modified map section shown in Figure 1. The best source of information for this hike was Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” which describes over 100 unofficial trails in the gorge.


Bison Way Trailhead.

There are several ways to access Indian Staircase if you know the unofficial trails. We chose to park at the Bison Way trailhead along KY-715, near the Gladie Learning Center. We hiked the Bison Way Trail (#210) to the Sheltowee Trace (#100) and followed that west to the unofficial, unmarked approach trail to Indian Staircase. The approach trail is well traveled so it is not too difficult to find the cutoff or follow the trail itself.


Start of the Indian Staircase Trail. On the day we were there someone had scratched out an arrow in the dirt indicating the way to Indian Staircase.


Two views of the rock scramble approaching Indian Staircase.

The approach trail climbs rapidly, heading northwest off the main trail. After a bit of uphill hiking you reach a rugged dry wash area that requires a scramble up the rocks. After completing this scramble there are several short sections that require a bit of searching in order to find the best way up to the next level. In my opinion the most intimidating part of climbing the staircase for the first time is that your sight range is often limited and you cannot see what lies ahead.


Carved footholds in the smooth sandstone face of Indian Staircase.

The final element of intimidation, though, is the fully exposed scramble up the smooth sandstone rock face with only the shallow carved footholds to assist you. This, of course, is the section of the trail that gives the rock formation its name. As legend has it these indentations were carved by the Adena people over a thousand years ago, though their true age and origin is likely lost to the annals of history. The slope is not as steep as it first seems, and the climb does not take ropes or climbing gear, but the completely exposed face adds a major intimidation factor. No matter how comfortable you might feel on exposed rock slopes, I would not recommend this climb if it is wet or icy!


Council Chamber rock shelter.


Frog’s Head Rock, sadly defaced by budding sculptors over the years.

Even if you do not climb the staircase itself, it is still worth taking the long way around to get to the top by following the Sheltowee Trace and coming in from the west. There are a number of great features to explore in the area above the staircase including a spectacular, large rock shelter known as the Council Chamber, and an interesting little rock formation called the Frog’s Head. Regardless of which route you follow, I also recommend taking the unofficial side trail (one mile round trip) out to Adena Arch which boasts some spectacular views of its own.


Adena Arch.


Indian Arch, on the return hike along the Sheltowee Trace.

There are more areas we did not have time to explore on this hike, including the area on top and to the east of the staircase, as well as some interesting sounding features a friend told me about that are beyond the point we turned back near the Council Chamber rock shelter. I look forward to another hike on this route, not only to venture into these unexplored areas, but also to give the staircase a better assessment without the first-time intimidation factor, and to take more photographs documenting the climb. For now, I hope this gives you enough information to find your way on this adventurous hike and that my photographs will inspire you to make the trip to explore this spectacular little corner of Red River Gorge!

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

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This entry was posted in HIking Destinations and tagged Adena Arch, Bison Way Trail, Council Chamber Rock Shelter, Daniel Boone National Forest, Frog's Head Rock, Indian Arch, Indian Staircase, Kentucky, Red River Gorge, Red River Gorge Geological Area, Sheltowee Trace by Todd D. Nystrom. Bookmark the permalink. Sours:

Indian Staircase Loop and Adena Arch

Overview. This is the quintessential hike in Red River Gorge with beautiful vistas, sandstone arches, and large rock shelters. We hiked this clockwise - making for a steep descent down Indian Staircase. If you'd like a little easier go of it, hike counterclockwise to ascend the staircase instead.

Route Type:  Loop + Out and Back
Total Distance:  8.1 miles
Overall Difficulty:  Moderate to Difficult
Purchase OutrageGIS Trail Map
USDA Forest Service Map of Red River Gorge
*This hike is if off trail; experienced hikers only*

Trailhead. The best starting point for this hike is at the Bison Way Trailhead located on the north side of KY-715 [map]. This is a small and very popular parking area - overflow parking is available just east at Gladie Creek Visitor's Center.

Trail navigation. Begin on Bison Way Trail and follow it a little more than 1/2 mile to the intersection with Sheltowee Trace. Turn left (west) to continue on Sheltowee Trace. 1/4 mile later, you can turn right (north) on an unmarked, but well worn trail to take the easier route up Indian Staircase.

Continuing on Sheltowee Trace on the forest floor, you'll hook around and ascend to Indian Arch. At mile 1.5, you'll have the option to add a worthwhile unmarked 1-mile (round trip) out-and-back where you can see Adena Arch. Once you return to Sheltowee Trace, you will continue on to hike around the rim of the gorge.

Around the rim, you'll find a maze of user trails that lead to numerous campsites. The best rule of thumb is to stay to the right at trail intersections. Continue your hike to enjoy the views and come to Frog's Head, a favorite rock feature at Red River Gorge. This is a great spot to stop for a snack or lunch - especially in warmer months.

Continue your hike and descend Indian Staircase. This is a scramble, so be sure to stay low and maintain three points of contact. Do NOT attempt this descent in inclement weather. Once down, it's only 1/4-mile to Bison Way where you can return to your vehicle or you can continue up Sheltowee Trace to do a little exploring like we did.

CAUTION - OFF TRAIL. While this trail is found on many maps, it is not an official USDA Forest Service trail. As such, do not attempt this hike without adequate map and compass skills.

CAUTION - DANGEROUS SCRAMBLE. Indian Staircase is steep and the 'stairs' are heavily worn - a bad combination during inclement weather. Do NOT attempt this scramble unless you are physically and mentally up to the challenge. You can just as easily retrace your steps counterclockwise around the rim for a safer descent.

CAUTION - CLIFFS. Many have fallen to their deaths from the cliffs found in Red River Gorge. Be sure to stay a safe distance from cliff edges.

  1. Jojo voice actor
  2. Blue led christmas net lights
  3. Graffiti shop

Indian Staircase and Indian Arch Loop (3.5 miles- unmarked)

Indian Staircase from Across the Valley

Summary: This is one of my favorite hikes in the Red River Gorge area, but it must come with a warning.  This hike can be VERY dangerous and possibly deadly.  Everyone should know their ability and the ability of those who they are hiking with.    Do NOT attempt this hike alone, and use extreme caution while climbing the Indian Staircase.

This hike while using well trod trails will leave “official” trails, and therefore it is essential hikers bring a quality topographical map, compass, and know how to use them in case of a problem. Finally I have published 2 different versions of this hike.  The alternative version is slightly shorter, and you will see 1 different arch, but it is more difficult to navigate.  Be Safe!

Water Runoff to Scramble up Below Indian Staircase

RATING: Difficult day hike(approximately 3.5 miles total;)  very spectacular views; the scramble or climb up the Indian Stair Case is advanced, while it is very short (200 ft,) some people cannot complete it.   This hike uses unmarked trails and some people have trouble navigating the hike.

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO HIKE: Early spring when flowers are blooming or autumn when you can catch the fall colors.  The USDA Forest Office is located in Winchester, Kentucky about an hour from Red River Gorge. For up to date information either stop in the Ranger District Office, visit their website or telephone: (859) 745-3100

AMOUNT OF TIME NEEDED: Allow at least a half of a day (4-6 hours) to enjoy this hike.  Some can hike it faster, but most arrive at the top of the Indian Staircase and spend time exploring and resting. The scenery is spectacular, the geology is interesting; and, the the top of the staircase is a perfect place to have lunch and explore.


  1. From rest area at exit #33 off of the Mountain State Parkway Turn left, and return to the Mountain State Park – East (8 miles)
  2. Take Exit 40 for for KY-15/KY-715 toward Beattyville. (0.3 miles)
  3. Turn right at KY-15 N/KY-715 N. (0.7 miles)
  4. Take the 1st right onto KY-715 N (9.7 miles)
  5. Park in Trail #220 Bison Way Trail Parking Area on right just after bridge after Gladie Historic Site.

Scramble on way to Indian Staircase


  1. From the Bison Way Trailhead follow Trail #210 Bison Way Trail to the termination of trail #210 Bison Way Trail at the Intersection with Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail. (0.6 miles)
  2. Turn Left on Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail (0.3 miles)
  3. Turn Right on an unmarked trail and ascend to the base of the Indian Staircase Spur Trail(0.25 miles.)  This is the hardest part of the trail to locate and the reason many people never find the Indian Staircase.  When you turn onto the Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail begin counting creek or stream crossings.  When you cross the 2nd little creek, the creek you are looking for is clearly defined as Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail makes a sharp “U” as it crosses this creek, go another 100 feet.  As the trail bends right you will see a well used unmarked trail leading up and off to the right.  From this point until you return to Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail you are unmarked trails, while well used there will be no signs.  Follow this spur trail.
  4. Scramble up through cleft (water runoff-50 feet)
  5. Frog’s Head on Ridge Line above Indian Staircase

    Scramble up to base of Indian Staircase (20 feet)

  6. Climb Indian Staircase (50 feet) USE EXTREME CAUTION- SOME MAY BRING A ROPE
  7. Scramble up to top of ridgeline. (50 feet)
  8. Turn left on ridge line, and find a place for a break. (200 feet)  A very popular spot is about 200 feet on the left side at an open overlook, there is a rock known as the “Frog’s Head” sticking out from the overlook.  Do NOT attempt to climb out on the “Frog’s Head.”  Find a good spot and enjoy a well deserved break.

    Indian Arch

  9. Continue on this trail (heading left or west) along the top of the ridge line. (0.7 miles)  Stay close enough to the top of the ridge line to remain on well trod trails and be able to see the edge, but do NOT go to close to the edge for safety.  After about 0.3 miles the ridge line and trail turn mostly south.
  10. Turn left on trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail (1.0 miles)- Pass Indian Arch after 100 yards, and KY 80 Arch at the end of the rock shelter below Indian Arch after another 100 yards.  KY 80 Arch is unmarked and you will need to get off the trail and below the rock shelter to find it.
  11. KY Arch 80

    Turn right on trail #210 Bison Way Trail.  (0.6 miles)

  12. Arrive at parking area

BONUS #1 : As you are traveling West on the Ridge Line at the top of the Indian Staircase (after 0.2 miles) you can drop down closer to the ridge line and find the largest rock shelter in the gorge (larger than a football field.)  If you descend into the shelter continue through the shelter and back up (slightly to your right) to the “main” trail around the ridge.

Indian Staircase Route
GPS Coordinates of start of hike at start of Trail #210 Bison Way Trail 37°50’12.7″N 83°36’34.0″W GPS Coordinates of intersection of Trail #210 Bison Way Trail  and Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail 37°50’33.6″N 83°36’40.8″W GPS Coordinates of intersection of Trail #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail and Indian Staircase Spur Trail37°50’39.3″N 83°36’51.2″WGPS Coordinates of bottom of Indian Staircase37°50’45.6″N 83°36’57.3″W GPS Coordinates of top of Indian Staircase37°50’47.2″N 83°36’56.7″W GPS Coordinates of top of Large Rock Shelter37°50’51.3″N 83°37’09.8″W GPS Coordinates of waypoint on #100 Sheltowee Trace Trail nearing Indian Arch37°50’33.7″N 83°37’00.7″W 

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Red River Gorge Trail Guide: Indian Staircase

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Gorge red indian arch river

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Red River Gorge - Grays Arch to Indian Staircase \u0026 Cloud Splitter - Hiking Trail Running April 2021

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