Indian Staircase - Backpacking

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Summary

Explore the wild Red River Gorge with one of its most adventurous offerings: a literal staircase carved into the sandstone cliffs.

Written by

Emma Walker

Distance

4.0 miles

A four-mile loop tags the Indian Staircase and several other significant sites, but you’ll incur some extra mileage finding a backcountry campsite.

Destination Distance From Downtown

48.4 miles

Difficulty

3 of 5 diamonds

Between tricky routefinding and the very exposed Staircase itself, this outing is fairly committing.

Time To Complete

2 days

You can do the Indian Staircase hike in 6-8 hours from the trailhead, but allow yourself two days in the Red to really take in the views—and escape the crowds.

Seasonality

Spring, Summer, and Fall

The area is accessible year-round, but thanks to the rock face’s serious exposure, you’ll want to avoid Indian Staircase if it’s at all wet or icy.

Dog Friendly

On Leash Only

Permitted on leash only in the Red River Gorge Geologic Area, but this hike isn’t suited for dogs.

Fees Permits

Yes

A USFS recreation fee pass is required for camping in Daniel Boone National Forest—they’re $3/day, $5/three days, or $30 for an annual pass.

Review

Intro

Red River Gorge (or, as it’s affectionately known, the Red) is a familiar name among rock climbers around the country, but sport climbing isn’t the only thing there. Sandstone walls nestled in Daniel Boone National Forest make for great backpacking, too. Despite its long history with human activity, including logging and a proposed dam that would have flooded the gorge, the Red still contains some mystery. The soft sandstone made it relatively easy for Native Americans to carve out sturdy shelters in the cliffs, which have preserved tons of archaeological artifacts—along with one unforgettable hike.

What Makes It Great

There’s so much to do in the Red River Gorge Geologic Area and the top of the Indian Staircase affords views of it all. You’ll start at the Bison Way Trailhead, conveniently located next to the Gladie Visitor Center, where you can pick up a backcountry permit. From Bison Way, you’ll head north into dense hemlock forest, then take a left a half-mile in onto the Sheltowee Trace Trail. From here, it’s a few hundred yards to the turnoff for Indian Staircase (look for the “I.S.” carved into a white diamond trail blaze). You’ll climb steeply, then hit the staircase itself.

Local legend has it that Native Americans who once inhabited the Red River Gorge carved these steps into the rocks. There’s plenty of evidence of their culture and lifestyle during their tenure here, including well-preserved clothing and household items, but the exact nature of the steps—who exactly built them, for example, and what they were for—remains a mystery. Regardless of their purpose, the steps make for some seriously exposed hiking, so it’s best to find a campsite and ditch your big pack before making the journey.

Once you’ve made it up, take a few moments to take in the panoramic views, then head northwest along the ridge to see the Frog’s Head formation. (An unmarked trail here also leads to the Council Chambers.) Head back to the Sheltowee Trace Trail to avoid having to downclimb the staircase.

Who is Going to Love It

Some trails in the Red are marked, but the way to Indian Staircase isn’t among them—which, with the right map or GPS, makes for a real off-the-beaten-path adventure feel. The occasionally-tricky navigating, combined with exposure on the staircase itself, means it’s not well suited to families with small kids, dogs, or inexperienced hikers uncomfortable with exposure. The angle isn’t as bad as it looks—it doesn’t exceed more than about 45 degrees—but certainly looks intimidating from afar. Not to worry: there’s plenty of exploring to do in the area without climbing the staircase itself.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Pick up a mandatory USFS recreation fee pass at the Gladie Learning Center, adjacent to the Bison Way Trailhead; you can also get one at a couple of gas stations in nearby Slade. There are no officially designated backcountry campsites in Red River Gorge Geologic Area, but plenty of obvious established ones. Pick one of those sites to minimize your impact, and make sure it’s more than 300 feet from any road or trail and 100 feet from any cliffs.

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Location

Indian Staircase

37.836855, -83.609578

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