Our inaugural post perfectly illustrates where my wife and I are at this point in our lives. We wanted to get out of town and do some hiking at Red River Gorge, a couple of hours east from where we live in Louisville, Kentucky. What should’ve been an easy out-and-back adventure was complicated by the activities of our kids, whose ages range from 13 to 20, making for a fun but logistically challenged weekend.
Cloud Splitter has been on my list of places to see for quite some time. It’s an unofficial trail, which means it’s not in most guide books or on most maps. After checking a few posts and YouTube videos from Red River Underground and a guy named Andrew Kennedy, I felt like I was well equipped to find it.
On a Friday in late January, I snuck out of work a little early, hurried home to pack the car, got Angell and Avery, coached a field hockey game, hit the drive-thru lane at Burger King, drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to drop off some luggage to my oldest daughter who was about to leave for the Sundance Film Festival, unclogged her sink while I was there, then headed for Slade, Kentucky.
We got to the Gray’s Arch trailhead at 11:24 pm (my watch says 12:24 in the video, but I never set it back when daylight savings ended), and the temperature was still in the mid-50s. We switched on our headlamps and headed down the trail until we found a good-enough campsite. We went sans rainfly so we could enjoy the moon as we drifted off to sleep.
After a night’s sleep, we broke camp and headed back to Slade for coffee and breakfast before heading over to the Bison Way trailhead.
We found a parking spot along 715, about a quarter-mile before the parking lot. When planning your own trip, try to get started at-or-before 9:00 am, as the Bison Way trailhead is a tiny lot that fills quickly. There are only a few roadside parking spots, which means if you show up late, you could be looking at an additional mile or so to your hike, depending on where you find a parking spot.
The trail from 715 to the Sheltowee Trace, as you’ll see in the video, is easy to find, climbing 0.12 miles from the road to the junction. Once you reach the Sheltowee Trace, turn left (west) and walk a hundred or so yards, looking to the right (north) for the trail to the top.
It’s a steep climb to the top, requiring a good bit of scrambling up and over exposed rock faces laced with rhododendron, which provide tempting hand-holds for making it up the really steep parts. Be careful when using trees like this, and test the strength of whatever hand hold you use before trusting it with your full body weight.
The makeshift trail leads to a small saddle, just before the top, offering nice views to the north. At this point, the top of Cloud Splitter is only a few hundred yards to your right, up another steep scramble.
Just before the very top of Cloud Splitter, trail cuts off to the right and leads to what is often called a slot cave, which tunnels under the rock for 20 or 30 yards and ends at a gaping hole in the side of the rock face, overlooking the Red River valley.
After a couple groups ahead of us chose to climb to the top, we opted for the slot cave. The first steps are reminiscent of the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, with flat, mossy walls rising at a steep angle, with the way forward becoming narrower with each step.
Twenty yards in, the way forward was blocked by a tall ledge, about 8 or 10 feet high, made easier to climb by a tree trunk, left behind by previous explorers to create a ramp from the ground to the ledge, along with a rope that allowed us to pull our way up the slick, mossy walls to the ledge, which had narrowed to the width of my shoulders by this point. Somehow, we all made it up and over the ledge and marveled at the view of the valley below and the walls of the cliffs on the other side.
The return trip over the ledge is more difficult than the way in, and I highly recommend exploring it with a partner. It’s a tricky scramble that’s well worth the effort for the view that awaits you.
The Cloud Splitter Summit
After making it out of the slot cave, we scrambled the last few feet to the top of the Cloud Splitter, which is a big, exposed rocky knob at one end, before topping out in some trees and extending along its spine for about 50 yards to the far end, offering a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding valley and cliffs.
Evidence of recent campsites lined the trail to the back end of the Cloud Splitter, raising the great philosophical question – if the trail is unofficial, is it subject to the rules which prohibit camping within 300 feet of any trails. Tempting though it may be, I think it’s best not to camp on the trail like that – even when it’s an unofficial trail. The reasons should be obvious.
We enjoyed a good visit with some very nice people while we sat and rested, learning some new things about the area and getting some ideas for future hikes.
By the time we started down the trail, many small groups of hikers passed us on their way to the top. Though the Cloud Splitter may be a “hidden” trail, it’s very well travelled. Click here for a trail map.
30 minutes later, we were in the car, looking for lunch. Along the way, we compiled a list of pros and cons.
• Great views!
• The slot cave was a lot of fun to explore
• Because the trail is so frequently travelled, it’s very easy to find
• The trail up is not for the infirm, the inexperienced and unattended small children
• The rocky faces can become slick in wet and icy weather, so be careful
We all had a great time exploring this trail – even our 13-year-old. Enjoy your visit to the Red River Gorge and the Cloud Splitter. We hope to see you out on the trail.
Watch our Video Trail Guide
Getting There – From the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway
Take the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway Eastfor 51 miles
Take exit 33 – Slade/Beattyville
Turn left onto KY-11 and drive 0.1 miles
Turn left onto KY-11 N/KY-15 N for 1.5 miles
Turn right onto KY-77 N for 5.1 miles
Turn right onto KY-715 S for about 3.5 miles tothe Bison Way trailhead
Turn around at the Bison Way trailhead and driveback the way you came for 0.6 miles, looking forsigns of the trail heading up the hill to the right,opposite the Red River (you will see woodenstobs driven in the ground to prevent parking atthe trailhead)