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Rock Climbing in Kentucky's Red River Gorge cover, image of a male climber on the cliff face in the gorge

James N. Maples

September 2021
PB 978-1-952271-15-1
CL 978-1-952271-14-4
eBook 978-1-952271-16-8

Rock Climbing in Kentucky's Red River Gorge

An Oral History of Community, Resources, and Tourism


Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge documents, for the first time, fifty years of oral history from this famous climbing community. Through extensive interviews, Maples reconstructs the growth of rock climbing in the region—including a twice-failed dam project, mysterious first routes, unauthorized sport-route growth on public lands, and a controversial archaeological dig. The book details five decades of collaborations to secure ongoing access to some of the world’s most beautiful and technically demanding routes and the challenges along the way.

More than a recounting of the past, however, Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge uses the region’s extraordinary history to argue that climbing has the potential to be a valuable source of sustainable economic activity in rural areas throughout Appalachia today and in the years to come. The book concludes by offering policy recommendations and lessons learned about building beneficial partnerships among climbers, local communities, and public land managers to encourage community development and ecotourism alongside preservation.





1. A Brief Overview of the Red and the Surrounding Region

2. The Motherlode

3. The Red River Dam, 1962–1969

4. Cumberland Climbers, 1968–1975

5. Trad Climbing Growth and Climbing Guides, 1974–1986

6. Sport Climbing Begins in the Red, 1987–1995

7. Climbing Guides, Climbing Bans, and Climbers Organizing, 1993–1997

8. White-Haired Goldenrod and the Memorandum of Understanding, 1997–2000

9. The Military Wall Archaeological Dig, 2001–2002

10. Transitioning off Public Land and into a New Era at the Red, 2002–2004

11. The RocTrip, Growth, and Impact Issues, 2005–2010

12. Learning to Be a Red River Local, 2011–2019

13. What Comes Next? Climbing in the Red and Beyond, 2020–2050





James N. Maples is director of the Division for Regional Economic Assessment and Modeling and associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University. His work examines the economic and environmental impacts of outdoor recreation and sustainable tourism.


“Well-written, accessible, and succinct. Historians, Kentuckians, scholars, and dirtbags alike will find this volume illuminating.”
Kristi McLeod Fondren, author of Walking on the Wild Side: Long-Distance Hiking on the Appalachian Trail

“In this book, Maples unfolds a rich tapestry of climbing history in the Red. The reader might expect this history to begin with the setting of the first routes, but they will be pleasantly surprised that, instead, these major moments of climbing history are situated within the region’s indigenous past, colonial movements, and the rise of Appalachian cultural heritage. Despite how isolated and insulated some of the crags and hollers of this region can seem, this book highlights the connections that weave through the Red as it has changed and will continue to change with time.”
Jillian Rickly, University of Nottingham

“Maples’s historical account of rock climbing in the Red River Gorge brings the people and places to life. From The Motherlode to current organizations working to preserve rock-climbing access, the compilation of history and memories offers a more nuanced understanding of rock climbing as an outdoor recreation endeavor for the region. Maples’s work will aid in understanding the past and present, and it will inform the future of outdoor recreation in the area.”
Michael J. Bradley, Arkansas Tech University