The Gorge that almost wasn’t

At one point in its history, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge was almost intentionally flooded.


This cliff-lined vista could have been underwater. | Photo by Billy Yarosh

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For many Lexingtonians, October means hiking season. 🥾

And Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is a premiere destination for hikers, stargazers, and those looking for an adventure.

Fun fact: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is home to the second largest concentration of natural arches in the US, second only to Utah.

But what if we told you that, in the not-so-distant past, the Red River Gorge was almost completely destroyed? Would you believe us?


  • Need to know: In 1962, the Red River flooded — causing an event that would come to be known as “The Great Flood of Clay City.”
  • The event caused community members + government officials to begin advocating for the construction of a flood control dam.

The Dam

  • Need to know: Congress approved the motion to build a dam + began to provide funding.
  • Details: The $12-million dam was supposed to serve three major purposes:
    • Flood control
    • Water supply
    • Recreation
  • Effects: If completed, the dam would have created a 2,100-acre lake that submerged two-thirds of The Red River Gorge underwater.

The voices of the Gorge

  • Date: Nov. 18, 1967
  • Need to know: Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an adamant conservationist, led a group of hikers + journalists on a two-mile hike through the Clifty Wilderness portion of Red River Gorge — expressing his concern for the dam while hiking.
  • Date: 1971
  • Need to know: UK hired Wendell Berry, a local farmer + environmentalist, to write a book called “The Unforeseen Wilderness” to advocate for the preservation of the gorge.
a news paper photo

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on the day of his historical hike through ‘The Red’ | Photo courtesy of micro film at the Lexington Public Library


  • In 1993, the Red River was entered into the National Wild and Scenic River system, preserving its natural beauty in its entirety.
  • There is now an established hiking trail that passes right through the heart of the gorge. It’s called the “Douglas Trail” in honor of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
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