Redbird has always been mysterious to me. I have spent so much time over the past few years pouring over printed and online maps of Kentucky looking for trails and other routes to run. My main attraction has of course always been the Daniel Boone National Forest. It is that large green swath of forest land stretching across the map from Tennessee to the city of Morehead in eastern Kentucky. Between the races we plan for Next Opportunity Events and my own running adventures I’ve become intimately familiar with the majority of the trails in two of the Forest’s four Ranger Districts.
The Cumberland District stretches from Rowan County in the North to the Kentucky River in the town of Heidelberg. The Cumberland District is where I call home when it comes to my personal outdoor adventures. The London District in the middle is one I have run less in, but I’ve spent enough time there throughout the years to familiar with the general landscape. The Stearns District in the south is just a little too far away for me to get to easily, so I’ve really never spent much time there. However, I know what is there: Big South Fork, miles and miles of hiking and horse trails, and some of the prettiest parts of Kentucky. There is a fourth district, though, that often gets left out of the conversation: the Redbird Ranger District.
The Redbird District of the Daniel Boone National Forest is unique in that it isn’t connected to the other three districts necessarily. Looking at the map it is an island of green floating in southeastern Kentucky. Oddly, the more questions I asked people around my immediate group of friends and acquaintances the more I seemed be discouraged from going there. In early meetings with the US Forest Service in planning for the Rough Trail 50K back in 2015 I heard, “There’s Redbird, but it’s mostly ATV trails so you won’t be interested in that.” Mountain Biking friends said the trails were too “torn up” down there to be enjoyable. Business co-workers told stories of the “locals” who were often resistant to outsiders. All of this painted a picture of a place full of people that I didn’t recognize as Kentuckians protecting a broken land I didn’t recognize as my Kentucky.
I had to see it for myself.
It was April of 2017, and Brandy and I finally made the decision to take a Saturday and go down to the Redbird Ranger District and check out what that part of the Daniel Boone National Forest was all about. We’d find the truth out for ourselves. We didn’t necessarily go down there to scout out a new race, but it would be a lie to say that it wasn’t on our mind as a possibility. So we packed a few snacks and headed down Interstate 75 to see what was behind this mystery.
When it comes to trails the Redbird District is made of the Redbird Crest Trail, a 70 mile loop that covers portions of Clay and Leslie Counties in southeast Kentucky. The main trail at Peabody is just across the street from the Redbird Ranger Station and is roughly 30 minutes east of the town of Manchester, Kentucky. That would be our first destination.
My first impression of Redbird came to me before we even got to into the actual Redbird District. I was struck by the increasing height of the hills. I’m not sure if they were yet “mountains” but living on the pancake that is Lexington, KY I sure felt like they were mountains. It was beautiful. There just isn’t a better word. That early April morning made the mists rise from the dark green canopy and create a landscape I always seem to miss without even knowing it. I felt the way that I do when I go home to West Virginia. That first time you see the mountains in the distance after staying so long in the flatlands of Kentucky gets me excited and reminds me of those days playing with my cousins at my grandma’s house on top of the mountain in Rainelle, West Virginia. I got that feeling in April as we passed through Manchester and entered the Redbird District of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The trailhead at Peabody was impressive. It’s odd to say that a trail head was impressive, but my standard for trailheads is based mostly on my time spent in Red River Gorge, Cave Run Lake, and along the Sheltowee Trace in the northern Cumberland Ranger District. That is to say that most of the trailheads there have little to no parking available. Peabody was HUGE. A giant field encircled by a gravel driveway that could easily fit over one hundred cars. Even the outhouses were clean! I was impressed immediately.
My next impression came as Brandy and I stood at the trailhead bulletin board looking over the trail map that was posted. I was struck by just how quiet it was. For a place that had been made out to be crawling with dirt bikes and 4-wheelers and clouded with exhaust fumes, I could hear nothing but the rushing of the nearby Red Bird River and the buzzing of bees that were way too close to my face. “Does everyone have this place all wrong?” I wondered. Brandy and I talked at length about this on our way to our next destination: the Sugar Creek Trailhead.
Sugar Creek was easy to find, easy to access, and was another impressive trailhead with tons of parking, toilets, picnic tables. It was basically “the works” as far as trailheads in the middle of nowhere go. Brandy and I walked around the trailhead parking area for a while just looking at the surroundings. Green! Green everywhere. And we were the only ones there to take it all in. That was odd wasn’t it? This area was supposed to be full of rowdy ATV-ers, and yet we were all alone. We hadn’t seen another person since we arrived that morning. And this was a Saturday in the middle of April. It was 75 degrees and blue sky had just a few pristine white clouds. Enough to make the perfect Bob Ross painting.
The Redbird Crest Trail passes through the Sugar Creek Trailhead. So rather than take a hike in any one direction we decided to just venture out a short distance in each direction. We started off south along the Redbird Crest and noted immediately how well kept the trail was. The Forest Service employees and local community clearly take great care of this place. I’ve run races on ATV trails before and these were unlike anything I had ever seen. No ruts. Not tread marks. Just dirt, rocks, sand, and roots I couldn’t wait to run on. But this wasn’t a running trip. This was a trip to find out if my expectations had been set to something that was not consistent with reality, and I was beginning to realize that was actually the case.
When we got back to the trailhead at Sugar Creek we decided to hike north for just a little bit. In both directions from this trailhead the trail ascends rapidly (and steeply!) to the ridge. The Redbird Crest travels nearly entirely up on top of the ridgeline and descends from time to time at trailheads and other road crossings. If I was shocked at seeing so few people then I can only say that I was appalled at the steepness of these climbs. These trails were clearly built with vehicles in mind with little consideration for foot traffic. In other words, they go straight f-ing up!
I don’t say that as a criticism however. Much to the contrary the steepness and rockiness of the climbs present a challenge that I really looked forward to running as opposed to the well groomed switchbacks I was used to. So again, we didn’t go down to Redbird looking for a new race; but we went home knowing that we had to do one down there. There is no other part of the Daniel Boone National Forest that I’ve found that is so challenging, so rugged, and so remote. I knew I had to come back and learn more. If these were the challenges I saw just within a few hundred yards of the trailheads, what obstacles lay along the trail miles into the woods?
This is a three part blog. I will be following up next week with my next trip down to Redbird when I took my mountain bike and biked 10 miles of the Redbird Crest Trail from Peabody to Sugar Creek. I will get into my thoughts on the trail as it goes deeper into the forest, my disdain for mountain biking, and my brutal bike wreck!
See you next week!