While Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is known for its breadth of magnificent arches, it is also secretly known for its abundance of waterfalls. The Upper, Middle, & Lower Falls of The Right Fork of Chimney Top Creek are three of the best known and heavily photographed in the park. Over the span of a half mile, this stunning watercourse crashes over two very distinct 30 ft drops with one smaller 5 ft drop in the center. With sparkling pools of turquoise blue water surrounded by towering cliffs and expansive rock shelters it leaves little to wonder why the Red River Gorge is considered Kentuckys hidden paradise. This 3.50 mile off-trail excursion includes two separate paths; one descending deep into the valley of Koomer Ridge below Hidden Arch to see the Lower Falls and a technical ascent over the Middle Falls to reach the secluded Upper Falls basin.
Entire Trip | 3.50 mile Roundtrip
To Hidden Arch | 1.0 miles
To Lower Falls | 0.35 miles
To Middle & Upper Falls | 0.55 miles
Coordinates for trail split
to Lower Falls and Middle\Upper Falls |-37.78837,-83.64028
Before beginning, a word of CAUTION: Parts of this hike include UNMARKED TRAILS, not registered on any official map of Red River Gorge Geological Area. This hike includes scrambling over exposed cliffs and rock ledges that have resulted in deaths and injuries. Do not venture out alone. Use common sense and do not attempt anything that would put yourself or others at risk or harms way. This is NOT meant to be an instructional article, but a recollection of my own journey. The Red River Gorge is home to several species of venomous snakes as well as black bears. Be Bear Aware. Do your own research before going out and attempting any hike!
Our approximate route down to see all three Chimney Top Falls.
The hike out to visit the jaw dropping and uber photogenic waterfalls of the Right Fork of Chimney Top Creek had been on my radar for a long time. Though you won’t find any maps showing a physical marked trail to Upper, Middle, & Lower Chimney Top Falls, a well defined path does exist, but you need a few extra clues to help get you there. YouTube contains several videos showing an approximate route with key landmarks to help guide us most of the way. After watching several of these videos, I visited the kywaterfalls.com database to gather GPS coordinates for all three waterfalls. With these waypoints pre-set into my map I can more easily navigate the backcountry and avoid getting lost or missing my objective altogether. Timing is essential to see these beauties in their prime. Keeping an eye out for a week of scattered showers to really drench the area, I chose the first clear and sunny day in early Spring to make this outing.
Exploring Hidden Arch on our way to Chimney Top Falls.
Head down to Hidden Arch (1.0 mile)
Entering the Red River Gorge, I made my way to the Koomer Ridge Campground and made sure to park in the Backpackers Lot. Parking near campsites is reserved for campers only and if your car does not contain a pre-paid permit, it is at high risk for getting a ticket or being towed. Once parked, its just a short walk away to the Hidden Arch Trailhead. From here we’ll be taking the short stroll down to Hidden Arch, which is where the trailhead to the three Chimney Top Falls is located. This is probably the easiest part of the whole trek. During mid to late summer, this trail is known to be engulfed with the sweet scent of blooming mountain laurels as well as teeming with juicy huckleberries and wild blueberries. Just as you reach the cliff overlooking Hidden Arch, make sure to check out the expansive overlook of the valley below. Pretty soon we’ll be all the way at the bottom of the deepest ravine visible.
The trailhead for all three Chimney Top Falls below Hidden Arch.
Trailhead to Lower, Middle, & Upper Chimney Top Falls
Working our way down the wooden steps, we took a few moments to appreciate the subtle beauty of Hidden Arch. This entire cliff line is littered with pocket shelters and caves worth checking out as well. From Hidden Arch, go down the last set of stairs and stop at the bottom landing. Turning to look directly at the steps, you should be able to discern a well worn path or trail directly to the RIGHT of the staircase. This is the trailhead for all three Chimney Top Falls. Making our way through the thick brush, we quickly approached a small cave and walked past it to a wide alcove. All of this matches up to the videos I researched leading up to the hike. Within another few moments we reached a clear fork in the trail with one path heading downhill and another continuing straight along the base of the cliff through a stand of rhododendron. It might not be noticeable at first which is why I made sure to watch the videos attentively beforehand and even take a screenshot of the scene on my phone for future reference.
Large alcove along Chimney Top Falls Trail just before main trail split.
This is the main split with the trail headed downhill going to Lower Chimney Top Falls and the trail continuing along the base of the cliff headed to Middle and Upper Chimney Top Falls. We chose to get the tougher portion of the hike out of the way and see Lower Chimney Top Falls first. The well worn path is easy to follow, but deceptively technical. A lot of it is badly eroded and lacks any clear footing in the form of rocks or tree roots. Most of the videos online do not show or really cover this part of the trail. Pitched at a steep grade, we were more or less slowly falling from one tree stump to the next as we descended 400 ft to the bottom of the valley. Trekking poles were an indispensable part of our kit on this particular section of the hike. Getting deeper and deeper under the tree canopy, the trail abruptly ends at the top of a 5 ft high ledge. This ledge is the marking point for where the descent ends.
Doesn’t seem like much, but this is the trail down to Lower Chimney Top Falls.
Lower Chimney Top Falls (-37.788458,-83.641499)
Using the tree roots to aid our climb down, we simply scootched down the ledge in a section a bit further to the right of the main drop. Setting foot on the valley floor, the rest of the hike is simple and easy to navigate. Facing away from the ledge we just climbed down, we turned LEFT and began following the base of the cliff wall in a south\southwest orientation. Essentially, the cliff wall should be on your left and Chimney Top Creek should be on your right. The path is marred by enormous boulders and large cliff overhangs. There is one main scramble down the face of a rock slab that landed us in the middle of a wetland bog. One should avoid entering the rock shelter here as these are sensitive habitats for rare and endangered species of plants found only in this part of Kentucky. We used several downed tree branches as foot bridges to walk across the deepest part of the marsh.
Gwen sitting in front of Lower Chimney Top Falls.
After climbing out of the bog and working our way over a small hill, we could immediately hear the crashing sounds of water in the distance. Following the creek upstream, we suddenly entered a lush and wild cove entirely surrounded by towering cliffs with Lower Chimney Top Falls situated at the epicenter. The Red River Gorge never ceases to amaze me with just how many hidden gems it has up its sleeves and Lower Chimney Top Falls is proof of that. Scarred by one of our more recent storms, the basin of this waterfall is full of debris and downed trees that partly obscure the full view. At 30 ft high, Lower Chimney Top Falls is not the tallest waterfall in the area, but it is one of the more unique ones due to its double drop. The ledge from which the water spills has over time eroded into a saddle with the water coursing through two separate channels on either side of the hump. The stream from this waterfall curves around a wide sand bar and weaves its way under a long cliff overhang before entering the wider valley. The scene is absolutely breathtaking.
Lower Chimney Top Falls.
Main Trail Split (Coordinates -37.78837,-83.64028)
Believe it or not, the path to the Middle & Upper Falls is directly along the creek bank of Lower Falls just overhead. Though there is no direct or safe way to climb the cliff from down here there is an access point back where we began our original descent. Following our hike in reverse, we made our way back uphill to where the trail originally split with one path headed downhill and the other continuing straight. Making a RIGHT HAND TURN, this path travels a few yards before reaching another path heading downhill on the RIGHT. Take the path on the RIGHT heading downhill. When we first encountered this we were confused and continued straight along a smaller path only to get lost in a tangled web of underbrush. After back tracking to this downhill path we eventually realized our mistake and found the correct path. This trail is also not covered in the videos in depth and requires a lot of crawling through tunnels of rhododendron and skirting around a sheer cliff to complete.
Working our way under the thick jungle of rhododendrons along Chimney Top Creek.
Middle Chimney Top Falls (-37.787845,-83.641160)
As you near the end of this short descent, you end up crawling past an overlook of Lower Chimney Top Falls on your right before exiting the forest onto Chimney Top Creek itself. To the right, the creek swirls just out of view as it works its way to the precipice of Lower Falls. Here, we climbed down into the creek and turned LEFT. Walking upstream through the rushing water, this was the beginning of our hike up to Middle Chimney Top Falls. Out of the entire experience of visiting all three waterfalls, this section in particular was our favorite. After hiking in parks like Turkey Run State Park, Hocking Hills State Park, and Hemlock Cliffs, I had begun to miss exploring for waterfalls through water filled canyons. The water levels were moderate enough to safely tackle and not get swept downstream, but during heavy rain events this would not be the case.
Looking at our path upstream through Chimney Top Creek to Middle Falls.
One of the several small cascades along the way to Middle Falls.
Our first glance of Middle Falls through the trees.
This gulch runs for maybe 50 yards, or half the length of a football field, until it reaches Middle Falls. Much of it is covered by a canopy of overgrown rhododendrons which drape over the ravine to create a whimsical tunnel. Its entire length is marked by various swirling cascades and small drops that turn into miniature waterfalls with enough precipitation. On this occasion there was enough flow to see some of this in action. Walking carefully to avoid any slippery spots on the smooth creek bed made this short walk very time consuming. All of this was well worth the effort when we spied the dainty 5 ft tall drop of Middle Chimney Top Falls just around a bend. To get up to the falls, you must first climb up a rushing cascade that resembles a kids playground slide.
Middle Chimney Top Falls.
Are there bigger and better waterfalls hidden throughout the Red River Gorge? You bet, but the entire experience of hiking up to Middle Falls makes it one of the more fun adventures in the park. From this point, getting to Upper Chimney Top Falls is pretty straightforward. You just have to climb out of the ravine and follow the creek upstream. Looking for a way out of the creek, we found a spot right in front of Middle Falls to climb up into the hillside above. There are two clear routes up with plenty of tree roots hanging down over the creek that one can use for leverage.
A short walk upstream from Middle Falls we get our first glance at Upper Chimney Top Falls.
Upper Chimney Top Falls (-37.786461,-83.642211)
Keeping the rushing stream to our right hand side, we followed a well traveled path up and over several small hills before reaching a regularly used backcountry campsite in the heart of this secluded valley. The campsite sits at the mouth of a large slot canyon with Upper Chimney Top Falls situated at the far end of it. Another thing to note is that this creek does fork off to the left (east) as well. Following this left fork would take you into yet another smaller ravine and the base of Hidden Arch Falls. Located on the cliff directly below Hidden Arch, this 40 ft waterfall is taller than the three Chimney Top Falls, but requires A LOT of heavy rain to get it going. After eyeballing the water flow, I decided it was not strong enough to warrant the effort to go see it. Veering right, we walked directly through the campsite following the sound of crashing water to the entrance of a massive rockshelter.
Inside one of two large rockshelters surrounding Upper Chimney Top Falls.
Upper Chimney Top Falls is obscured by heavy brush, but once you step under this expansive cliff overhang the waterfall becomes completely visible. Seeing it for the first time I let out a small gasp out of excitement. Crashing 30 feet down into a pool of turquoise blue water that is surrounded by a sandy beach, this might as well be a hidden paradise. The entire scene is absolutely breathtaking and leaves little doubt as to why this is such a sought after hidden trail. The pool below the falls is noted to be one of the best swimming holes in the gorge and can get anywhere from 2-3 feet deep. Another interesting aspect of the area is the long cave located midway up the cliff that overlooks Upper Chimney Top Falls. Not able to find a sensible way up into the cave to explore it in depth, I had to settle for admiring it from below.
Looking out over one of the best swimming holes in the Red River Gorge under Upper Chimney Top Falls.
This is definitely a place I can see myself revisiting and even planning a backcountry camping trip to stay here. Pictures don’t do it any justice, it’s just a place everyone has to see for themselves. Anyone interested in seeing more of the hidden gems we’ve explored in the Red River Gorge should click on the Search Tool in the Menu sidebar and type in Red River Gorge. There you’ll find several dozen articles including our hikes to Hansons Point, Copperas Creek Falls, and numerous off-trail Arches. Thanks for dropping by and as always, see y’all on the trails!