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Cave Kayaking Kentucky: Guide To Paddling Red River Gorge

Nicola Burridge
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An hour east of Lexington, Kentucky unveils the Red River Gorge’s submerged limestone mine, a relic from the 1890s.

Now, with The Gorge Underground, adventurers can traverse this 1.5-mile wonder using kayaks, paddle boards, or tour boats.

Explore the allure of cave kayaking in Kentucky, where the serenity of hidden waters meets the awe of ancient rock formations in this comprehensive guide.

Let’s get into it!

Safety First: Essential Gear For Underground Kayaking In Kentucky’s Caves

Underground kayaking can be a little different from regular kayaking and may require a few extra safety considerations because of the enclosed space. 

A helmet is an essential piece of equipment if you plan to kayak in the Red River Gorge.

> What are the best kayak helmets?

It can also be beneficial to wear a helmet if you plan to paddle into the other caves in Kentucky, such as those on the Green River, though you may not need the helmet for the rest of your river kayaking trip. 

A flashlight or headlight can also be useful, as deep caves will tend to be extremely dark.

These items are in addition to the normal safety items that you should always have while kayaking, such as a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) and a whistle. You should also wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet. 

Layers can be a good idea for kayaking in caves, as it can often be colder underground. 

Red River Gorge Underground Kayak Tours

The Red River Gorge is home to an abandoned limestone mine. The underground mine dates back to the 19th century when it started as an overground mine before becoming an underground mine. 

In the 1980s, it was abandoned after water from the aquifers flooded the mine. But now, you can paddle through this flooded limestone mine to check out the history and geology for yourself. 

As well as it being notably dark for most of the trip, except for the light from personal headlamps and illuminated kayaks, one thing you’ll notice is the large number of rainbow trout that follow you around. 

These rainbow trout are very easy to see thanks to the crystal clear water of the Red River Gorge.

You’re also likely to see a Kentucky brown bat taking a nap on the limestone walls as you paddle quietly through the dark, underground tunnels of the abandoned mine.

Another exciting feature of the Red River Gorge underground kayaking experience is the underground waterfall.

The temperatures in the mine tend to be around 50 degrees year round, so you might want to bring a sweater or jacket if you plan to kayak in the gorge in the summer.

There are several different tours that operate inside the Red River Gorge abandoned mine, so you can choose whether you want to explore on your own, take a guided tour, (with or without underwater LED lights), or take a boat tour.

Class of rapids rating: 

Class I – easy, flatwater

Where to launch & How to get there: 

Gorge Underground, 2478 Glencairn Road, Rogers, KY 41365 

Kayak Rentals And Tours In The Red River Gorge Area

Kayak tours and rentals can be found from two partner companies in the Red River Gorge near the Natural Bridge State Park, about an hour east of Lexington, Kentucky.

Gorge Underground & SUP Kentucky

Gorge Underground and their partner company, SUP Kentucky, operate several tours of the abandoned mine and also cater to larger groups. 

Tours include a classic kayak tour in sit-on-top kayaks and a classic boat tour from Gorge Underground; a crystal kayak tour with underwater LED lights on clear kayaks, and a crystal clear SUP tour from SUP Kentucky.

The most popular cave tour is the Crystal Kayak and SUP Glow Tour by SUP Kentucky. This is a 1.5-hour tour that takes you through the flooded limestone mine, with LED lights on the kayaks that highlight the passing rainbow trout. 

A friendly tour guide will show you the way and tell you about the history of the mine and the geology of the cave. The minimum age for kayaking in the cave is five.

You can also rent clear kayaks and enjoy exploring the mine on your own for two hours. You’re provided with a headlamp and LED lights on the kayak.     

Mammoth Cave National Park 

Although not quite as impressive (or dark) as the underground mine of the Red River Gorge, paddling through the Mammoth Cave National Park can let you experience some of the natural caves that were formed millions of years ago.

Known as the longest cave in the world, Mammoth Cave is home to many miles of limestone caves. Not all of these caves are accessible by kayak but there are several river caves that you can paddle into from the Green River.

This section of the Green River forms part of the Green and Nolin Rivers Blueway, a 36-mile national water trail. 

As well as paddling into riverside caves, this is a great place for wildlife viewing. You can also paddle alongside natural springs and bluffs, making it a scenic spot to kayak. Camping is allowed on grave bars and islands, as well as some of the riverbanks with a camping permit.

Class of rapids rating: 

Class I to II – easy, mostly slow-moving river (class II rapids at Brownsville)

Where to launch & How to get there: 

Dennison Ferry Day Use Area, Big Woods Road, Horse Cave, KY 42749

Kayak Rentals In Mammoth Cave

There are several outfitters in the Mammoth Cave area, offering canoes and kayaks for rental on the Green and Nolin Rivers. There are no tour guides on these rivers but the water is slow-moving and safe for beginners and all ages.  

Mammoth Cave Canoe & Kayak

Kayak and canoe rentals with shuttle, no tours.

Green River Canoeing 

Canoe and kayak rentals with multi-day options, no tours.

Caveland Kayak & Canoe

Kayak rental with shuttle service for personal kayaks, multi-day options, no guided tours.  

Stalactites, Stalagmites, And Strokes: Cave Kayaking In Kentucky Wrapped Up

Underground kayaking can be a bucket list experience and Kentucky’s geology, with its unique cave systems, makes it a fantastic place to try out this exciting activity. 

The Red River Gorge can be a must-visit kayaking destination to immerse yourself in the wonders of an underground world. But you don’t have to descend into a mine to experience kayaking in caves in Kentucky. 

Have you been kayaking in these great spots? Tell us about your trip.

> Kayaking in Kentucky guide

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