History of the valley before it became Muir Valley

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Eons of wind and water sculpted, and in some cases, tortured, this cemented sandstone into wildly fantastic  shapes and patterns. Climbers can find it all here in Muir Valley—jugs, crimpers, slopers, rails, pockets, underclings, side pulls, cracks, and... you name it. Some of the rock faces slope back away from you. And some overhang at angles so severe that they seem virtually impossible for any human being to climb them.

Birth of this geological area

Source material for this section: Lucas Joel from his article in Earth Magazine

The gorges of the Red River Gorge Geological Area began forming after the region uplifted about 600 meters above sea level roughly 285 million years ago during the Permian — a process that formed theCumberland Plateau from Alabama to western New York — and waterways then cut into preexisting vertical fractures in the Corbin Sandstone.

The Red River continues to incise the local stratigraphy, and today cuts below the Corbin Sandstone and into the Nancy Member, a siltstone and shale layer laid down in the Early and Mid-Mississippian (359 million to 331 million years ago). Its fine-grained character, as well as the presence of the marine trace fossil Zoophycos, indicates the Nancy Member was deposited in a low-energy, deep marine setting.

Moderate cementation has helped weathering processes form these durable pockets, making them useful for climbing. Halfway up the climb, Liesegang bands protrude from the cliff face, forming additional holds. Here, as well as across much of the Corbin Sandstone, cementation of the sandstone varies vertically; sandstone closer to cliff tops is generally better cemented than rock near the cliff bottoms. This contributes to the cliffs' characteristically overhung shape, with the tops protruding out farther than the bases.

 

Climbers are often rockhounds; after all, they depend on the rocks for their lives. “Whenever you come across a hold [while climbing] that feels just right, it’s like, ‘Huh, it took thousands of years for that [hold] to form just like that, just so I could have fun in that moment.'”

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These cavernous overhangs provided shelter from rain and snow to natives who populated the area years ago. Locals refer to these formations as "rock houses" and put them to good use as places to hang and dry tobacco. They also provide excellent protection for moonshining enterprises, not only keeping the operation dry, but also by dispersing telltale smoke that could tip off a revenuer. Shards of crock jugs can still been found strewn around some of Muir's rock shelters.

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Located up about 40 feet on the face of Washboard Wall is an elevated rock shelter that undoubtedly provided defensible protection for native Americans years ago. Access is along a narrow path coming in from the left side.

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Behind the Tectonic Wall is a small cavern with an opening in the top that lights it. The entrance is well hidden, making it a secure shelter for a small group of native Americans. 

Native Americans and rock shelters

(Much of the information in this section was provided by the Living Archaeology Weekend Steering Committee that conducted meetings in the Red River Gorge in 2008.

The first human inhabitants of the Red River Gorge arrived about 12,000 years ago. These native peoples are referred to as Paleoindians. These were nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in small groups and who had descended from people who had begun crossing the Bering Land bridge from Siberia more than 3000 years earlier.

 

At the time Paleoindians started arriving in the Red River Gorge, the last glaciers were retreating. It was cooler and wetter then, so the natural environment was different from today’s. These people hunted animals with distinctive stone-tipped spears and gathered wild plants. They discovered cavernous undercuts in many of the rock faces that are now commonly referred to as rock shelters. These were not caves, inasmuch as they didn’t extend deeply into the rock. But, the overhanging sandstone provided dry shelters for these early people.

 

By around 10,000 years ago, the natural environment was like today’s. And, over the 2000 years since Paleoindians first arrived, the residents of the area were predominantly a new group of hunter-gatherers called “Archaic”. They gathered wild plants for food, medicines, and dyes. These people used ground stone tools, like mortars and pestles, to shell and grind-up nuts. One of Muir Valley’s larger rock shelters contains a deep mortar carved into a large flat rock. In the same shelter, a huge cache of flint knappings were discovered along with complete and partially completed flint tools.

 

Around 3,000 years ago, the prehistoric gardeners of the Red River Gorge began to make jars from local clays. We call these pottery-making groups the Woodland peoples. Ceramics joined wooden and gourd bowls and cane baskets as the containers they used for cooking and storage.

These natives’ livelihood, as was their forebearers, was hunting and. Woodland peoples hunted with the atlatl until about 1300 years ago, when they replaced it with the bow and arrow. Like their ancestors, they planted seeds in gardens near their camps. With a source of food they could count on, these prehistoric gardeners lived in rock shelters for longer periods. They made short trips to other places for the raw materials they needed.

Within the hundreds of rock shelters in the Gorge, Archaeologists have identified many important Woodland camps. At these sites, archaeologists found the remains of Woodland peoples’ storage pits, trash pits, and the fires they built for heat, lighting, and cooking. They also found pottery, spear points, cordage, textiles, leather items, and grass beds. 

 

Around 1,000 years ago, outside the Gorge, people began living in villages and had, at least partially, put aside hunting and gathering for farming. These people are referred to as “Fort Ancient, like their ancestors, they still grew squash and sunflower. But, they replaced most of the old crops with new ones, such as corn and beans. Tobacco became an important crop, too. They continued to hunt with bows and arrows and to gather wild plants. Within the Gorge, Fort Ancient people now lived pretty much full time in rock shelters. The prehistoric farmers of central Kentucky also may have come to the Gorge to hunt at this time. 

 

Around 400 years ago, Native Americans were trading with Europeans indirectly for glass beads and metal kettles. European diseases, like smallpox, influenza, and measles, appeared in the late 1600s. Thousands of natives died because they had never been exposed to these kinds of diseases before. Today, some of the residents in the Gorge area trace parts of their ancestry back to native Americans.

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Muir Valley is the home of numerous small caves like this one that sheltered some of the areas earliest peoples. Many archeological items, including beautiful flint points, have been found in this area.

Arrival of "Civilization"

By the late 1700s, Native American residents of the Gorge had pretty much disappeared. They were either murdered outright or given deadly contagions. The pathetically few survivors were moved to reservations out west. And the area became "civilized". Without any knowledge of responsible land management and conservation, these invaders clear-cut the forests, eroded away the top soil with poor farming practices, polluted rivers and streams with coal tilings and trash, and decimated the natural beauty of the area in many other ways. Logging and gas/oil wells declined significantly by the 1970s, and the growing of tobacco —Wolfe County's only profitable crop—was ended by the U.S. government. Jobs disappeared and poverty grew. The more motivated folks left the area for better opportunities. The population of Wolfe County, in which Muir Valley is located, dwindled to about 7000 residents in 2000. Lacking any significant business and industry, the median family income for the county placed it about tenth from the bottom of all 3050 U.S. counties.

Then, came Muir Valley and rock climbers... lots and lots of climbers. By 2015, Muir Valley was bringing over 40,000 visitors a year from all over North America to Wolfe County. And, in about 12 years the county went from having literally no tourism to a stream of rock climbers and their needs for food, lodging, and supplies. Muir Valley has been a very positive addition to the county's economy.