Climbing Southern Via Ferrata

If you’ve always wanted to scale a craggy cliff, but never quite conjured the nerve, try going vertical on a via ferrata. Italian for “iron way,” a via ferrata is a climbing route that features a permanent safety system—steel rungs, ladders, and bridges—embedded in the rock. While clipped into a cable system that follows the route, novice climbers can get a taste for exposed heights without the technical know-how of rope work. The Southeast’s only via ferratas are located in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and West Virginia’s Nelson Rocks Preserve.

“You get the heights and some of the physical challenges without having to focus on the technical aspects,” says Wayne Berger, who operates the via ferrata at Nelson Rocks. “It’s a way to give more people access to incredible geological formations.”

Mountainous countries in Europe have over 300 via ferratas—some dating back a century. During World War I, they were used to help troops traverse the Dolomites section of the Alps, where Italy and Austria fought a lengthy battle.
Following a via ferrata route doesn’t require expert climbing skills, but you do need an adventurous spirit, proper equipment, and a stomach for heights.

> Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata
A mountain jungle gym connects two majestic quartzite fins in West Virginia’s North Fork Valley. A guided trip at the privately owned preserve takes approximately four hours, with a total elevation gain of 850 feet. After a brief hike to the face of the west fin, climbers begin a 200-foot ascent up a set of stainless steel rungs. From there, its lengthy ledge traverses on high craggy exposures with a quick jaunt across a metal suspension bridge that connects the two fins. There’s some slight overhang on the east fin’s headwall—an optional part of the route—before a final traverse to the summit. From the peak, you’re rewarded with sweeping Allegheny views with great looks at picturesque Germany Valley and the state’s highest summit Spruce Knob.
$53 for guided day trip. nelsonrocks.org

> Red River Gorge Via Ferrata
Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure was the first via ferrata opened in North America back in 2001. Married couple Mark and Kathy Meyer wanted to offer a family-friendly way to enjoy the choice rock in the Red River Gorge, so they contracted a team of via ferrata vets from France to build their route. The lengthy course with a 3,400-foot total traverse is broken into six sections for different abilities.
$32 for a day pass. torrentfalls.com