This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Jackie Ham
A short, stocky man behind the Shell counter looked at me and smiled. He pointed toward a curved road that disappeared into the Kentucky wilderness and said, “You can’t miss it. It’s a bright yellow shack in the middle of the woods. There is nothing else like it.”
The first time I visited Miguel’s Pizza in Slade, Kentucky, I got lost. Very lost. When I stopped to ask a local for directions, I thought this man was out of his mind. How was I supposed to find a small, yellow shack deep in the woods of the Red River Gorge at night? Oh, was I wrong.
Miguel Ventura, the owner of Miguel’s, was born in Portugal into a family of bakers. His family emigrated to Connecticut in the early 1960s, and at an early age, Miguel found a passion for art, which later led him to open his own art studio in California. He spent a few years in the Golden State until he moved back to Connecticut, where he met his wife, Susan.
After the pair married, they decided to give up the city life and move to a remote farm in Kentucky. This farmed happened to be located in the Red River Gorge, a designated National Natural Landmark that is a hub for hikers, rock climbers, and campers everywhere.
People from all around the world come to the Red, as it is known, to see the sandstone cliffs, natural bridges, and rushing waterfalls.
If renovating a farm wasn’t enough, Miguel bought a vintage storefront and opened an ice cream parlor. They called it The Rainbow Door after the hand-carved wooden door Miguel designed. The focal point of this masterpiece is a smirking face with flaming red hair. This smirking face is now a global symbol for climbers everywhere.
About two years into serving 33 different flavors of ice cream to visitors and locals, Miguel exchanged his ice cream scoop for a rolling pin. This was the birth of Miguel’s Pizza and the surrounding natural campground.
Pizza was a more desirable treat for the adventure-driven tourists who spent their day scaling mountainsides, and today, you cannot head to a crag without seeing a Miguel’s shirt or hearing people chit chat about the type of pizza they will be ordering later.
I am no rookie to Miguel’s anymore, but every time I arrive, I am always amazed. This time was no different. Miguel’s is only a few miles from the nearest highway, but once you enter the forest, the trees surround you. You feel as if you have been swallowed my mother nature herself.
As I rolled up to the campground, I could see the twinkling fairy lights that hung from tree to tree to bring light to the rows of picnic tables. To the left of the tables, a fire is ablaze for those looking for a little warmth. Everything looked fairly normal; however, something was a little off. Oh yeah. It was packed.
Related: Best places to camp in the Midwest
September through November is peak climbing season, and I was naive to think no one would be camping during a weekend forecasted with highs in the mid-50s and sunny skies. Thankfully, I found a spot within the sea of cars, but I cannot say everyone was as lucky as I was.
I arrived at 11:00 p.m., and I could see people setting up their tents, sitting around the fire or enjoying a cold beer under the lights. Light murmurs were heard near the parking lot, but once I headed to the back near all the campers, only the sound of crickets filled the air.
Miguel’s is obviously known for homemade pizza, but it is much more than that. Miguel’s has a breakfast menu for the morning, cold beer on tap for after your climbs and a gear shop located near the back of the campground if you need a new rope or a shirt with Miguel’s famous logo on it.
It’s no surprise why this place became the epicenter for climbers, but what really drives this place home is the low camping fares. You can car, tent and hammock camp for $3.06 a night.
I was too lazy to set up a tent, so I found two sturdy trees down a lightly lit gravel path to set up my hammock. I have slept at many other campsites where people party late into the night making it almost impossible to sleep, but Miguel’s is different. Everyone is there for the same reason. They love climbing, pizza, and sleeping.
I woke up the next morning to rows and rows of vibrantly colored tents consuming the once open field. The whole place mimicked a game of Tetris. Everyone rearranged their tents so strategically that they didn’t disturb anyone else but had just enough room to get out and head to the bathrooms.
I never wait around in the mornings at Miguel’s because once I wake up, I rush to get parking at the crag I want that day, so I have never gotten the chance to enjoy their freshly made omelets or sweet potato pancakes. I do, however, always get the chance to watch the early morning climbing zombies moan for their cup of coffee.
The best part about leaving early in the morning is that you can come back before the dinner rush, and the dinner rush is no joke. Miguel’s is already very small on the inside, so when people are lined up, you may be there for a while. The crowds can get so large that you would swear The Beatles are performing.
This trip, I left the crag at 4:30 and was back at Miguel’s around 5. There was a small line waiting just outside the hard-carved door, so I sprinted over to save my spot in line. Once you’re in line, it is impossible to get out. The smells of the baking dough and fresh garlic cast a spell on you so that all you know is that you must indulge in some of that cheesy goodness.
Around 6 or 7, locals or visitors staying at other campgrounds start to show up to eat this pizza everyone has been talking about. The climbers are still the most dominant group but local families, high school couples and girl’s night out groups all meet up at this dainty little shack for some homemade pies. Depending on your appetite and topping choices, pizza’s range anywhere from $4-$20+.
The last slice of pizza is always accompanied by a mix of emotions. You are left feeling completely satisfied and in a mild food coma, but you also know this means your time at the Red is coming to a close.
As you pack up your car and head back down that winding road toward that yellow Shell sign, you will always remember those exact words, “There is nothing else like it.”
Miguel’s Pizza is located at 1890 Natural Bridge Road, Slade, Kentucky 40376