February 2002: Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area


Black Oak, Tennessee

Flowing north from Tennessee into Kentucky, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries have been carving up the Cumberland Plateau into cliffs, natural arches and rock shelters for tens of thousands of years. In 1974 Congress placed 123,000 acres of wilderness under the management of the National Park Service in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The centerpiece of the park is the Big South Fork River with 90 miles of free-flowing, navigable water through gorges and valleys.
Straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border, the 150 miles of hiking trails through mixed hardwood and pine forests are uncrowded - in stark contrast to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, America's most-visited national park, to the southeast.

Save for the 6.5-mile Blue Heron Loop, the top hikes at Big South Fork are in the Tennessee portion of the park near the Bandy Creek Visitor Center. At the Visitor Center is the Oscar Blevin Trail, an easy 3.2 mile loop through mature forest to an historic farmstead that was worked until the National Park Service took over into 1974.
To the east of Bandy Creek is the Leatherwood Ford, the trailhead for the popular Angel Falls Trail, an easy two-mile lope along the west bank of the Big South Fork Cumberland River. Continuing another .8 mile, the trail winds to the top of a limestone bluff with a commanding view of Angel Falls, actually a series of rapids. The cliffs are unprotected but the climb can be negotiated by an agile dog. The Angel Falls Trail is a small segment of the John Muir Trail which stretches 50 miles across the park.
The seven miles upstream from Leatherwood Ford on the Big South Fork to its confluence with the New River contain the greatest concentration of rapids in the gorge and trails lead to outstanding river views in the hardwood forests. 

In the remote western region of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area are a sandstone double archway known as the Twin Arches. Trailheads are reached by unpaved roads off Highway 154. A short, but hardy, trek of less than a mile leads to the largest natural sandstone bridges in Tennessee. Rock shelters like these deep in the woods were once popular harbors for moonshine stills and old still equipment is on display in the park. The walk can be extended into a 6.0-mile loop to the historic farm at the Charit Creek Lodge. A hunter in the area, Jonathan Blevins built a log cabin here in 1817 that is now incorporated into the rustic lodge. Charit Creek Lodge, which sports no electricity, can be reached only on foot or by horseback.

Pickett State Park & Forest (Highway 154, northeast of Jamestown). The 16,500 acres of Pickett State Park, once owned by the massive Stearns Coal & Lumber Company, became one of Tennessee's earliest state parks in the 1930s. Here are botanical and geological wonders found nowhere else in Tennessee; more than 58 miles of hiking trails skirt deep gorges and lead through thick stands of laurel and rhodedendron. Many of the trails are short, ranging from 1/4 mile to three miles, and lead to unique natural formations. 

Historic Rugby (Highway 52). British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes came to the Tennessee hills in 1880 to start an agricultural Utopia for young Englishmen looking to start life anew in America. At its peak, more than 350 people lived in the Victorian village he founded. Today twenty of the historic buildings remain in Rugby, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The colonists built three miles of river gorge trails that wind down to the Clear Fork River and the "Gentlemen's Swimming Hole."

Sergeant Alvin C. York Historic Site (Highway 127, 8 miles north of Jamestown). Alvin York emerged from a secluded holler in the Wolf River Valley to become America's most decorated soldier in World War I. York single-handedly fought a nest of German machine gunners and marched 132 prisoners to the American line in the Argonne forest in France. Shunning fame after the war, York returned home and worked tirelessly to establish a school to educate mountain children despite having little formal education himself. Today the 400-acre historic site features York's home, paid for by donations from a grateful American citizenry, a gristmill he briefly operated and his Bible School. Trails dissect the site and lead to a spectacular swinging bridge and Alvin York's grave in Wolf River Cemetery that includes unusual above-ground graves.

From I-75 southbound: take KY 461 south to KY 80 west to US 27 south. The Kentucky visitor center is south of Whitley City off KY 92. Continuining south to Oneida, follow TN 297 west into the Tennessee visitor center. From I-40 in Tennessee: take US 27 or US 127 north. From US 127 continue to Oneida and TN 297 west; from US 127 take TN 154 north to TN 297 and east to the visitor center.