Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Big South Fork

There are National Parks that get crowded during spring and summer vacation, the most popular sights overrun with trekking poles, go pros and plastic water bottles. Then there are those massive swaths of public lands that are relatively empty – even the Visitor Center parking lot vacant in the early light of dawn – and I wonder what is it that keeps the droves away, as it’s surely not a lack of recreational opportunities & natural sights… These are the places to visit during early spring, for example avoiding the vehicle queues and smog in the Great Smoky Mountains NP and opting instead for the stunning scenery of the Cumberland Plateau and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

It was an hour’s drive from Caryville to Big South Fork, some 45 miles through the scenic TN countryside to reach the Visitor Center at Bandy Creek. We turned west at Oneida, entering the National River and Recreation Area (NRRA) on Leatherwood Ford Road. First a quick 0.8 mile hike (there and back) to the East Rim Overlook, the perfect introduction to the striking scale of this massive valley. The clouds hadn’t yet burnt off, and the view of the river and bare hardwood valley walls was partially obscured even as the boys exclaimed over the cold and begged to retreat to the car. We obliged, but only after passing around the binoculars to see if we couldn’t get a look at the John Muir Trail which during this section runs parallel to Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.

One of the primary recreational opportunities here is on the water. 90 miles of scenic river gorges, cliffs and valleys with colorfully-named rapids such as the “Washing Machine,” “Jake’s Hole” and “First Drop” provide whitewater for the beginner to the experienced in all seasons. Chris Arp (a local paddler from Knoxville) has filmed several of his trips; view the clips of Double Falls Rapids here, Washing Machine here and The Ell here. Together these rapids are referred to as "The Big Three". The class I – IV rapids on Big South Fork and its tributaries Clear Fork, North White Oak and New River definitely offer a challenge – albeit one that I cannot accept until the kids are old enough to hold their own paddle.

There are only two bridges across the Big South Fork in the park (another three on the south end over Clear Fork and New River before they join to become the Big South Fork), the river effectively bisecting the Park in two and restricting travel from east to west. Leatherwood Ford Road descends swiftly to the river through a series of switchbacks, climbing the other side in tight curves. It’s no wonder the next crossing is miles to the north in a completely different state – the Yamacraw Bridge also being the gap where the Big South Fork Scenic Railway crosses the river. The seasonal Stearns Depot Visitors Center is also up on the north end, although we opted to stop at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center in the center of the park as it is open the whole year. We double-checked our trail selections, picked up a couple of Junior Ranger brochures, and headed further west.

hiking across the top of North Arch

It took almost a full 30 minutes to reach the Twin Arches trailhead, located just east of Pickett State Park on the Hatfield Ridge. The 1.4-mile upper loop is rated easy/moderate and travels from the trailhead to the Twin Arches, the largest natural bridge in the state of Tennessee and Kentucky and the largest sandstone arch complex in the East. From the arches the lower loop continues for a 4.6-mile hike rated difficult, the trail leading to a spectacular series of rock houses, cliffs, Jake’s place (old home site) and Charit Creek Lodge, but we were content with our shorter loop, especially as it took us over the northern arch before descending to the base of the formations where we were free to explore.

North Arch

The North Arch spans 93 feet and is 62 feet tall with a clearance of 51 feet. South Arch is 103 feet tall, spans 135 feet and has a clearance of 70 feet. By comparison, the record-holders in Arches National Park: Landscape Arch at 306 feet across and Double Arch South with a 112 feet clearance.

The boys found a cave in the South Arch that cut all the way through, and they spent some time climbing the boulders around the base of both arches before discovering the football that had been packed in one of their backpacks. We could have easily spent another hour enjoying this spectacular natural wonder…

South Arch

Big South Fork offers hundreds of miles of trails on its 125,000 acres, and not just for hikers but for horses and mountain bikes as well. This is a relatively new park, authorized by Congress in 1974 and the first of its kind (a national river and a national recreation area), but the scenery is timeless. From the 600-foot deep gorge to the dozens of overlooks & waterfalls, this is some of the wildest and most rugged territory on the Cumberland Plateau.

labeled 'steep stairs' on the map

Having retraced our steps all the way back to Oneida we turned north, crossing into Kentucky near the road that could take us to Yahoo Falls, the highest in the state at 113 ft. We ran out of stamina, the steep stairs of the Twin Arches loop having sapped the strength from those with shorter legs, and so we bypassed Yahoo and instead turned east towards Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. I had been wondering where the crowds were – turns out they were here at the falls, the “Niagara of the South.” 

Cumberland Falls

The State Park was such a stark contrast to Big South Fork in all aspects, not just the crowds: poor signage, overflowing parking lots, visitors ignoring warnings to stay out of dangerous areas above and below the falls, and an unbelievable volume of trash. It was all I could do to not turn around and head back to Big South Fork…

above Cumberland Falls


  1. Beautiful! Looks like an awesome adventure.

  2. the Cuberland Falls rocks are awesome

  3. Wow--you all do get around... You were near our stomping grounds. We are near Crossville south of the Big South Fork. We also love Cumberland Falls.. Did you see the Moonbow?


    1. We didn't see the moonbow - have you seen it? I think I would have liked Cumberland Falls more if it hadn't been so crowded, and a trip during spring break guarantees crowds! Will have to return off season, possibly for the moonbow!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...