Big South Fork Recreation Area has been on my list for years. For one reason or another, I just never seem to get around to it even though it’s only 2 hours away from where I live. This Fall Break I decided enough was enough and it was time to finally see why everyone who goes raves about it. I packed up my twin 9 year-old nephews, the tent, and a minivan full of food (they eat a lot).
It was an amazing 3 day camping trip, and I am kicking myself for all the years I missed coming here. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my Smokies, but Big South Fork has earned a place high up on my list of favorite places for a weekend trip.
General Introduction- The Lay Of The Land
Located on the Cumberland Plateau, half in Tennessee and half in Kentucky, Big South Fork is 1.5 hours northwest of Knoxville, 2.5 hours northeast of Nashville, and 2.5 hours south of Lexington.
The nearest towns are Oneida and Jamestown in TN and Whitley City in KY. They are small towns but you’ll find gas stations, at least one grocery store, and a drugstore. Oneida and Jamestown have a Walmart as well. All 3 towns are within 20-30 min from one of Big South Fork’s 3 tent campgrounds.
A National Recreation Area
Big South Fork is actually a national recreation area but is managed by the National Park Service. National Recreation Areas differ from National Parks in that they tend to be centered around bodies of water used for recreation, i.e. reservoirs, lakes, or rivers. In this case, the recreation area is centered around the actual “big south fork” of the Cumberland River. Activities tend to be slightly less restricted as well in national recreation areas versus national parks— more backcountry camping is allowed and you can bring dogs and horses on more trails, etc.
Camping and Lodging
There are 3 non-equestrian campgrounds in Big South Fork but the main one is Bandy Creek Campground which is located in the middle of the TN portion of the park. The other two campgrounds are located in KY; Alum Ford Campground (primitive) and Blue Heron (a smaller version of Bandy Creek). Station Camp and Bear Creek are the two equestrian campgrounds, although there are stables located at Bandy Creek as well. The website has good details about each campground.
There is also a lodge in the park, Charit Creek Lodge. It gets rave reviews and I have friends that take an annual trip there with a large group, including young kids. They love it. Lodgings are in 12 person cabins with bunk beds and screened porches. Breakfast and dinner are provided as well as hot showers and flush toilets but there is no electricity. Bring your flashlights and headlamps.
Charit Creek Lodge is accessible only by hiking, biking, or horseback, but you only have to pack your clothes, which is doable for most people even if you are carrying your stuff plus a toddler’s. You’ll find several trails there, the shortest being a 1.1 mile moderately difficult trail. See the Lodge’s website for descriptions.
Now That You Have Your Bearings, Here’s Why Big South Fork Rocks
The Scenery Is Gorgeous And Packed With Lots Of Short Trails To Fantastic Features
Located on the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork has an amazing topography. It is defined by the Big South Fork River cutting its way through the sandstone to create the main gorge. That means there are a plethora of gorgeous overlooks throughout the park. Big South Fork is also defined by its many, many, natural arches. The park may have more natural arches than any other location in the eastern US.
We found lots of trails that are 1-3 miles to something fantastic—a waterfall, an arch, or an overlook. There are longer trails if you so desire, but I usually have about 3 miles before I need to show the kids something cool or reach a stopping point. They max out at 7 or 8 miles for the day, generally speaking, so we either do one long trail or several short ones. We had tons of hikes in Big South Fork to choose from that fit the bill.
We managed 4 short hikes in 2 days while camping at Bandy Creek Campground (it rained hard the 3rd day so we cancelled our long hike).
Day 1- Twin Arches and Slave Falls/ Needles Arch (about a 40 min drive from Bandy Creek Campground)
Day 2- Yahoo Falls/ Yahoo Arch and Blue Heron Mining Community (each about an hour drive from Bandy Creek Campground, and about a 40 min drive from each other)
Twin Arches Upper Loop
The shorter of the 2 trails to Twin Arches at 1.2 miles roundtrip, the Upper Loop absolutely lived up to the hype as one of the best hikes in Big South Fork. The two arches are the largest in Tennessee and Kentucky and are pretty amazing.
Be sure to climb all the way up to the bluff once you ascend the stairs to the top of the arch. You will find a spectacular view. It took us roughly 2 hours to complete the trail including our detour to the bluff.
Go left at the first fork and then down the stairs to approach the arches from ground level first. Then take the stairs to ascend to the top of the arches. I think it’s more fun that way because you know what you are standing on. If you stay right, you won’t realize you are walking on top of the arches until you come down the stairs that lead down from them. And you will then have to end the hike on some really steep stairs back to the parking lot.
Getting to the Trailhead: The trailhead is easy to find on the west side of the park and is well-signed. If you take 297 west from Bandy Creek Campground, it will dead end at highway 154/Pickett Park Hwy. You will have left the park by this time.
Turn right on Hwy 154 and then keep an eye out for Divide Road on your right. Turn right and re-enter Big South Fork NRA. It is a gravel road but wide and well-maintained. I had no problem in a loaded minivan.
Go for about 4 miles on Divide Road and then turn right again at the sign for Twin Arches Trailhead. Drive for about 2 more miles and the road will dead end at the parking lot for the trailhead. The trailhead has a nice new picnic area but only vault toilets that smelled terrible when I was there. They looked new enough but clearly hadn’t been serviced in a while.
Slave Falls and Needle Arch
You have the option of a 3.6 mile loop trail or you can hike a shorter out and back to Slave Falls at 2.6 miles roundtrip which is what we picked. For both of these options, I recommend adding the easy spur trail to the pretty cool Needle Arch, which is just about 0.25 miles beyond the spur to Slave Falls. That makes the shorter, out and back trail to Slave Falls about 3.1 miles total.
It took us a bit over 2 hours to complete the out and back to Slave Falls and Needle Arch but we tried to do a loop and had to go off trail (see below) so we ended up doing closer to 3.8 miles. I would say most people could do the trail in under 2 hours.
***Warning- On the map at the trailhead, it looks like you can do a loop from Needle Arch around to Slave Falls and then continue back to the trailhead. You cannot. The trail actually ends at either side of Slave Falls and to connect the two ends you must climb down to the stream and back up the either side. You are better off treating Slave Falls and Needle Arch as 2 short spur trails.
Getting to the Trailhead: The trailhead for Slave Falls is called Sawmill Trailhead so it can be confusing if you are trying to find it on park service maps. From Twin Arches, drive back out to Divide Road and head south back to Hwy 154.
Before you get to the highway, turn left onto Fork Ridge Road, following the signs for Sawmill Trailhead. You will pass a sign for Slave Falls where the Slave Falls Loop Trail crosses the road but drive on another 0.1 miles to come to the parking area and a very short access trail. It is well- signed and obvious.
Yahoo Falls and Yahoo Arch
When we came around the corner to walk behind the falls, I couldn’t stop saying “How cool is this??!!” At 113 feet, Yahoo is the tallest waterfall in Kentucky and is pretty darn scenic.
This is one of my favorite hikes ever and certainly one of the best for a huge payoff after a short investment of time. The loop trail to the falls is about 1.2 miles and not too strenuous except for the steep metal stairs at the end (if you go counter-clockwise and do the bluff on top of the falls first and the falls second, which I recommend.)
Definitely add in the 0.8 mile spur to Yahoo Arch. It is a bit of an uphill but the arch and the humongous overhang next to it are amazing.
Getting to the Trailhead: From Bandy Creek Campground, you will drive east on 297 out of the park to Oneida and turn left onto Highway 27. Drive north into Kentucky and keep an eye out for signs to Yahoo Falls. You will turn left onto route 700. (GPS works well in this area and I recommend it because you will drive through some backroads until you re-enter the park.)
Once you are in the park, keep an eye out for the big wooden signs for trailheads. Yahoo Falls is a popular hike and the way is well signed. The parking lot has a picnic area with about 8 or 9 sites that are very shaded and separated from each other. Nice new flush bathrooms at the trailhead as well.
Hiking Trails in the Blue Heron Mining Community
This is more of a historical tour although there are some excellent hikes in the area. The weather did not cooperate with us though and we had to cut our hike to Catawba Falls/ Dick Gap Overlook short. We only did about a mile of the roughly 5 mile RT trail.
Blue Heron Loop trail (6.5 miles, moderately difficult) is also supposed to be fantastic. We drove to some of the overlooks along that trail and they were gorgeous. I would love to do this hike on a return visit.
Honey Creek Trail
One of the park rangers also recommended Honey Creek Trail but this was beyond our abilities with me being the only grown-up with two nine year-olds. But it definitely goes on the list for next time.
Honey Creek has been voted one of the best trails in TN and is only 5.7 miles long with minimal elevation gain so it doesn’t sound too hard at first. But much of the trail follows along a small creek, involving wet crossings, rock scrambling, and way- finding as you look for blazes and arrows spray-painted on rocks. Many people love the challenge and many will also tell you to plan on 4-5 hours to complete the hike. Read this description if you are interested.
Even More Hikes
The NPS website has a good list of day hikes in the park if you want more ideas.
I asked friends for recommendations as to which trails to hike and was inundated with advice. I also stopped at the ranger station at Bandy Creek to confer and got even more ideas. Some of the most common day hikes recommended by everyone were: Angel Falls Overlook, Angel Falls River Trail, Twin Arches, Yahoo Falls, and Blue Heron Loop Trail.
Angel Falls Overlook (5.6 miles RT) is another of the classic hikes in the park and leads to a great overlook of the gorge. But one of the bridges is out so you have to remove shoes and wade across. Not a deal- breaker but it also poured the day we were thinking about hiking it so decided not too. Angel Falls River Trail (also called Angel Falls Rapid Trail) follows along Big South Fork river to the eponymous rapid but without the overlook at the end. That means no view but also no steep switchbacks up. It might be my choice for hiking with kids. It is only 4 miles RT.
The Bandy Creek Campground Was One Of The Nicest I Have Stayed In
Bandy Creek is a very large campground (181 sites in all- 96 RV sites on 3 loops, 49 tent sites on 1 dedicated loop, and 2 group camping loops set away from the other loops). That being said, the large sites made it seem more private than many smaller campgrounds.
The large size of the campground also meant a lot of nice amenities—large, clean bathhouses with hot showers, recycling onsite, a pool, a beach volleyball court, and food storage bins at each site.
The Visitor Center/ Ranger Station is close to the campground as well as a very small store at the stables (ice, firewood, ice cream, firestarters, snacks, batteries, etc. ). The Visitor Center also has free WiFi although cell service at the campground wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good enough to “Netflix and chill” in your tent but I was able to send awesome pictures to jealous people back home.
The Rangers were incredibly helpful with trail recommendations and I picked up a good trail map and lots of brochures in the Visitor Center. The kids enjoyed the 20 minute video about the park. I would definitely stop in here.
The RV sites in Loops B, C, and D do have water and an electrical outlet at each site if you would like to be able to plug in a griddle or percolator in the morning but my choice would be tent camping. Loop A is the dedicated, tent-only loop and I thought the sites were more private and nicer than in the other loops. We stayed in #30 and loved it.
We were lucky enough to be camping during the week, but even so, the campground was nearly deserted (I counted 4 other tents in Loop A, out of 49 possible). This was a stark contrast to the Smokies, where Elkmont and Cades Cove campgrounds are sold out (or nearly so) any day of the year except in winter.
It costs $20 for a tent site and $25 for a site with electrical hook-up (5 sites are $32 because they have 50- amp available instead of 30-amps). Reserve up to 6 months ahead of time on www.recreation.gov.
My Recommendation: Stay in Loop A if you are in a tent, unless an electrical outlet is a huge deal for you. Sites 13- 17 were nice as they were close to a bathhouse and also next to a huge field for nighttime stargazing. Drawback being that those sites had less tree cover than higher numbered sites for hot summer days.
Site #30 was great for us as no one was in #29, but be aware that those 2 sites are really close together. Perfect though for larger groups. Otherwise, I would pick the sites at the back of Loop A (#37-43) as they are near a bathroom but a little separated from other sites. See the campground map for details.
Other Campgrounds in Big South Fork
I drove through this campground to scope it out as it would be convenient for some of the hikes in the KY side of the park. It is a much smaller campground than Bandy Creek, with only one bathhouse (but still has hot showers). The sites seemed closer together, and many are not as tree covered.
Blue Heron was a nice campground, but I would only stay here if I was planning extensive hiking in this area of the park. Go for the sites on the outer sides of the loops and keep in mind that the first 7 or 8 sites had very little tree cover. See the campground map for details. $17 a night and reserve up to 6 months ahead of time on www.recreation.gov.
A primitive campground right at the northern end of the park, this small campground (6 sites) is next to a boat launch on Cumberland Lake. With vault toilets and no drinking water, this would be my choice only if you wanted to do a lot of fishing. It is cheaper at only $5 per night though. First come- first serve for campsites and leave $$ in an envelope at a deposit box.
*** If you really don’t feel like camping, you can stay at Charit Creek Lodge in the park. See the description in the general overview at the beginning of this blog.
There Are Plenty Of Activities In Big South Fork Besides Hiking
Big South Fork is a popular mountain biking spot and has lots of trails to choose from, ranging from beginner to advanced.
From Bandy Creek Campground, you’ll find several great rides. There are two gravel roads: Duncan Hollow (3.8 miles long) and West Bandy Creek Road (3.3 miles long) that would be excellent beginner options for a fun ride through the woods. Both of those gravel roads have single track trails off of them that are shared with hikers and horseback riders, although I doubt it ever gets super crowded.
See the website for more details. Brochures with maps and trail descriptions are also available from the Visitor Centers.
Rafting, Canoeing, and Kayaking
Some of the Big South Fork River is technically difficult with class IV rapids while other sections are beginner friendly with nothing more than class I-II rapids. All of it is gorgeous as you are mostly paddling through the gorge. See the official website for descriptions of the many different sections of the Big South Fork River.
The section of the river from Leatherwood Ford Bridge to Blue Heron Mining Community is a classic, 2 day run involving backcountry camping on the riverbanks. You need to portage around two class IV rapids (Angel Falls and Devils Jump), but otherwise the river is class I-II.
The section of the river from Blue Heron to Yamacraw (or further to Alum Ford) is much easier and can be done by beginner paddlers in a day or half- day with no portages necessary. This is the section I look forward to doing on my next trip with my nieces and nephews. I have heard it is absolutely beautiful and from what I saw hiking along the river at Blue Heron, I can believe it.
Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort has rentals and shuttle services for trips down the Big South Fork River and the Cumberland River. They even offer tube rentals for the easy section of Big South Fork River near the Blue Heron Mining Community.
Blue Heron Mining Community
The Blue Heron Mining Community is an abandoned coal mining town that has been turned into a super interesting interpretive center. Besides the main visitor center with its timeline of the town and overall history, many of the original buildings have been recreated with steel beams invoking a frame outline. There are pictures and signs in each one telling stories and events from the people that lived there.
Many of the stops along the self- guided tour also had buttons for audio, so the kids could listen to the stories from the inhabitants themselves. (This lead to some head- scratching occasionally as a few of the speakers were “real mountain people” as one of my nephews put it.)
One of the highlights is the walk across the old train bridge to the other side of the river. There are fantastic views from up there and some hiking trails on the other side. The ranger recommended hiking to Catawba Overlook and to Dick Gap Overlook from the train bridge (a roughly 5 mile RT hike) but we only got a half mile on the trail before the weather turned iffy. But it goes on the list for next time.
The other highlight was the mine entrance on the self-guided tour. My nephews listened closely to the stories the former miners told in the audio accompaniment as they looked at the recreated scene. They were blown away when the miners mentioned they got paid 60 cents per ton of coal they dug. The public bathhouse was another favorite so make sure to stop there too.
The Blue Heron Visitor Center is open April 1- October 31, 11am-4pm Wed- Sun. The self- guided tour is open year-round. One of the restroom buildings was open when the Visitor Center was closed but the other was not. The large picnic pavilions would be a nice place to bring lunch.
See the website for maps and more detail. You can click on the different stops to get a detailed description and listen to the audio portions.
If you go to Blue Heron, think about doing the Blue Heron Loop Trail as well. It has some climbs but the terrific overlooks are worth it. If you don’t do the trail, at least drive to the 2 main overlooks. You'll definitely take some Instaworthy photos. See the hiking trail descriptions above.
There are 212 miles of horse trails in the park and several campgrounds for horses. Bandy Creek and Charit Lodge also have stables so you can stay there as well. I walked around the Bandy Creek Stables and they looked nice. They had good-sized stalls, access to hay 24 hours a day, and wash areas.
If you don’t have your own 4-legged friends, then arrange a ride with Southeast Pack Trips.
Ride a Historic Train
Big South Fork Scenic Railway operates a well-reviewed scenic train from Stearns, KY to the gorge in Big South Fork April- October. The trip includes an hour-long stop at the Blue Heron Mining Community and takes about 3 hours total. (In November, they operate a shorter trip to the gorge with only a 30 min stop at Blue Heron.) Adults $28, kids 3-12 $18.
The rail line is the same one once used by the Stearns Coal Company to haul coal and timber out of Big South Fork. We unfortunately were there during an off day (see their calendar as schedule changes throughout the year) so the train trip also goes on the list for next time.
Other Tips For Your Trip To Big South Fork
Beware of Snakes
Everyone I met in Big South Fork, from rangers to the campground host at Bandy Creek, mentioned that the boys and I needed to be wary of snakes, especially walking around the campground at night. (Snakes like to lay on the warm asphalt after the sun goes down.) Some of the trailheads had big signs about staying on the trail and out of leaf litter.
Copperheads and timber rattlers are the two poisonous snakes found in Big South Fork. Everybody we spoke to mentioned copperheads as the ones more commonly seen, nice I guess because they are also the less venomous of the two. I always keep an eye out for snakes when I hike (having seen several rattlesnakes in the Smokies) but I have not hiked/ camped before in a place where it was emphasized so frequently.
I looked it up (on the internet so take that for what you will) and Big South Fork doesn’t appear to have a huge list of deadly snake bites among its visitors. I did however, find some sad accounts of dog deaths, especially among those going backcountry camping. Dogs are only too happy to stick their nose in some leaf litter and go running off trail which is what leads to problems. I know, I lost one myself to a snakebite. But people seem to be rare victims of snakebites in Big South Fork. Check out this article in the Oneida Herald for more info and what to do in the rare chance you are bit.
We did not see any snakes on our trip, but all the warnings were useful to get the boys in the habit of looking at their feet when they hiked and to always use a headlamp going to the bathroom at night in the campground. So I will pass that advice on to you- Always use a headlamp, watch where you put your hands and feet, and don’t go trudging through leaf litter.
Bring a Star Map or Look Up What You Can See at the Time of Year You are Going
The stargazing was amazing in Big South Fork and so many stars could be seen that it took me a minute find my bearings with the few big constellations I can normally find. I wish I could have identified more of the constellations though, and I will definitely bring a star map for next time.
Buy a Trail Map From Ranger Station or Visitor Center
The brochure and the website have maps, but many trails aren’t very well-marked on it (Slave Falls and Needle Arch being an example). The $12, big fold-out trail map was very useful.
With all of these super cool activities and photographs, you can see why I am kicking myself for skipping Big South Fork for all these years. And why I will be back. Soon. Maybe next weekend.